After Attacks, Chechen Town Still Suffers
By Daniel Williams
A sad, simple message was scrawled in chalk on Zula Gighiyev's door, inside a half-destroyed house in this battered town in Chechnya: "People Live Here."
The words were meant to notify Russian soldiers that there were no guerrillas behind the black door, just an elderly lady with a mangled right hand from an old industrial accident.
Alkhan-Kala last saw combat in early January, when Chechen guerrillas surprised Russian forces by occupying it and two nearby towns in lightning raids. The Russian counterattack was fierce. Government forces rained artillery on the town until the rebels withdrew. The main result: more human misery and new additions to the inventory of ruined buildings from four months of warfare in Chechnya, a region of southern Russia where Islamic rebels are seeking independence from Moscow.
In the aftermath, people are both tired and resentful, and certain that the war is not yet over for them. The town lies only three miles west of Grozny, the besieged Chechen capital. The dull thud of the city's steady bombardment by Russian forces is a reminder that combat is still close.
Most of Alkhan-Kala's hostility is reserved for the Russians. Despite the Russian government's claim that its military offensive is targeting Chechen "terrorists," many townsfolk believe that civilians have been the primary victims. Their feelings are reinforced by the lack of help from the Russians since they first seized the town from the rebels in December. The Russians have provided no humanitarian aid, and the town still lacks electricity and running water. Its prewar population of 17,000 has shrunk to 10,000.
Alkhan-Kala has not been on the itinerary Russian officials have provided visitors from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and, most recently, the European Council, a human rights assembly. In the past few months, representatives of all three organizations have toured Russian-occupied parts of Chechnya and all have left with promises from Russia's acting president, Vladimir Putin, that foreign observers would be permitted into Chechnya and humanitarian aid would be allowed to flow freely. The pledges have gone unfulfilled.
Reporters who defied the Russian ban on unauthorized visits a few days ago encountered a snowy landscape--picturesque if not for the desperation. Horse-drawn carts pulled barrels of water from the Sunzha River that runs by the town. Wiry boys hauled logs from nearby woods. Old men in wool hats tended scrawny cows. Women towed hay on little sleds.
Gighiyev, the elderly factory worker, survives on meager rations of flour and potatoes, with an occasional gift of meat from her benefactor down the hall, Anatoly Barinov, a retired schoolteacher. It is trickle-down misery. Barinov gets his food from former colleagues, who in turn scrounge for food from better-off townsfolk. "Without this generosity, I would probably have shrunk to nothing," said Gighiyev, whose little yellow room is heated by a wood stove.
"Here if you have a little, it is always more than someone else," said Barinov, who huddled by a stove in the other intact room of the house that stands next to a ruined mosque.
The only communal service still running in Alkhan-Kala was a white three-story hospital where wards and operating rooms have been squeezed into a single ground-floor corridor. Hassan Baiyev, the chief and only surgeon, has performed amputations by flashlight, operations in hallways and, when shelling got heavy in early January, hosted scores of frightened refugees in his clinic.
Medicines are purchased in Russia with donations from refugees and residents inside Alkhan-Kala. "We live in the Stone Age," Baiyev said. "We can treat nothing adequately. If someone has tuberculosis, we don't have the necessary medicines. We can't keep anyone here. We have to send all patients home right away."
Twenty civilians were killed in the January battles for Alkhan-Kala, he said. In all, 57 civilians have been killed by bombing in the four months of war, Baiyev estimated.
Baiyev doesn't long for more warfare, but his experience makes him regard the Russians with disdain. While he was laboring at his hospital in early January, Russian troops looted his house, holding his family at gunpoint. No furnishings remain in his shot-up living room, and his family is confined to a dank, cold cellar.
The other day, the town was notably devoid of a Russian military presence. An occasional truckload of troops made brief shopping stops at a small roadside market. There were no patrols and no police--although residents said the Russians had made at least two surprise raids on neighborhoods looking for rebels and weapons.
"The Russians are afraid. When they come, they try to leave as soon as possible," said Hussein Gayisumov, an engineer.
Gayisumov, his wife and two children shelter themselves in the basement of their home, whose roof has been blasted away by tank fire. They celebrated their 18-year-old daughter's birthday with a menu of cabbage and bread. Candles were not meant to be festive; they provided the only light.
Gayisumov is ready for more warfare. Russia's indiscriminate bombing and shelling during the war eclipsed any notion he had that a restoration of Russian rule in Chechnya bodes well for Chechens. The region has been effectively independent since a 1994-1996 war led to a Russian military withdrawal.
He pointed proudly to his 8-year-old son. "We were at a checkpoint, and he said, 'When I am a man, I will kill Russians.' The soldiers were angry, but even they couldn't shoot a child. The boy was saying what we all feel," Gayisumov said.
Against this backdrop of bitterness, a group of young men said they are prepared to fight the Russians. At an abandoned bathhouse, a young man named Aslan held court with a group of somber guerrillas who struck idle poses, their hands stuck deep into their pockets. Aslan was a veteran of the 1994-96 war, and a recent participant in this conflict. He said they are all waiting for an order to spring into battle behind Russian lines.
Aslan, a stocky 30-year-old stoically protected from the cold by a leather jacket, said the goal now was to keep weapons hidden, avoid the prying eyes of Russian police in their periodic searches and stay out of their secret jails. "We don't know if the war will be long or short, but we know we will fight again," Aslan said, to the silent nods of his half-dozen companions.
He said between 200 and 300 rebels are in Alkhan-Kala. "The Russians have three rings of defenses around us, and still we come and go," Aslan said.