My escape from Grozny
Date: January 8, 2000
Putin threatened by Grozny setback
As the Russians tried to flattern Grozny over the Christmas period, Renaud Girard was forced to escape the city. Here he recounts his trek over the mountains into Georgia - and freedom
I HAD never imagined celebrating Millennium Eve with a cup of hot water, far from family and friends. But stuck on the freezing Caucasus mountains, having had nothing to eat or drink for 16 hours, that hot water tasted like nectar.
I had been beginning to wonder whether I would ever get out of Chechnya. After missing Christmas and the christening of my two-year-old daughter, because I and my photographer Olivier were trapped in a Chechen mountain stronghold on the outskirts of Grozny, we had decided that we had to escape so that we could be back home in France for 2000.
But how? Since 500 Russian paratroopers had been dropped by helicopter on the border with Georgia, near the Georgian village of Shatili, we were trapped. The Russians had cut the only supply road left for the Chechen fighters - and our only way out.
Our hosts in the mountain village of Markhety just outside Grozny were embarrassed: they had no idea how to get us out of the country. "Mojet be zavtra" ("Maybe tomorrow"), they kept repeating, the situation would be better. But, as time went by, the more the Russians strengthened their positions along the border. We would have to find our own way out.
Since everybody was telling us that it was impossible to cross the Caucasus in winter except through the Shatili Pass along the Argun River, we headed to Duba Yurt, 10 miles south of Grozny.
The first Russian frontline was only 500 yards away. Our plan was to somehow sneak through to Russian-occupied territory, then to Dagestan or Ingushetia, and then take a train or taxi to Moscow. In Duba Yurt we stayed at the house of the only man I met in Chechnya who didn't keep a gun.
Hassan went to the first Russian checkpoint to check the road to the north. He was searched thoroughly, and to cross to Russian-occupied Chechnya had to pass two more very strict checkpoints. The fields were full of Russian soldiers.
On his return he told us that trying to sneak through by night was impossible: we would be shot by snipers. We could see that the Russians were constantly sending up rocket flares to illuminate the sky to prevent anybody crossing over the fields.
There was only one option: find an escape route to Georgia through the mountains. We decided to move southwards to Itum-Kale, the last town before Georgia. The following night (the Chechens only drive by night to avoid being spotted from the air), two friends of Hassan whom we had hired as drivers came to fetch us in a surprisingly new Volga.
The trip in a Russian limousine along the mountain tracks was surreal. When the slope was too steep, we had to walk beside the car. We passed through villages that had been bombed and totally flattened. In the headlights of the car we could see women and old men trying to retrieve possessions from their destroyed homes and then walking with pathetically small bags on their shoulders.
Eventually we arrived in Itum-Kale to ask for the military commander's help in finding us a mountain guide. The city, untouched three weeks ago, was now almost totally destroyed. We had to sleep in a makeshift bunker. Finally Kury, a tanned 40-year-old, arrived. Looking into his eyes, I instantly trusted him. We agreed on a $1,000 fee with $500 to be paid immediately, the rest when we saw the first Georgian borderguard post.
We went to Kury's house for dinner and two hours of sleep as we waited for the moon to rise. As we ate, the windows rattled from the explosion of a Scud missile 500 yards away. Everyone shrugged and Kury's brother went on playing the balalaika. At 3am we started walking. News of our expedition had spread through the village: 14 Chechen refugees began following us and became our companions. "Davai! Davai!" Kury kept shouting at me, trying to make me walk faster. It was still night when we made our first stop. The Chechens wanted to perform the first prayer of the day and to eat before the daily Ramadan fast began.
When the sun rose, we were stunned by the fabulous white and rose dawn panorama. But daylight also meant planes and helicopters. Each time one passed, we would crouch, trying to make ourselves as inconspicuous as possible.
In the evening, we arrived at a dilapidated shepherd's house with no doors or windows: our shelter for the night. In the far distance we could see the towering mountain pass that we had to climb the following day: it looked terrifying. We put wild grass on the ground and cooked a cheese and bread croque monsieur on the fire we had built.
It was only the aluminium survival blanket that Olivier had given me that stopped me freezing to death that night. At 2am we were woken and started walking. I was by far the slowest walker, falling in iced-over brooks, slowing everybody else down. In the night we could hear the whoo-whoo of wild wolves, but no more planes or helicopters.
We had to share the water in Olivier's bottle with the refugees and soon there was none left. The guide broke the ice of a brook with his stick, to find running water. During the morning the weather began to change, first to veter (strong wind) and then to buran (tempest), but it was too late to go back. The walk became tougher and tougher. We were trudging heavily in the deepening snow, sometimes finding ourselves sliding on ice. We still couldn't see the summit.
Twenty years ago, I had done my military service in the Chasseurs Alpines (French mountain troops). But this climb seemed much tougher than those of the Franco-Swiss border. Even the young Chechen men started showing signs of exhaustion, stopping more and more often to catch their breath. For me it was simple - I was already totally exhausted.
Strangely, I remembered my father's car in the 1970s, which had a special button for overdrive. I thought that now I had to switch on my own "button" called survival. Both my feet and Olivier's were agony because of blisters, but we kept thinking we had to do one step more, one step more, one step more. I thanked God that the Chechens in Itum-Kale had given me one of their chapkas, a traditional woollen hat: otherwise my ears would have definitely frozen.
The last slope seemed endless, when suddenly I saw through the blizzard how steeply the pass fell away on the other side. I waved a "V" for victory to Olivier, who was a few paces behind me, but he told me later that he didn't see it. It was already dark when we made out the outline of the little stone houses of Girevi. But no signs of cattle, no smoke: the village was abandoned. But we were happy because we knew we were in Georgia.
We suddenly realised that it was New Year's Eve. We made a fire to dry our feet and Kury offered me a "cup of tea" to celebrate - in fact, it was only hot water, because we had no more tea leaves. The Chechen refugees teased me, asking in Russian how I liked this special Chechen brand of tea. But I will always remember it as very good.
On the failing battery of my satellite phone, I made a two-minute call to the French foreign ministry to tell them that we were safe on Georgian territory. After another day's walking we met a patrol of Georgian guards. A 22-year-old lieutenant welcomed us, asked politely if he could search us and then told us that, alas, he had to arrest us for illegal border crossing. We were under arrest . . . but we felt free.
We walked another day to reach Omalo and the almost derelict barracks of Lt Gogoladze, where we were offered corned beef and our first vodka in a month.
But Omalo is 45 miles away from any four-wheel-drive track and totally snowbound for seven months of the year. We stayed five days. On Friday we had a goose banquet with the Georgians and Chechens, the Orthodox Georgians celebrating Christmas, the Chechens celebrating the feast of Bajram. In the afternoon Olivier and I went for a walk when suddenly we heard a strange noise coming from the sky: an OSCE helicopter had come to fetch us . . .