Chechen Women during the war
Witness to History
Khazman Umarova, 34, was by chance given a video camera by a British journalist outside the village of Samashki at the time of the massacre in April 1995. She had never even held a camera before, but she carried it in under her jacket, past the Russian soldiers who were stopping journalists from entering the village and filmed the first evidence of the killings for the outside world.
Since then she has traveled everywhere, filming the most dangerous and most important moments, holding the small High-8 camera to her eye and committing to history the reality of the war.
She works unpaid, covering events for "Presidentsky Kanal", the television channel set up by the late Dzhokhar Dudayev, which broadcasts from a secret transmitter into Chechen homes. While following the fighters and their leaders, she manages begging cassettes off fellow journalists and staying with friends around the republic. She gives away her material once it has been copied for the archives, never selling it although it is usually exclusive footage. "It is information, I never sell it," she said.
She went with Salman Raduyev when his band of fighters seized more than 3,000 hostages in the town of Kizlyar in Dagestan in January, staying with them when they were surrounded and attacked by Russian forces in the village of Pervomaiskoye. She filmed the fighting and then escaped with the fighters and hostages, breaking through the Russian encirclement and crossing the border into Chechnya at night.
Some 80 fighters died in the escape, including six Chechen women who were with them, but Umarova emerged unscathed. Just two days later she stepped into a friend's house, immaculately turned out, her dark hair shining with health, showing not a trace of her harrowing ordeal. Two months later, she was to repeat the experience in Samashki, running and filming under bombardment and escaping once again with the fighters. After following the fighters into Grozny last month, she was awarded a medal by the Chechen leadership for her efforts.
Brought up in a village in northeast Chechnya, she studied philology and joined the Youth Committee of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria in 1991, when Dudayev first declared independence for Chechnya from Russia.
She and her friends always supported the idea of independence, but she looks back on those days of innocence with incredulity. "If I thought I would go through all this, running everywhere and seeing all that I have seen, I would never have believed it," she said.
Recollecting her exploits, she smiled and said, "People are amazed because I used to be frightened of everything, even of people raising their voices."
Always poised, a smile lighting up her face, she rarely talks of the horrors she has seen, but when she does, the intensity of her emotion turns her eyes to black holes of despair. It is that passion that drives her to record what is happening in Chechnya for history.
Like the fighters she says she is a smertnik, ready and willing to die in the fight for independence.
Dressed in dirty black jeans, a T-shirt and floppy camouflage hat, a single woman fighter stood out among the Chechens resting in the shade of the trees outside their new headquarters in Grozny last month. Clearly in a position of authority, she was shouting orders to the men and listening to petitions from civilians.
Birlant, who is known by her first name, is unlike most Chechen women. In her late 20s, she does not seem to give a damn about the armed Chechen men around. At the beginning of the war, she was one of perhaps dozens of women who left their homes and took up arms with the fighters. Today only a handful of them are left - the rest have either been killed or returned home.
Dark circles ringed Birlant's eyes, but otherwise she gave no hint of the horrors of the previous two weeks' fighting in Grozny. Taciturn about her own exploits, she had nevertheless confirmed her place as the most redoubtable woman fighter in Chechnya.
A veteran of the hostage raids on Budyonnovsk and Pervomaiskoye, Birlant was one of only two women fighters who made it out of Pervomaiskoye alive. Her toughness is daunting.
Inside the headquarters a few minutes later, she clouted a 13-year-old boy fighter hard across the face without warning when he muttered about throwing foreign journalists out of the room. Her severity was shocking, especially since the boy, armed and a menace, was being indulged by the surrounding male fighters.
Birlan's energy brings to mind another renowned fighter, Tamara, who commanded a group of eight male fighters in the village of Orekhovo last year, a village that resisted Russian attacks for over a year. An energetic, laughing woman in her mid-30s, she cajoled the men in a loud voice, cracking jokes and throwing her booted, trousered legs up on the table.
She had never fired a gun before the war but quickly learned when left to oversee a machine gun post outside Argun. When she first fired it, the thrust of the heavy weapon threw her flat on her back in the mud. But by the time she was relieved eight hours later, she said, she had mastered it.
When there is a lull in the fighting, the women warriors still hang out with the fighters. In the spring, Birlant was in a mountain village with some of Shamil Basayev's fighters, eating pancakes in the kitchen and then cramming into a jeep late at night to ride up to a mountain camp in the woods.
As for Tamara, there is no news.
"I Could Not Sit at Home"
Kheda Sulemanova, 35, and Asya Sulemanova, 22, are not related, but they ended up together nursing the wounded in the bunker of the Presidential Palace during the storming of Grozny. They spent several weeks there with dozens of wounded lying in the corridors, only leaving at the very end, when the fighters finally abandoned the destroyed building.
Kheda became involved by chance, dropping in to see if she could help. It was New Year's Eve, and the fighters pleaded with her to stay. "They new the city was going to be stormed and they would need help," she recalled. Asya, still in her first year of practice as a nurse, went with her parents to volunteer.
Asya was six months pregnant when she started, but she kept working through the bombing raids until she finally escaped with the fighters when they abandoned the destroyed palace building Jan. 18.
She returned within a month with the fighters to Grozny to work out of an apartment, nursing wounded fighters who continued to fight in parts of the bombed-out city. Even after the birth of her son she kept going, the tiny baby beside her.
"It was my choice, but my husband was against it," she said. Not all Chechen men demand that their wives stay at home, she added, but it turned out that her marriage could not stand the strain. Now divorced, she has had to leave her children with their father, as Moslem custom dictates. For a moment, talking of her baby, she showed a fleeting sign of pain and quickly left the room.
Tall, slim and agile, with wide clear brown eyes, she wears a soldier's striped T-shirt and combat trousers, attire that still shocks in Chechnya, where most women wear long dresses and skirts. Instead of a traditional scarf, she sports a green velvet beret, the uniform of the Chechen fighters.
She speaks like them, too. "We will never stop, we will fight to the last," she said, her eyes suddenly hardening. Like the fighters, too, she and Kheda are devout Moslems, and both pray five times a day. They receive no salary and can only buy medicine with money people give them.
Kheda is just as passionate. She survived the battle for Argun last spring, where she experienced a horrifying day when 22 men died under her care, 38 were wounded and the only other nurse with her was killed. When things were so bad, did she never feel like quitting and going home?
"I never thought of leaving, even in Argun. I wanted to go out with an automatic rifle and kill them, I felt so much revenge. But I never thought of quitting," she said. "I had to be among them. I could not sit at home."