GROZNY, Russia – The brightly lit avenues, imposing new mosque and glitzy shopping malls in Chechnya's once bomb-scarred capital mean nothing to Raisa Turluyeva, whose son disappeared after being seized by black-uniformed security forces.
To Turluyeva, 40, the rule of Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov is even more frightening than the past wars between separatist fighters and Russian troops that left Grozny in ruins.
Her eyes well with tears when she recalls how her family's two houses were burned to the ground after a raid on suspected militants in October 2009 and her son, a 19-year-old university student, was arrested hours later on suspicions of having rebel links. Her brother-in-law briefly saw him in custody, unable to stand and his face bearing the signs of beatings. There has been no word of him since.
"Not a single woman in Chechnya who has a son can now live without that fear. We are all standing in line waiting for that to happen," she said. "They talk a lot about the reconstruction of Grozny, but I don't care. I don't know how to live without my son."
Turluyeva said her son, who studied at Grozny's oil industry university, had no rebel connections.
Rights activists say people suspected of having ties to militants are still being abducted by forces loyal to Kadyrov, who runs the mostly Muslim republic in southern Russia like his personal fiefdom. Moscow, which is counting on Kadyrov to quench the Islamic insurgency, has given him free rein.
Kadyrov, a former rebel who fought federal forces during the first, 1994-96, Chechen war, switched sides when the Russian army rolled back into the region in 1999, joining his father who became the first Moscow-backed leader of Chechnya.
Since succeeding his father, who was killed in a May 2004 bombing of Grozny's stadium, he has used his personal security force to impose his rule. The unshakable loyalty and brutality of Kadyrov's men have made his word the law of the land.
When Kadyrov urged Chechen women to wear headscarves in line with Islamic tradition, those who disobeyed faced paintball attacks and harassment by his black-clad squads.
Natalya Estemirova, who headed the Chechen office of internationally respected rights group Memorial and spoke out against the headscarves campaign, was abducted from outside her home in Grozny in July 2009 and found shot to death along a roadside a few hours later. The head of Memorial blamed the death on Kadyrov, who responded with a slander suit.
Kadyrov's critics have been silenced, with some of his foes gunned down in contract-style killings as far away as Moscow, Vienna and Dubai. Kadyrov has denied any involvement.
Sulim Yamadayev, a Chechen warlord who competed with Kadyrov for the Kremlin's favor, was shot dead in Dubai in March 2009, a few months after his older brother, a member of Russia's parliament, was gunned down during rush hour in central Moscow.
A court in Dubai has convicted two men in Yamadayev's slaying, while four other suspects have remained at large, including a right hand man to Kadyrov.
An Austrian court wants to speak to Kadyrov about the murder of his former bodyguard turned critic, Umar Israilov, who was shot dead on a Vienna street.
The Kremlin has given Kadyrov a carte blanche for running the republic, a policy of "Chechenization" that follows the example of the czars, who relied on local chieftains during their campaign to conquer the Caucasus in the 19th century.
While Kadyrov has had visible success in fighting the rebels, whom he calls "shaitans" or devils, they have spread across the neighboring Caucasus republics and mounted terror attacks elsewhere in Russia, including January's suicide bombing of Moscow's main airport that killed 36.
Kadyrov has described himself as a protector of Russia's unity and sworn unswerving fealty to his patron, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
With Putin's support, Kadyrov has received generous federal subsidies and strengthened his grip over the region. Huge portraits of Kadyrov and Putin hang all around Grozny, and the city even has a Putin fan club.
Federal troops remain in Chechnya, but they are mostly confined to their barracks. This is a departure from recent years when their checkpoints ruled the roads and indiscriminate artillery barrages of Chechen villages, brutal security sweeps and road accidents involving Russian armor occurred almost daily.
Kadyrov's successful push to end abuses by federal forces and his reconstruction efforts have boosted his popularity among Chechens, who long for normalcy and stability after years of fighting.
"People feel happy about the simple fact that they can now send their children to school, that they can go to bed calmly," said Minkail Ezhiyev, who heads Chechnya's Center for Human Rights. "I remember federal soldiers sitting in trenches around our house and firing at every sound, making you think twice before going out. Many now feel grateful to Kadyrov because he has given them hope for a normal life."
Kadyrov has undercut support for the militants by getting the Islamic clergy on his side and casting himself as a defender of Islam.
"This mosque has become a symbol of unity for all Chechens," said Vakha Khadzhi Shashkhanov, a mufti at Grozny's giant new mosque.
Kadyrov has postured himself as a man of the people, performing traditional Chechen dances and handing out keys to apartments and cars to the needy.
He has transformed Grozny, much of which was flattened by bombs during the wars. Apartments have been rebuilt and highrise office buildings are now going up next to the mosque. Street lights resemble Christmas decorations, and international retailers offer their wares on Grozny's broad avenues.
But there is a downside to that picture of prosperity — fear.
A prominent Russian rights activist, Svetlana Gannushkina, compared life in today's Chechnya to the reign of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. "The fear felt by people living under a tyrant becomes part of their personality and even makes them love him," she said.
Kadyrov's security forces, which seem lethally efficient in battling Islamic rebels, are quick to round up anyone with suspected links to the militants, with no regard for judicial procedures. Relatives trying to learn their fate face a stone wall.
"Russian law doesn't work in Chechnya," said Alexander Nemov, a lawyer working in Chechnya to offer legal assistance to victims of rights abuses. "Kadyrov's word replaces it here."
He and other rights activists working in Chechnya say that unlike before, when people lined up in their offices to report abuses by federal forces, few Chechens now dare to report the disappearance of their relatives at the hands of Kadyrov's men.
"Hardly anyone in Chechnya would speak his mind now," said Tatyana Lokshina, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who frequently visits the region. "People are tramped down by fear."
Of the 27 people known to have been abducted in Chechnya last year, 11 eventually are in custody, eight were released and the other eight remain missing, according to Memorial, which suspects the real figures are much higher.
While these figures still pale in comparison with the total of about 3,000 who have gone missing since the start of the second Chechen war in 1999, Turluyeva said that Kadyrov's men inspire much more fear than federal soldiers and police did in the past.
"I think that life here is much more scary now," Turluyeva said. "Everyone is afraid for himself and his family."