First few flee Grozny as Russians hold fire
Date: December 12, 1999
"There is no Grozny any more," said Ruslan Dudushev, head of the group waiting by the tree trunk. "It is just ruins, stone standing on stone."
THE first civilians for days to escape Grozny down the main road from the war-ravaged Chechen capital reached safety last night. But there were only a few dozen of them, while thousands were left behind, surrounded by the might of the Russian army.
Braving fog, the cold and the menacing rumble of distant artillery, about 80 refugees fled the city in cars and on foot and gathered by a tree trunk that blocked the highway and marked the boundary between the Russian and Chechen front lines. Visible down the road was what remained of the village of Alkhan-Yurt, five miles from Grozny and the setting for one of the fiercest battles so far.
A motley mixture of the old and infirm, daughters leading their elderly parents by the hand, plus at least one blind woman and an ethnic Russian, they waved white flags and waited for a small group of soldiers and officials to decide their fate.
For the officials from Russia's Emergencies Ministry, the appearance of any refugees was a major boost for morale. On Saturday they had negotiated the same road to the capital in vain. No one had been there to rescue.
The reason for Saturday's no-show emerged soon enough. The Chechens had heard of the Russian generals' demands that they should leave but just did not trust the military to grant them safe passage. Usman Artsuyev said: "If the people back there believe there really is a humanitarian corridor, they will be out of that place in their thousands."
Few of those who had plucked up courage to leave felt they had anything to gain by staying in a city without power, gas or water and running low on food, reduced to rubble by 10 weeks of bombardment and now under sentence of death from the Russian military. "There is no Grozny any more," said Ruslan Dudushev, head of the group waiting by the tree trunk. "It is just ruins, stone standing on stone."
Only one thing had deterred them from leaving before: the fear of coming under fiercer attack on venturing out of the cellars where they sheltered. One car attempting to leave by the other corridor from the capital, to the north west, was fired on and a woman on board injured on Friday, Ismail Nasigeyev, who witnessed the incident, said. Now he was trying the road to the south west.
Moscow announced a halt to its bombing of Grozny at the weekend; but while the centre has enjoyed a respite, it appeared to be business as usual on the outskirts. Lyubov Shagyreeva, 50, and her daughter, Marina, 22, had already walked 12 miles from the eastern suburb of Khankala after spending a sleepless night under Russian shelling and coming under more attack en route to the tree-trunk rendezvous. Mrs Shagyreeva said: "We have no money, no relatives and nowhere to go to. We had no choice but to flee."
The afternoon bombardment was growing louder and louder, with the whoosh of multiple rocket launchers punctuated by what sounded like heavy artillery and mortars to the south and west, and occasionally fired over our heads towards Grozny. Major Oleg Podemidov, a Russian officer, told the refugees: "I gave orders that my men should fire into the undergrowth to keep the guerrillas at a distance. In the fog you never know where they are. It's for your own safety."
As explanations go, it was ingenious but unconvincing, the more so when the refugees surveyed the devastation inflicted on Alkhan-Yurt, as they drove past after finally being cleared to leave Grozny. Taken almost a fortnight ago, the village now appears deserted, every building extensively damaged and many, including the mosque, mere skeletons.
A wooden cross and a huge crater in the road mark where a Russian tank was destroyed by a massive booby trap, killing three of its crew, all aged 19. But the struggle for Alkhan-Yurt was a mere foretaste of the battle for Grozny to come.