A few scenes from Chechnya
Date: February 14, 2002
There's this kind of peace in Chechnya, that's impossible to live there. Travelling notes from the "cleaned up" republic by Bakhtiyar Akhmedkhanov
Chechnya is adjusting to the peaceful life. Builders construct, peasants plough, soldiers blew up, peaceful inhabitants are "cleaned up", fighters - on the last gasp, and as always only a half of thousand of them left. So it was said in the official reports, intended to convince us of the fact that in Chechnya anything is happening, but only not war. Our special correspondent Bakhtiyar Akhmedkhanov crossed the republic from the west to the east, after passing from Nazran in Ingushetia to Khasavyurt in Daghestan. This is what he saw.
On robbers' road
Near the famous Kavkaz-1 checkpoint there's already omnipresent signs of peaceful existance of the republic is seen. Along the road an APC is crawling, on road shoulders sappers are walking. Suddenly the APC stops and begins to shoot toward ruins of some farm that lies roughly 50 meters from the road. Sappers also begin to fire from their machine guns, but are shooting kind of nonchalantly, rather prophylactically. They don't pay any attention if there are people or animals in the field.
- They don't care at all - says Abdullah, driver hired by me in Ingushetia. Abdullah is a Chechen born in Kazakhstan. His parents had dreamt about their return to their homeland. They settled down in Grozny and didn't want to leave it, even then when the war begun. They were found in a courtyard, they were shot in their heads. Abdullah doesn't want to come back to Chechnya, he's been living in the neighboring Ingushetia, in a tent, in the refugee camp and wants to send his children somewhere into Russia.
Although, the authorities have proclaimed the end of war long time ago, refugees aren't keen to come back to their homes. Even more, from 25th of December till 25th of January to Ingushetian refugee camps have came 850 Chechens from Grozny, Argun, Tsotsin-Yurt and other localities. People are fleeing before raging in the republic squadrons, who conduct "zachistkas".
In the last months their number has grown significantly. According to Chechens, in "zachistkas" and special operations during the last month have perished or disappeared roughly around 1000 civilians. It's difficult to check out reliability of this data, but death is taking its toll every day.
First, I was counting checkpoints on the road, but later I've got bored of that. Abdullah on every checkpoint, together with documents was giving to the soldiers ten rouble banknotes, so everything was going smoothly, nobody was checking us out. The soldiers standing on checkpoints resemble "cheap boyeviks". On their heads, knitted caps or bandanas, beard, black glasses and move with laziness. And then, what a shame, I've got caught on one of checkpoints. Some superman wanted to glance at my passport, but I showed my journalistic ID.
- You are screwed - he said to me. Go back, if you don't want any troubles.
So, we've entered Chechenya again by a different route, now without any problems. The road from the Ingushetian town of Malgobek is called robbers' route. "Convoys" with illegal goods, shipped by Russian soldiers, who are stationed in the republic are going by this route.
Suddenly, from behind the corner emerges a military jeep and pulls over to the road shoulder. Camouflaged men exit from it and begin to communicate with somebody over the short-wave radio. Abdullah says that they wait for a signal from checkpoint on the border.
In Grozny apocalyptic scenes still scare us: sea of ruins, mud and dirt all over. Life can only be seen on the bazaar. You can even indulge in a treat of sauna - it costs 90 roubles per hour.
The building complex, occupied by the authorities, resembles a penal colony under stringiest rigour: surrounded by barb wire, guarded by dozens of sentries.
From Grozny we are going to Stariye Atagi, where the last "zachistka" just ended. Everything went accordingly to the classic scheme: looting, extortion of money, torture, killing of cattle. True, there is something new: local women devised a method to resist somehow those "sweepers". For eight days, when the action continued people did not lie down to sleep and were put on the streets. They survived nights around burning bonfires. As soon as soldiers approached, women began to shout and to beat with pieces of iron along the gas pipes. Then, in this part of the village, crowds were gathered and cordoned off by the military vehicles. In Stariye Atagi they beaten up the head of administration and eight policemen, who were attempting to shield those villagers, who were being taken away to Tolstoy-Yurt.
- The militaries entered the village in three columns - tells me a local policeman, a Chechen who doesn't want be identified. - At the beginning they were even polite. Each of those groups was working separately, there was no coordination at all. In the village, more than ten thousand people are living, but there's only eleven policemen. We are not able to defend the village themselves. And Russians don't trust us. We don't trust them either. The federals spit on us, but we're between two fires: from one side - military men, from the other one - fighters. I do not know how is possible to live any longer like that. Nearly 300 people went through an improvised filtration camp, arranged at the mill in Stariye Atagi. Approximately the same number of inhabitants was filtered out in a location near Tsotsin-Yourt. It was possible to buy them out for a modest sum - 1000 roubles per person. Mayrbek Artsuyev and his two brothers gave to soldiers 7 thousand and they were left alone. Mayrbek was lucky; the servant at the mosque - Musa Ismailov was killed and also his neighbor Idris Zakriyev and five others. The inhabitants of villages say that it is especially frightening when the federals come in masks and do their work in complete silence.
Scenes from the forest
When entering Grozny near the Chernorechye Forest some shooting again. Soldiers fire with short bursts toward hidden between trees some buildings.
We're are passing around an APC and also slowly, trying not to make any rapid moves we drive away. Behind us, series from machine guns, I'm catch myself that I'm instinctively put my head down between my shoulders. It's difficult to understand what's going on around. Some 500 meters further we see the next soldiers. From the behind another APC is approaching.
- They're shooting each other - says Abdullah - and will charge with that the fighters. You know - stationary checkpoints - that's nothing. The worst are those, who walk from place to place. No one knows what they have on their minds.
But soldiers are also afraid. They shoot at every bush and tree, because they know that every bush and tree can shoot at them. Hundred meters further, from the forest, three in masks coming out, with machine guns. They're stopping our car. We slowly roll down our car's windows. On or faces we have stupid smiles - mixture of fear, helplessness and desperate desire to pleased them. One of the masks asks in childish voice: "Guys, do you have a nail file? or a cigarette?".
Five minutes later, Abdullah and I, are laughing loudly and guessing, why those morons needed the nail file. Soldiers frequently ask for tobacco, water and something to eat. Again we meet sappers. An APC behind, along the road shoulders several soldiers with long mine detectors. This procession heads a soldier with a specially trained dog on leash. That's a fiery-red, fat spaniel, and from the distance resembles a mandarin who fell in mud. In Chechnya we had many encounters, with the federals and those who resist them. Some of those were, that I'd like to as fast as possible to forget. Already, fairly drunk military Major shows a lady's watch to us, even at the first glance at it, very expensive. - My daughter has ordered. What do you think, will she be pleased?
After leaving Grozny, we pass Argun, then Gudermes. Abdullah is getting clearly nervous - he has to return to Chechnya till 5 PM. At this time, this gigantic zone into which the republic has been converted, shuts down for the night.