Slow death of a city without hope
Date: December 8, 1999
"For the thousands trapped inside Grozny, there is little food and few supplies. There is only the wait" -By Bruno Stevens
Bruno Stevens is a Belgian freelance photographer who returned from Chechnya on Sunday evening. He works for Stern and other magazines.
Arriving in Grozny is like stepping back into the horror of Beirut. There is hardly a building left standing; it is a city of rubble and broken metal.
The first impression is that it is deserted. Then, as you move further into the city, you slowly realise that there are a surprising number of people living in the middle of the devastation of the Chechen capital.
Something like 20,000-30,000 people are still there. Most of them are elderly, or women with children. Ethnic Russians and Chechens live side by side with no tension. They don't blame each other for the suffering and there is no resentment towards the fighters; they blame the Russian government. Moscow is bombing civilians regardless of their nationality.
Everybody, even the Chechen fighters, know that the Russians will take Grozny, and there will be many casualties. They are afraid that they will be killed in the fighting. When the Russians attacked the city in 1996, they were throwing hand grenades into basements. But the people have neither the will nor the physical ability to leave their city behind.
They live in the ruined apartment blocks and spend the nights in the basements, up to 30 of them crowded together to escape the bombing and cold. It has been well below zero for two weeks, and there is more snow coming. But they have no gas for heating, and no water.
It is too cold and too dangerous to spend time outside, so people go out only when they have to and only for a few minutes. Supplies are dwindling fast. The central market was destroyed by a Russian rocket which killed almost 200 people. It happened more than a month ago, yet everything still lies exactly as it fell; stalls blown apart and twisted by the blast into ragged sharp edges. It is a terrible sight.
But a few metres away, on the crossroads of Lenin Avenue and Peace Street, there are a few stalls still working. The traders have little to sell, hardly any fresh meat, a few vegetables, some cans and virtually nothing else.
One old Russian man, Sergei, had walked a mile from the remains of his tiny apartment - no heating, no water and no glass in the windows - to buy noodles and some vegetables. His cooker was a metal bucket. "I have lived here for 55 years. I am 85 and I will not leave," he told me. "I have no family left in Russia, I have nowhere else to go."
The Russian air force is deliberately toying with these people. Even outside Grozny, I have watched as they fly low over a village, then turn back and fire rockets into the countryside in sight of the villagers. A little while later the planes return and this time the rockets fall a few hundred metres away. Women and children scream, the men try to appear strong. But they know that when the planes return again in half an hour, the rockets will be coming for them.
Twenty kilometres away from Grozny is Shali, the only important flatland town still free of Russian control. There is a small hospital there with 40 beds and six doctors. They do their best but the conditions are bad. It is filled with people with dreadful injuries, all from the bombing: legs blown off or faces half missing. There are almost no drugs or bandages to treat them.
Half an hour after we heard bombs fall on a nearby village, a 10-year-old boy, Adam, was brought into the clinic with a piece of shrapnel in his skull. The doctor removed it, stopped the bleeding, gave him some glucose and sent him home still unconscious.
Shali was filled that day with Chechen fighters retreating from Argun, which had just fallen to the Russians. It was an orderly, well-planned retreat. They had fought until they ran out of ammunition and now they were collecting supplies before digging in again on another front.
Late one night, I was taken to a secret location to see the Chechen president, Aslan Maskhadov, who told me that his fighters would never give in. That is why Moscow will never defeat them.
When Grozny is taken, they will fight from the hills.