These desperate, dispossessed people on the edge of Europe are victims of a dirty war the West chooses to ignore
Date: November 3, 1999
The shrapnel from a Russian rocket that hit Megamed Makh-mayev when he went to buy bread for his family in Grozny, the Chechen capital, had made the flesh of his right leg look like a half-eaten joint of raw meat. In a hospital just across the border from Chechnya he watched stoically as a doctor fished for fragments of metal and broken bone in the deep wounds. "Maybe, if the main blood vessel has survived, we won't have to amputate," the doctor said dubiously. In another ward Fatimat Ablusheva, a four-year-old Chechen girl, was crying and clinging to her mother, Amina. At first I thought she had got hold of some lipstick, because the skin around her lips, nose and eyes, over half her face, was bright red. But Amina said: "They are burn marks. A shell set fire to our house in Grozny and we could not get out before Fatimat was caught by the flames."
These are the lucky ones in Russia's six-week war in Chechnya, fortunate enough to cross into the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia before Russian troops closed the border. In Grozny itself, without food, electricity or gas, conditions are far worse. Mr Makhmayev said he was only driven, half-dead from loss of blood, across the frontier because "the hospital in Grozny was full of dead and wounded and there was no doctor to help me". Yesterday a woman died as a desperate crowd pressed against razor-sharp barbed wire at a tiny border checkpoint."
People are going mad; they are throwing themselves at the wire," said a woman who managed to get through after a week-long wait. By now the shape of the Russian invasion of Chechnya is becoming clear. Intent on keeping down its own casualties, the army has avoided hand-to-hand fighting with Chechen guerrillas. Instead it is clearing its way with a massive and indiscriminate artillery and air bombardment of Chechen towns and villages. The Russian air force commander complained this week that his pilots had dropped so many precision-guided bombs that they were running short. The result of the assault is that one-third of the Chechen population, numbering in all about 1 million people, is now in flight. Some 193,000 have reached Ingushetia. The same number or even more have fled their homes but cannot get out of Chechnya because of the Russian blockade, according to Tarja Halonen, the Finnish Foreign Minister who had just led a European Union delegation to the area,
What is happening is a tragedy equal to anything witnessed in Kosovo and East Timor earlier in the year. If the Russian army continues with its meat-grinder tactics, soon half the people in this tiny republic will be in flight. The Russian leaders defend themselves by saying that, after the air campaign against Serbia, no member of NATO can criticise their bombardment of Chechnya. In fact, the Chechens face a double threat. They are being bombed, just as NATO bombed the Serbs, but they are also being evicted from their homes, just as the Serbs drove out the Kosovars. Sergei Kovalyov, a human rights activist and member of the Russian Duma, says: "In Chechnya, Russia is using NATO's methods to achieve [Slobodan] Milosevic's ends."
In one respect the Chechens are much worse off than either the Kosovars or the East Timorese. Little of what is happening appears on Western television. A few days ago I was on the main road back into Chechnya. Several thousand Chechens were frantically trying to return to their country to bring out relatives. A Chechen veteran who had lost a leg in the Second World War was trying to get through on crutches. Russian troops, clutching their sub-machine-guns, were having none of it. An army lieutenant came up to me and said: "I warn you to get the hell out of here, because the soldiers will start shooting soon."
A loudspeaker told us that either side of the road was mined. On the other side of the border a 10-mile queue of cars and trucks filled with refugees has been trying to pass through Russian lines for days. We saw one man try to run across a field out of Chechnya, but he was quickly caught and arrested by a squad of Russian soldiers. The International Committee of the Red Cross says that a little further down the road on the same day Russian planes attacked five of its vehicles, killing two of its staff and at least 25 civilians. On the borders of Kosovo earlier in the year similar scenes were recorded by a dozen television cameras. On the main crossing point into Chechnya I did not see a single one. The American networks show little interest. Even ABC Television had only a 45-second slot for the carnage in Grozny market place when Russian missiles killed more than a hundred people last month. The official reason for this is the danger of kidnapping. This is real enough, but the risk can be minimised by armed guards from the Ingush or Chechen interior ministries. Unfortunately, many television correspondents in Moscow, quite willing to cover the war despite the threat of abduction, find that kidnapping provides a perfect excuse for their head offices not to cover a war they do not much want to report on anyway.
Russian spokesmen are clearly fighting what they call the "information war" using NATO's presentation of the air war against Serbia as a model. The propaganda is heavy-handed, but the absence of television eases their task. Generally, spokesmen respond to accounts of the killing of civilians with outraged denials. Early last month I visited Elistanzhi, where Russian aircraft dropped 30 bombs, killing 35 people. The explosions tore apart the village school. In the nearest hospital, at Shali, the mother of a nine-month-old boy called Sheikh Mansur, whose left foot had been amputated, was trying to comfort him with a Mars bar. In another bed Alet, aged four, had just had shrapnel taken out of his stomach. The Russian air force denies it ever attacked Elistanzhi. It may be the air force and army do not know what they are hitting. Experts say many pilots now get only 100 hours' flight training a year. Almost everywhere I have been in Chechnya the most common sound is the roar of the notoriously inaccurate Grad missile launcher. But Moscow also shows few signs of caring about accuracy. It says the attack on the Red Cross convoy did not take place, despite the testimony of survivors.
Vladimir Putin, the Russian Prime Minister, says that "no large-scale errors" have been made by Russian bombers. He has shown no embarrassment at having denied the army destroyed the Grozny market place at the same moment a military spokesman was confirming it was blown up because it was "an arms bazaar". What makes the suffering even worse than in Kosovo and East Timor is that Chechnya had not begun to recover from the last war. Grozny is a sea of ruins, pulverised by Russian artillery in 1994-96. Now the Russian army has told civilians to leave Grozny and Gudermes, the second Chechen city, to escape the bombs. But at the same time its aircraft are strafing roads and have blocked the route to Ingushetia. Only 170 to 180 people are let through each day. Yesterday, President Ruslan Aushev of Ingushetia said there was a casual cruelty in this, since the Russian announcement that a passage to the border was open drew refugees on to the roads, where they were vulnerable to air attack, but it then allowed only a trickle of desperate people to reach safety.