Chechnya's trail of tears
Date: February 7, 2000
Witnessing war and survival along the perilous road to embattled Grozny
IN CHECHNYA. Bright sun under peerless blue skies. A perfect winter day, which is to say: a terrible day to be in Chechnya. Clear skies mean that Russian airplanes can fly, and that means more bombing. So better the dark, foggy weather.
In our minibus, anxiety shows in the faces of the passengers, five men and nine women; one woman is breast-feeding her baby. Outside, traffic consists mainly of muddy Russian military vehicles, tanks and armored personnel carriers bearing exhausted, seemingly dispirited Russian soldiers who avoid eye contact with passing civilians. We're on our way to Urus Martan, a city about 12 miles southwest of the embattled Chechen capital of Grozny. The villages we pass through are almost completely destroyed. Roofs everywhere are cratered from artillery and bombing. Passengers in the bus mumble quietly to each other whenever we see a Russian military encampment. At Russian checkpoints, soldiers make perfunctory document checks, but only of the male passengers.
In the villages, schools are closed because of the war. The children are bored, and like kids anywhere they're always trying to think up something to do. When our bus passes by, they try to grab the back bumper to be towed along the icy road. Here and there we see women--and it's always women--selling things on the street: tea, cigarettes, oil, cookies, candy from the neighboring republic of Ingushetia.
One of the checkpoints as we enter the city is guarded by local Chechens, members of the the pro-Moscow militia headed by former Grozny Mayor Bislan Gantemirov. Jailed in Moscow in 1996 for embezzlement, Gantemirov was recently released by the Russians, who are hoping his renewed presence in Chechnya will restore order. Order is a relative term, though, in cities like Urus Martan, which was severely damaged by recent shelling when the Russians "saved" it with their usual strategy: heavy bombing until local elders agreed to let them enter.
"Our brothers." The house I'm looking for was empty in December, but this freezing Saturday afternoon a dozen pairs of boots stand beside the wooden front door. It's now home to two families, 10 people in all (including six children ages 5 to 13), crowded into the two rooms heated by a wood-burning stove. It's 5 p.m., and Said Magomed Khabpiev, 38, a former worker in a Russian collective farm who is now a member of the Gantemirov militia, has just returned from patrol. He is dressed in military fatigues provided by the "federals," as locals refer to the Russian Army. His Kalashnikov assault rifle lies on the floor next to his boots. He works as a police officer in a local town but hasn't been paid since he signed on in December. Worse, he feels useless in the face of so much anarchy: "The truth is that we do nothing. Why would I check the driver of a car driving by when I know that any kind of ID, from a driving license to a passport, and also any kind of arms can be bought on our local market?" He and his men, he says, would never shoot at the rebels. "We might sometimes shoot vaguely in the direction of where the militants are standing. But none of us would aim at one of them in order to kill them. They are our brothers."
Behind him, his wife, Azza, is bathing their 6-year-old daughter in a shallow plastic tub. There has been no hot water, no electricity, and no natural gas in Urus Martan since the war started. And, despite the promises of the Russian military authorities, no services have been restored yet. It's no wonder that many Chechens are profoundly depressed. I hear the same phrase over and over: "We have lost our lives. We are nobody. We are zombies."
At the city's main square, a taxi driver agrees to drive me to the town of Starye Atagi, a rebel staging area less than 7 miles from Grozny. The road is dangerous, cutting between two zones where heavy fighting continues. The rebels seem to be the only ones who move around more or less freely, zigzagging through the Russian positions - sometimes bribing Russian privates with 10 rubles (35 U.S. cents). Helicopters clatter overhead, and the sound of artillery grows louder. In the direction of the capital, wide black columns of thick smoke are rising into the pure blue sky. "Grozny is entirely burning up," says the driver, his only words during the harrowing trip.
Zarima Domskaya, 34, has just fled Grozny, shocked by what she experienced. "The city has simply been transformed into an inferno. Nobody can stay outside for more than a minute. They are bombing us night and day from the air and with artillery. Every single place is dangerous, even in the basements." Domskaya had gone to Grozny a week earlier to try to rescue her 24-year-old brother, who was lying in a rebel hospital injured by a bomb. She found him but, unable to carry him out of the city, she had little choice but to leave him alone. "People survive by eating what they have managed to hoard," she says. In the hospital where she visited her brother, only three surgeons were operating, one of them the Chechen minister of health himself, Umar Khanbiyev. "One day they did 49 operations in a row," she says.
Near the enemy. The next day, after a night without sleep, I meet Emedi,
28. A former shepherd, Emedi joined the rebels in November, after his
younger brother was killed by the Russians. "He went out to cut some
wood, when a plane flew by and dropped its bomb." Emedi had just been
evacuated from the front in Grozny after an artillery shell broke both
A higher-level view of the Chechens' war comes from Mamudi Saidayev, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov's chief of military staff. He disputes Moscow's claims that Russian troops are advancing in Grozny and says the rebels have been able to resupply themselves by buying weapons and food from Russian soldiers. Saidayev pulls out a map he says was taken from a dead Russian officer. On it, each Russian unit and its position are clearly marked. "They have always sent the best of the military elite here," he says. "[But now] there is nothing left from their side to be sent."
Like his soldiers, Saidayev, 53, a former officer in Soviet military intelligence, moves freely through Russian lines, despite his incongruous pinkish business suit and sunglasses. Having sent his wife and 1-year-old son to safety in Ingushetia, he remains on the move to avoid being caught. Even if Grozny is lost, he vows, the war will continue. "The Russians will probably declare a victory regarding the war of positions [in Grozny], which might be true, but they will never win the guerrilla war, which will always be going on."