Grozny from Ground Zero
Date: January 28, 2000
Reality on Chechnya's front lines versus Moscow's spin
Wherever you are in Chechnya, you can hear the distant thunder of the bombardment of Grozny. The percussion of the falling bombs shakes the whole devastated land, as though Chechnya has become a giant drum reverberating to the sound of a punishing beating being meted out by its new masters.
Grozny itself is visible by day as a giant, static thunderstorm of billowing black smoke obscuring a quarter of the horizon ...
IT BEGINS as a low, incessant rumble as you pass the straggling lines of exhausted refugees lining up to have their documents checked at the border crossing into neighboring Ingushetia. By the time you get to Urus-Martan, twelve miles away from the Chechen capital, the noise is like giant doors slamming underground, rattling the remaining window panes and jarring the nerves. Grozny itself is visible by day as a giant, static thunderstorm of billowing black smoke obscuring a quarter of the horizon and by night as a low streak of fire in the dark sky. It's a strangely, darkly beautiful sight if only because the firestorm over Grozny is a perverse testament to the human genius for destruction on an epic scale.
Getting into Chechnya to cover the siege of Grozny is no easy task. The Russian authorities don't like Western journalists, period. But they especially don't like Western journalists freewheeling around Chechnya unsupervised by Federal Security Service read KGB-minders.
Carefully-scripted press trips are strongly reminiscent of Soviet-era Intourist tours of the achievements of the Socialist Motherland. One of the highlights of one foreign press visit two weeks ago was a stop at a chicken farm near Tolstoy-Yurt to demonstrate what the government guide called the "regeneration of the Chechen economy under Russian rule." Except, as the farm's chief vet explained, the farm wasn't producing any eggs because it didn't have any chickens. "The rebels ate them all," he said, grinning, and led us on a tour of the near-empty battery houses, much to the embarrassment of our official guides.
There's a good reason why the Russians don't want Western journalists anywhere near the front lines the war is going nowhere, fast, despite the positive spin that official Russian TV is dutifully reporting. The depth of cynicism and disillusionment of the Russian officers and men engaged in the battle is breathtaking. Talk to any man in uniform in Chechnya and the horror stories and disaffection come pouring out without prompting provided, of course, you're not on an official trip with senior officers glaring over your shoulder.
In my unofficial visit to Grozny last weekend, it was painfully clear that the much-trumpeted Russian advance into the center of the city was quite simply a lie. On the northern front near Staraya Sunzha, Federal troops had moved forward barely four hundred yards during a week of heavy losses. They were still nearly two miles from the heart of the capital, with the daunting prospect of fighting tooth and nail for every building and street on the road ahead. Even the commander of the pro-Moscow Chechen irregulars, Beslan Gantemirov, admitted that the city's defenders were fighting skillfully and bravely. "Even though they are my enemies, I can say as a Chechen that I am proud that they are fighting so bravely," says Gantemirov.
Meanwhile, the Russian army's organization is a mess, the communications don't work, their command is not coordinated, they shell their own positions by mistake. "Everyone is fighting separately the Army, the Interior Ministry Forces and us," says Gantemirov a situation which paralyzed Russian military efforts to conquer Chechnya three years ago, and seems to be being repeated, exactly, once again. One pro-Moscow Chechen commander, Umar Dagarov, told me the story of the nine-hour fight for the apartment blocks of Kasiora street.
It was chaotic, hard-fought and bloody but when his men finally succeeded in pushing the rebels back they found themselves under attack once more, this time from Russian artillery who hadn't been told that Gantemirov's men were in the process of taking the buildings. "My radio battery was dead, and I had to send back a man to tell them they were shelling their own people," said Dagarov, grimly shaking his head at the recollection. "One of my men was killed-for nothing."
In Gantemirov's Grozny headquarters at Staraya Sunzha, a Federal Security Service, or FSB, lieutenant colonel accompanying some Russian journalists pounced on me as soon as he heard my foreign accent and tried to arrest me and send me back to Russian Military headquarters at Mozdok for interrogation. Fortunately, Gantemirov intervened but if the FSB man had made good on his promise to snap on the handcuffs he was dangling in front of my face it would have been a highly unpleasant experience. Seven colleagues, all Westerners, were arrested near Staraya Sunzha on Dec. 30 and interrogated at length and accused of "violating regulations on the movement of foreigners in Chechnya." What regulations? They asked. Secret ones, came the answer secret, no doubt, because they contravene Russian law, which says explicitly that journalists, foreign or otherwise, have full freedom to work anywhere in Russia without hindrance. But that law was written in the early days of democratic enthusiasm in the early 1990s.
Times are changing Russian state TV has again become a virtual propaganda organ for the Kremlin's blatant lies about the war, the military is trying to impose de facto censorship by inventing its own rules on the movement of journalists, and the FSB is following journalists around Ingushetia and interfering with their attempts to find out the truth about Moscow's war. Freedom of speech, in the form of Glasnost, brought down the Soviet regime. Now the inheritors of the post-Soviet order, specifically acting president Vladimir Putin, are doing their best to build up the apparatus of state censorship. Frightening times, indeed, with frightening implications not only about what the world gets to hear about Chechnya, but also for the future of Russia's fragile democracy.