To live and die in Grozny

By Kirill Belyaninov
Source: "U.S. News & World Report"


The first mortar burst within 50 feet of command headquarters in a tumbledown house near Grozny's shattered railway station, showering the rebels with buzzing, thin metal splinters. The second turned Vakha Ramzanov's car into a heap of burning iron. "Stray shell," said the Chechen fighter laconically. "The Russians have been bombing the city all day but can't yet straddle even one of our positions. Don't worry about the car. I'll get a new one."

Ramzanov's 40-man detachment of villagers ages 14 to 62 slipped into Grozny when the latest Chechen offensive began August 6, skirting Russian checkpoints and leaving snipers to cover their rear. In the city, few people were surprised to see them; a week earlier leaflets signed by rebel leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev asked residents to get out. The Russians dismissed the warning as a provocation. "For the past year and a half," says Ramzanov, peering at a captured Russian military map of Grozny, "we've moved freely all over Chechnya. At most checkpoints the soldiers ignore us; they don't want a fight. Or sometimes we pay a bribe."

Born to fight. "For the past 20 months [since the war began] we've been doing only one thing: learning how to fight," says Ramzanov. Fighting is in the Chechen blood. Last century, the Russians were resisted for 38 years; 170,000 people died. In 1944 Stalin deported virtually the entire population to Siberia and Kazakhstan. In 1991 Chechnya declared its independence; Moscow dispatched 50,000 troops to subdue the breakaway region in December 1994. Nearly two years later, the outnumbered Chechens hold the military edge and are demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops and elections. Real independence can wait, say their leaders, until a new president can organize a referendum.

In between cease-fires, the fighting goes on. At Ramzanov's command post an order is received to attack a nearby Russian checkpoint, guarded by 150 soldiers and a tank. Two bazooka shots begin the action. Greasy black smoke rises from the tank, which fires back, smashing the flimsy walls of Ramzanov's building. Machine-gun bullets rain in. The firefight is short and unsuccessful; Ramzanov's unit pulls back with five wounded, one killed.

At night, both sides open fire without warning. Yunus, a 15-year-old fighter, pauses to rest and reflect on why he has joined the rebel cause. The charred bodies of four Russian soldiers lie nearby. "To say I've been to war," he answers simply. "To have something to put on my resume. I'm sure in independent Chechnya it will make life easier."


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