People willing to die for freedom
Source: GQ Magazine
When the Russians moved in to quash the rebellious Chechenya, the world thought it would be over in a matter of hours - it was wrong. This report from by Anthony Loyd reports on a people willing to die for freedom.
The two-day respite in the Russian bombardment that follows the fall of the presidency is swallowed in an instant, and the shelling intensifies once more. There are no more lulls. Artillery, tanks, mortars, rocket systems, jet aircraft, helicopter gunships - the permutations of incoming fire are endless. The dead are everywhere: dead people blown out of their flats; dead people blown out of their flats; dead pigeons blown out of their roosts; dead dogs blown off the street. Death becomes too frequent and too abundant to deal with, so that often the bodies are left where they have fallen to become landmarks in their own right: "Turn left past the dead guy with the yellow shopping bag and his wife, then right to Minutka..."
Journeys of the shortest duration become a sort of ambulatory Russian roulette. Spin the chamber: beneath another grey sky. I pass a dying Chechen soldier, croaking pitifully from his broken head, assume he is the of a shell splinter, run across the railway tracks, suddenly under fire from a sniper, and reach the other side to discover that it was the same sniper who shot the soldier; 50 metres further on, along the route I would have taken had I known about the sniper, a shell turns five people to red chaff. And always the emptiness, the blood in every street, the ravens pecking into the scarlet ice, the body scraps, the shells and the fear, the weight of fear.
Then comes the carnage in Derbentskaya Street. Sheltering in the squat from the bombardment, as we seem to do more and more of the time, we hear a young Russian woman calling us from the street outside. "our house is hit," she says simply. "There are many dead and wounded." She leads us the short distance to the awful scene.
For days, whether my eyes are open or closed, I see that woman shaking a severed leg at me: it's as if this accusatory image has been burned onto my retina. I feel that we used our helplessness as an excuse to run at the approach of shellfire. Perhaps I am some sort of pornographer to this violence, or worse still a punter come to watch. Others, who have been involved with war for longer, appear not to question our reaction. I cannot resolve it this way.
We leave Grozny for Goyty, seizing an increasingly rare opportunity to share a ride out in a vehicle spacious enough to take our seven-strong group and its belongings. We are tired, bedraggled and vacuous.
There is a dead child standing at the end of my bed. I saw what was left of him a few days ago. A Russian jet had bombed his mountain village home in a botched attempt to destroy a nearby bridge. Five-hundred-pound bombs had transformed him, his two sisters and mother into butcher-rack-sized lumps of flesh. The severed heads of two of the children, curiously untouched by the blast, had stared listlessly from a ghastly pile of dismembered limbs. Two other of his sisters had survived, blood-masked and mangled, tiny children with enormous wounds. The eldest child was seven years old. Now he is in my room, his body whole again, strangely illuminated against the dark of the night. Two small severed heads lie on the table behind him. He is silent, and stares into my eyes with an unwavering gaze.
The moment is gone. I cannot recall how he leaves. I am alone in the room again, hoping it was a dream. The window is rattling to shellfire, and signal flares are lighting the night sky. The fighting is getting very close. The Russians have encircled the South-East side of Grozny, pushing the war further into the surrounding countryside, and bringing with it its horrors. However the war began, it is becoming a war against the Chechen nation. The atmosphere in Goyty, so far untouched by the course of the conflict, is intensifying as its people grow fearful.
I have managed to track down an English-speaking Chechen fighter, Aslankhan, and hire him as an interpreter. In his late twenties, he is a former English student well connected among the Chechen command hierarchy. Humorous, intelligent and cynical, he proves an ideal fixer.
There is talk now that the Russians have penetrated into the southern half of Grozny, and that the p[osition of the Chechen forces there is becoming increasingly tenuous, as they face encirclement from the additional Russian advances in the south. Three of us walk the route back into Grozny late in the afternoon with Aslankhan as our guide, intent on finding General Maskhadovs headquarters. The situation is very confused. We encounter isolated bands of Chechens, heading unnervingly in the opposite direction, who tell us that the order has come for their forces to withdraw from Grozny.
The city has never been so quiet. peering from among the houses on a southern slop we see the Minutka area, for the first time a Chechen stronghold after the loss of the Presidential Palace, lying below us, a sprawling urban carcass, smoke from its numerous fires collecting with the gathering mist to form a grey shroud that floats gently above it.
We continue to move south as the light goes. For all the surrounding silence, we are heading towards the one area that still echoes to gunfire and receives the occassional artillery round. Nearby, there is the ominous clanking of tank tracks.
Finding a Chechen post that is holding firm, we are told by the troops that Maskhadov's headquarters is close by and wait with them for the arrival of a commander to forward our request to visit. An armoured personnel carrier appears through the murk, moving towards us at speed. The Chechens initially have no idea whether it is one of the few they possess or Russian, and they run quickly to firing positions at the edge of a building as we move with equal haste to fold in the ground. The vehicle is Chechen and roars off past us into the darkness, leaving us laughing uneasily.
Two particularly belligerent-looking soldiers appear, both of them wounded. They are members of Mashkadov's personal guard. The taller of the two, forehead and eye serrated with stitches, speaks hurriedly on a walkie-talkie as his limping comrade takes up position behind him. The general himself is on the other end. " I have three English journalists here who want to see you," the fighter says. There is a pause, then an amused voice replies: "What can I tell them? Bring them along."
Mashkadov's headquarters lies in a linear cellar complex beneath a four-storey building. He receives us hospitality in an impromptu operations room once he finishes his meal, the first after the day's Ramadan fast. Sitting at a desk beneath maps of the city, he looks tired though not dispirited and speaks with tremendous sincerity: "I can only wonder at the strength with which my men fight. The Russians attack us with planes, then artillery, then tanks, levelling the houses before them. Yet still my men emerge from the rubble to fight on. But we cannot match the Russian weaponry, and we will have to fight a different type of war. This is not a retreat from Grozny - it is a planned withdrawal. All we can do is fight on, to show that not only that we want our independance, but that we are willing to die for it."
It is not until the general marks the new Russian lines on the map that we know the full extent of the Chechens' withdrawal. Except for our location in an emaciated urban finger to the extreme south of the city and the access route's entrance around Cernorece, the rest of Grozny has been abandoned to the advancing Russians.
Mashkadov reflects wryly on the imbalance of weaponry during the conflict. "We don't have their munitions, but when one of my soldiers is given ten RPG's I expect eight tanks to be destroyed." "I can feel nothing when I fight on the frontline," he says wearily, claiming to have killed on a number of occasions. "The worst thing is to lose your friends: nineteen of mine have died here. The next worst thing is when some men start to panic under fire. I did not go to Russia to fight the Russians. I am fighting in my country, for my country: for my village, my people, and my God."