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DON GONYEA, host:

After two wars and more than a decade of destruction, the Russian region of Chechnya is now being rebuilt. But almost everyone there has relatives or friends who have been killed, injured or tortured in the fighting. And the physical reconstruction can't hide the massive psychological scars carried by the population.

Now human rights groups say the region's pro-Moscow government is using fear and corruption to govern a traumatized population. NPR's Gregory Feifer traveled to the capital, Grozny, for the first of three reports from Chechnya.

GREGORY FEIFER, reporting:

There is construction almost everywhere in war-torn Chechnya.

(Soundbite of machinery)

FEIFER: Heavy machinery clears rubble from demolished apartment blocks. Building facades in central Grozny have been rebuilt and whitewashed. Most of the city remains in ruins, but cafes and shops are opening. And despite the many soldiers and police with Kalashnikov rifles, some semblance of normal street life is returning to this dusty, subtropical city.

Another common sight are the ubiquitous posters of the man credited for the dramatic turnaround. The stocky, bearded, pro-Moscow Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, a 29-year-old who runs the region with an iron fist.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

FEIFER: A group of Chechens sits beside a half-bombed out apartment block in the city's center. One of them, Ibragim Abdulayev(ph), says thanks to Kadyrov, life has improved dramatically over the last three years.

Mr. IBRAGIM ABDULAYEV: (Through translator) Just look at our children playing nearby. On weekends, we can take them to walk in the park, to go on fairground rides. We didn't have anything like that before.

FEIFER: Kadyrov took over real control of Chechnya after his father, President Akhmad Kadyrov, was assassinated in 2004. Ramzan ran his father's paramilitary guards. He's said to have been a ruthless commander who personally tortured prisoners.

Kadyrov's reconstruction is now enabling the Kremlin to say its war in Chechnya is over. Kadyrov may be the Kremlin's man in Chechnya, but he presents himself as the true protector of the population's interest. He says Moscow is contributing almost nothing to the reconstruction effort, and claims rebuilding is being financed by a charitable foundation named after his father.

Critics have a different story. Shamil Tangiyev, of the Memorial human rights group, says Chechens are bullied into paying so-called voluntary contributions each month.

Mr. SHAMIL TANGIYEV (Memorial human rights group, Grozny): (Through translator) There is another side to the reconstruction story, which I saw myself. The authorities came to my office to ask me to contribute money to the city's reconstruction. It's simple thievery, a racket.

FEIFER: Tangiyev says the Kremlin's policy of so-called Chechenization, giving control to the pro-Moscow Chechen government, isn't really solving the region's problems.

Mr. TANGIYEV: (Through translator) Fear has grown here, especially after the Chechenization of the conflict began because it's become personalized. Everyone knows one another; and if somebody publicly criticizes Ramzan Kadyrov, he can suffer negative consequences.

FEIFER: Kadyrov often accuses opponents of being members of the fundamentalist Islamist Wahhabi sect. 26-year-old Magomed Gazayev lives in a one-story house outside Grozny.

(Soundbite of birds chirping)

FEIFER: He says he was abducted at night earlier this month, along with four others, by Russian-speaking Chechens wearing masks. Gazayev says they beat his mother and father then drove him to the waterlogged basement of a police station.

Mr. MAGOMED GAZAYEV: (Through translator) They beat me and shocked me with an electric current through wires attached to my toes. They accused me of support Wahhabis and told me to name any militants, extremists or drug dealers I knew.

FEIFER: Gazayev was released the same night but says he still feels pains in his stomach. He says he was targeted because he's an observant Muslim who attends prayers in a mosque several times a week.

But such is the success of the publicity campaign surrounding Prime Minister Kadyrov that even Magomed Gazayev praises him for bringing order. He says he's sure that if Kadyrov had known about his abduction, he wouldn't have allowed it.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News.

GONYEA: This is NPR News.

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