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Russia

High-Profile Chechen Poet Murdered In Moscow

Ruslan Akhtakhanov, a well-known Chechen poet and activist, was gunned down Wednesday night in Moscow. Police suspect the writer may have been the target of a contract killing ordered by Chechen nationalists.

Ruslan Akhtakhanov
Ruslan Akhtakhanov
Sergey Mashkin and Musa Muradov

MOSCOW -- Chechen poet and social activist Ruslan Akhtakhanov has been shot dead outside his central Moscow apartment in what his friends have told Kommersant was a contract killing by Chechen separatists.

Less than an hour before his death, Akhtakhanov, 58, attended a ceremony where he read out poems about the brotherhood between Russians and Chechens. It is believed men were waiting outside his apartment where he parked his Toyota Camry. The assailants opened fire, hitting Akhtakhanov in the chest. The poet fell, and then received a shot to the head.

Police say there were no witnesses but are questioning passersby who found Akhtakhanov on the pavement. Police retrieved cartridge cases and 9mm calibre bullets at the scene of the crime. A few hours later, at the other end of town, police found a burnt-out Ford Focus, believed to be the getaway car for the attackers. It contained a pistol, silencer and stolen license plates.

The case bears the hallmarks of a 2010 killing by Chechen separatists of Russian military officer Yuri Budanov, who was convicted of rape and murder in the second Chechen war.

Akhtakhanov's death is likely to reignite concerns of increased inter-ethnic discord at a time when Moscow continues to face scrutiny over human rights abuses in its restive Caucasus region.

The slain writer's friends told Kommersant he spent his last night at a prize-giving ceremony at an annual competition honoring investigative journalist Artyom Borovik, who died in a plane crash in 2000. They described seeing a suspicious group of young men, possibly in their 20s, leave the theater.

"We took them by surprise and they pulled their baseball caps down over their heads," of the friends recalled. "Walking past them, we could see they were unshaven and looked like they were from the Caucasus rather than Russian. We had no idea that less than an hour later, a tragedy would happen."

Akhtakhanov published collections of poems and was admitted to the Union of Writers of Russia. He set up the Democratic Progressive Party and said Chechnya should develop as an independent, democratic and secular state.

His friends believe his secularism may have been what led to his death as it was at odds with religious extremists and nationalists in the North Caucasus who viewed him as an apostate. Extremists took Akhtakhanov hostage in 1998, holding him for 47 days.

"He was a public figure and one of the most active representatives of the Chechen diaspora in Moscow and for this reason could be the target for the nationalists," said Khamzat Gerikhanov of the Association of Chechen Public and Cultural Organizations.

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Society

In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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