Kiev journalist recounts experience of covering the war in Chechnya
Liudmila Kokhanets is the observer of parliamentary affairs for the Verkhovna Rada news paper Holos Ukrainy. We met five years ago in Kyyiv, when she had just begun working at Holos, and have kept in touch ever since.
She recently spent two weeks in Chechnya, sent there by the paper because of her experience in reporting on "hot spots." In 1992 and 1993 she reported from the Transniester region, in 1993 from Georgia and last year from Abkhazia.
She went to Chechnya accompanying a shipment of humanitarian aid sent by Ukraine for Chechen refugees, and she wrote two articles which were printed in the April 15 and 29 issues of Holos Ukrainy. The biggest scoop was an interview with Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev on whose head, according to the Russian press, there is a price of $500,000. A second article, titled "Freedom or death is the call heard in the mountains," dealt with the consequences of the war.
This interview was held in Kyyiv on May 1. How was the trip to Chechnya organized?
Humanitarian aid for refugees in Chechnya was collected throughout all of Ukraine. Initiated by the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists (CUN) the project involved other political parties, Rukh, Community organizations, churches and factories. A total of 41 metric tons of goods was collected -medicine, food product and children's clothing.
The Ukrainian government provided an Ilyushin-76 plane, and shipment was arranged through the ministries of foreign affairs of both Ukraine and Russia Ten persons accompanied the shipment: four journalists (Maria Bazeliuk from Za Vilna Ukrainu and two army journalists and I) , two deputies (Taras Protseviat and Roman Krutsyk,both from CUN), two representatives from CUN and a photographer and video operator. We were given permission to fly to Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, about 100 kilometers from the Chechen border. Did you encounter problem in getting the aid to Chechnya?
Everything possible was done to make it difficult for us. We were ready to make off for Makhachkala, when we were told that we would have to go to Mineralny Vody (In Northern Caucasus) and pay extra for landing there.Then we were informed that we would also have to make stopover at Chkalov airport (near Moscow), unload all over cargo there for inspection reload it and only than proceed to Dagestan. It was obvious that the difficulties were being created by the federal service of control(FSK) -the former KGB.
To make a long story short, thanks to personal contacts, we finally were able to fly Makhachkala. As soon as we landed on April 1 , army trucks belonging to the ministry of Emergency Affairs drove up and demanded that we give up the cargo to them for unloading. It all looked suspicious. We were told by one of the workers at the airport that all the aid coming in ends up on the local bazaars. This arrangement is very convenient for all concerned-Chechnya doesn't get the aid the local mafia gets the goods. Political and commercial interest coincide.
Our documents stated that we were to deliver the cargo to Khasavyurt, about 2 kilometers form the Chechen border, to the national headquarters of the refugee organization Poriatunok. We had planned to get in touch with them and they were to arrange for transportation of the goods from Makhachkala to Khasavyurt. When the Russians realized that we were not going to give up the aid, they arrested the cargo on the pretext that it could contain arms. The plane was kept "under arrest" for five days. We were unofficially told that we would be arrested as well. The journalists started to sneak out from the hotel, leaving behind some belongings so as not to arouse suspicion and, one by one, the four of us made our way to Khasavyurt, while the politicians remained behind to reclaim the aid.
Thanks to a letter that we had from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs allowing us to go to the border villages to check on aid distribution, we were allowed into Chechnya. Maria Bazeliuk, who was in Chechnya for the seventh time since 1991 (she had been in Grozny during the destruction of the presidential palace), met an acquaintance, a local official, who agreed to take us to Veden, where we hoped to make contact with President Dudayev's headquarters. The official warned us that the roads were under continuous bombardment, and so he took us on a around about way, through mountain roads and across rivers, to Veden. While waiting for a meeting with the president, we drove around the villages in the foothills. What did you find there?
Our aim was to find out about the situation in Chechnya, since we all knew that the Russian media were not telling the truth. We met , Aslan Maskhadov chief of the general headquarters of the presidential armies of Chechnya, who said the war was only beginning, although Russia has assured the world of its end. The general said the main Chechen forces and retreated to the edge of the mountains and were preparing new positions. In the mountains there was room to hide, to gather strength and to fight.
What was most frightening, and against which the Chechen have no defense, were the air attacks. The planes didn't attack the fighters who knew how to hide. The planes bombarded civilians. On the Chechen side, over 95 percent of the causalities are civilians. Refugees who survived the bombing of Grozny are pursued by bombs in Samashki, Serzhen-Yurt, Veden. They are most afraid of helicopters which can zero in on their prey. The most adroit pilots even shoot turkeys in the village backyards. People are afraid of the sun and a clear sky. During out stay the villages were bombarded every day.
While we were there, instructions were given to all commanders to locate their battle positions outside the villages - it is important to make this known because Russia hides such information - so that the civilian population would not be at risk because of the presence of fighters. This had no effect; the village continued to be mercilessly bombed. In attacking the villages the Russians have tow aims. First, they believe the only good Chechen is a dead one, and, second they want to turn the population against those who are fighting.
It makes no difference whether a village resists or not. While we were there, inhabitants of Assynovskaya station and the village of Chechen-Yurt gave them-selves up to the Russians without resistance. Drunken soldiers tore into every house and took what they wanted. A Russian woman described to me how her sister tried to protect a young neighbor whom the soldiers were dragging out of the house. She shouted to her Russian "brothers." "Don't you dare! You are Christians! she is only 7 years old!" The "Christians" answered with automatic fire. They undressed an old man, formed a circle and raped him. They then raped all of the other members of the family. When darkness came, several villagers sneaked out and went to warm other villages not to surrender, that is was better to die in battle.
Bombs were falling on cemeteries, the holiest places for Chechen. On the day of our arrival a group of prisoners was being exchanged for the bodies of Chechen and a Turkish journalist fatally shot by the Russians. Such an "exchange" stunned us but we were told, "our dead are dearer to us than their live ones." According to Muslim customs, the remains of a person are sacred and should not be given up to the enemy. This tradition is good business for the Russians. Dead bodies are not only exchanged for prisoners, but are sold for cash. Those reluctant to deal in corpses can always sell arms. The Russians openly sell their weapons. Even I was offered a pistol for 250000 rubles (about $40) How did you get the information about the behavior or Russian soldiers?
I spoke to many Chechen witnesses who escaped from the two villages and to Russian prisoners of war who talked about these things. We gathered our information from various sources; we didn't just take one person's story. In Holos Ukrainy I wrote about things that had been confirmed by at least three or four witnesses.
We were taken to the edge of the village of Samashki and saw the ground covered with corpses - we saw it with our own eyes. Yet Russian newspapers claim that stripes, such as that about the Samashki massacre, are lies made up to discredit the Russian Army. For me, people who knowingly deny the truth are as despicable as those who commit the atrocities.
Having spent over a week in the battle zone, we became convinced that, in contradiction to the optimistic reassurances from Moscow, the war continues not only in the foothills but also in the plains where the Russian forces have "fulfilled their mission." We saw persistent fighting in the "liberated" Shelkovsky raion. The Chechens, in mobile five man groups, make continuous forays behind the front lines. What is the function of the federal service of control (FSK)?
It is similar to what the security services did during Stalinist times: they shoot their own. Behind the armed forces, the FSK make sure the Russian soldiers do not retreat or else they turn back. In the Naurkomsky raion people uncovered a grave: 20 Russian soldiers who had refused to fight found death, but not from Chechen bullets.
We were able to speak to one member of the FSK. a senior lieutenant, Serge S., who had been taken prisoner by the Chechen security forces. He told us about the preparation and training of special groups of agents for placement in current or anticipated hot spots. He been trained on a base in Sofronivka in Moscow Oblast. The base, although FSK, existed under the cover of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs.
In addition to training in fighting and radio communications, the agents receive political instruction in agitation, propaganda among the civilian population, the dissemination of rumors and panic. Two kinds of groups are prepared there (each group has five men): reconnaissance-diversionary and agitational-reconnaissance. Sergei belonged to the second.
I won't go into detail about their spying activities, but one fact should be noted: according to the senior lieutenant, such special groups, "up to now only agitational," are being sent to the Crimea to "warm up" the Russian-speaking population. How did you get to speak to President Dudayev?
Mostly it was thanks to the fact that Maria was well-known among Dudayev`s people who understood that we could be trusted. On her previous visits she had met Chechen parliamentary deputies; their Parliament does not meet anymore because they can`t get a quorum, as many deputies have been killed and others are fighting in the mountains. The chechens had expected support from the Muslim world, but it has turned out that their biggest supporters are Ukraine and the Baltic countries.
The Chechens have a good opinion of Ukrainians. During the 1933 famine people filed Ukraine and some found refuge in Chechnya and settled there. Ukrainians who lived there tried to learn the language, unlike the Russians who never bothered to do so. Chechens took part in building brigades throughout the former Soviet Union, and many of them worked in Ukraine, even picking up some of the language.
President Dudayev was an officer in the Soviet Air Force and for a while served in the Poltava region. He has found memories of Ukraine and Ukrainians; that is one reason he has sent his family to Ukraine. He knows Taras Shevchenke`s poem "The Caucuses" by heart, in Ukrainian. Many Chechens know about Shevchenko`s know Chechens know about Shevchenko`s poem and are aware that Shevchenko, unlike Pushkin or Lermonotov, understood their desire for independence and spoke out in defence of the people of the Caucuses.
President Dudayev`s wife and younger son came to Ukraine a little while back; his order son is fighting and has been seriously injured. His daughter, who has a 9-month-old son and is pregnant, left for Ukraine with our deputies. Her husband stayed behind and is fighting in the mountains. What were your impressions of President Dudayev?
We met with him twice, the four journalists and the two deputies. He was in a happier mood than we were and was more optimistic. Only a limited number of people know where he can be found. We met him under very conspiratorial conditions - we interviewed him and took video films under the light of a lamp and candles. He seemed genuinely happy to see a Ukrainian delegation. He first asked us, in Ukrainian, whether spring sowing had been completed in the Poltava region. He is optimistic about the future course of events and believes that the mountains will give him the opportunity to launch a wide-ranging guerrilla war.
He told us that by Chechen tradition each person is required to know his family tree seven generations back, and thus the memory of what Russia brought to Chechnya 300 years ago has remained. Further, at least the next seven generations will remember what Russia brought in 1994. And even if they level the mountains, he said, the children of the refugees will grow up knowing that they have to avenge the deaths of their family members. Is there any hope of negotiation?
President Dudayev gave a clear prognosis of what will happen: Russia wants the issue of Chechnya to disappear from public consciousness and therefore will propose either a moratorium or a peaceful settlement. According to the president, 30,000 Russian soldiers have died, over 30,000 of the civilian population, and only 2,000-3,000 Chechen fighters have been killed. He said they had been ready for a peaceful settlement a long time ago, but that time had passed. Too many have died.
He believes that Russia, using the plains it has occupied as a base, will say that the war is over and only bandits are left in the mountains. from the pro-Russian opposition they will choose someone to be their stooge, formally hold elections and sign a peace treaty with the government they put in power. But both President Dudayev and Gen. Maskhadov said they will not allow this to happen. They now have 300,000 people committed to fighting and are forming presidential armies, a regular army and a home guard. What has happened to the social structure of Chechnya?
It has almost disappeared. There are no functioning schools, no functioning hospitals, except the field hospitals. President Dudayev expressed anger at the fact that Russian airmen are bombing schools and hospitals, while teachers in Russia tell their pupils to make presents for these same airmen. The Chechens are very unhappy with the absence of schooling, but even gathering children together in one place is dangerous because of the bombings. There is no single normal hospital, and the field hospitals are filled with women and children, but few fighters who are batter at protecting themselves. Did you have problems in leaving Chechnya?
Yes, we knew the Russian border posts could detain us as we had no Russian accrediation to be there. Every journalist who is in a war zone is supposed to have accrediation from the Russian temporary information centre, whereas we had only Chechen accreditation. One could say that we were interfering in the internal affairs of Russia.
There are three lines of control points: the internal force, the Russian federal forces and the FSK. We wanted to avoid the FSK- they can stop you without any explanation at all. Russia does not want people from other countries writing about what is going on, especially countries that are not hostile to the Chechen cause, particularly Ukraine and the Baltics. We were risking being shot by the security forces. They might not have liked the fact that we were there, or could have been drunk, or maybe just in a hostile mood. Even Russian journalists told us they are afraid to go through those control points.
We split up into two groups; the journalists went in one group. Maria and I dressed as pregnant refugee women, with our audio and video cassettes strapped to our stomachs. We were very worried about getting the cassettes out. We fled with a busload of refugees, traveling in a very roundabout route to Dagestan and then, by bus, to Mineralny Vody and from there by train to Kyyiv. Even while travelling through Russia we were concerned about out cassettes, so we stayed "pregnant" up to the Ukrainian border.
Excerpts from the video were shown on Ukrainian television, and the boys are also making a film. The Chechens want the world to know what is happening there. But people here are either afraid or they don`t want to irritate Russia. I phoned Ukrainian radio- but they did not want to broadcast any material. Only my newspaper published almost everything that I wrote."The life they've had in Grozny is not like anywhere else. They fit in better here, for better or worse."