Wounds Cut Deeper This Time in One Chechen Town

By Mayerbek Nunayev and Robyn Dixon, Special To The Times
Source: LA Times
Date: December 17, 1999
Urus-Martan, Chechnya


War: Few Urus-Martan residents back rebels or did so in earlier conflict. They ask why city is now a Russian target.

Russia--This once-thriving community in central Chechnya is a ghost town, where the few remaining people contemplate a dying society and wonder what went wrong. On one street, perched like a crow on a pile of rubble that used to be someone's house, is Movsar Khalidov, a sad and wizened man who looks much older than his 48 years.

The physical destruction wreaked by Russia's war against the rebel republic of Chechnya is all too obvious to a man like Khalidov, who spent every last kopeck repairing the damage to his home after the last war, from 1994 to 1996, which was won by the Chechen guerrillas.

But Khalidov, a schoolteacher, sees a deeper level of destruction now--the ravaging of the Chechen people and their culture, something he blames not only on the Russians. He also blames the separatists who have led the republic in the eight years since it split from Russia, and the radical Muslims who took over religious life after Moscow withdrew its forces, defeated, in 1996, leaving Chechnya in effect independent.

The story of Urus-Martan tells the other side of the Chechen war. Few in the town ever supported the independence drive that has twice led to war. Nor did they support the separatist fighters. In the 1994-96 war, Urus-Martan, about 15 miles southwest of the capital, Grozny, was a haven amid chaos. Towns nearby were smashed to smithereens by Russian bombers, but Urus-Martan was bombed only twice. Its population burgeoned from the usual 37,000, as people from other towns sought refuge here.

With Urus-Martan one of the main targets for Russian bombers this time, however, many houses have been destroyed and whole streets have been flattened. Locals say about 100 people have been killed since the war reignited in late September.

On Wednesday, the Russian military captured Urus-Martan. Now the Russians are closing in on Grozny and threaten to launch a massive artillery and aerial assault any day against the capital.

For the people of Urus-Martan, life has come down to a handful of painful questions. Why did the Russian bombers come this time, when the town always opposed the Chechen fighters? Why are civilians dying, not fighters? And what will be left of the town and of Chechen society when it is all over?

Khalidov sold his car to fix his house after the last war. It was hit again this time, but he has no money left for repairs.

"A house means life for a Chechen," he says. "After the first war, people were very active and energetic, repairing their damaged houses and building new houses in place of the ones destroyed and burned. They spent their last savings; they sold their last precious things and valuables to buy bricks, roofing, wood, glass to rebuild. They still cherished a hope that the war would not come here again. But I don't think those who survive this war will be able to rebuild their houses. They simply have no money left."

Between the wars, Urus-Martan became a center for religious extremists who espoused a hard-line branch of Islam quite alien to the mystical Sufism that was traditional in Chechnya. This new strain, Wahhabism, came from some of the foreign mercenaries who arrived in Chechnya between 1994 and 1996 to join the separatists in a holy war.

Before that war, Khalidov recalls, everyone in a village or from the surrounding streets would come to every funeral and wedding. But after the Wahhabites appeared, fewer and fewer people turned up on such occasions, as traditional social bonds frayed.

The clan structure, the basis of Chechen life, began to break up, and the authority of the clan elders declined, he adds.

"The Wahhabites split Chechen families, sowing enmity between brothers, fathers and sons. People don't trust each other anymore. They are afraid not only of strangers, but of people they know, even their own relatives," he says.

Another schoolteacher, Salavdy Tungayev, 41, wears a worn leather jacket, a remnant of the times when teachers were respected in Chechen society. He says the local Wahhabite sect was led by two strangers from outside the republic, the Akhmadov brothers, who grew so powerful that they controlled the appointment of the police chief and the boss of the local administration.

"Terror reigned in the streets," Tungayev says. "People disappeared, and later it was found out they had been kidnapped for ransom. People started to buy guns and to lock their doors tight, and they tried not to go out when it wasn't necessary.

"The gang of the Akhmadov brothers was really vicious and unmanageable. They looted factories and homes, they kidnapped and killed people, and no one could do anything against them. People were just terrified."

It appears the rise of the Wahhabites is the reason Urus-Martan became a Russian target in the latest war. But though the Russian media echo the boasts of the military about high-precision missile and bomb strikes, eyewitness accounts suggest that the strikes have been highly inaccurate.

The first big target in Urus-Martan, hit by the Russians on Oct. 2, was the grain store, just as farmers were bringing in their wheat. According to Tungayev, about 20 farmers were killed, none of them fighters or extremists.

In another massive bombardment, on Oct. 18, the Russians were perhaps aiming for a rebel base situated, locals say, in a fertilizer factory.

"But they missed it by at least 300 meters [990 feet] and destroyed many houses. In one house, at least four people died," says a former driver-for-hire named Salman Israilov, 61. He says that at least 16 people were killed in that attack but that no fighters were among them.

"Since the beginning of this slaughter, new graves are dug in the local cemetery almost every day, but I don't know of a single grave that was dug for a rebel fighter," Tungayev says.

Throughout Chechnya, one striking difference that has emerged between this war and the last is that residents are no longer willing to stand solidly behind the independence fighters if it means their town or village will be bombed.

In the 1994-96 war, the strength and optimism of the people sustained the guerrillas. Now people are asking them to leave towns and villages so the inhabitants won't be slaughtered by the Russian military.

Part of the reason popular support for the fighters has waned is the sense of disappointment among many ordinary Chechens about what independence delivered. Instead of freedom, they got anarchy, crime and economic ruin.

These sentiments are much more pronounced in Urus-Martan.

Before war broke out in 1994, the factories in the town manufactured cotton, fertilizers, food and building materials. After the 1996 Russian withdrawal, the abandoned factories were looted. There was no work. Young people, without jobs and with little education, joined armed gangs and lost their respect for traditions.

Meanwhile, the main guerrilla field commanders and gang leaders set their sights on the Russian pipeline that transports oil through Chechnya from the rich Caspian Sea to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk. They siphoned off oil into mini-refineries. Spills and explosions were common.

"This was the independence we had all these years. Yes, it was independence, all right. But it was independence from all good things," Khalidov says.

Among the few other people who remain in Urus-Martan, 56-year-old Ayup Askhadov remembers the swollen, bustling town during the last war. The markets were busy, and every house held 20 or 30 people. Once Askhadov came home late and found his house so packed with friends and relatives that he had to sleep in a boiler shed nearby.

"Today, the Russians are bombing us almost every day, and they don't even remember that we never supported the Grozny regime," Askhadov says.

In Khalidov's view, Chechens by now "have lost their faith in authority. They hate Moscow, which betrayed them so many times. And they despise Grozny for the ruinous regime that it tried to impose in Chechnya. People are in a psychological coma. They are dead tired of being lied to, ignored, humiliated, shot at and bombed."

Unabashed by international pressure to minimize the impact of the war on civilians and prevent high casualties, the Russians have pursued a campaign that has hit civilians hard. Electricity and gas have been cut, making conditions extremely difficult as temperatures have fallen with the onset of winter.

On the roads, columns of refugees and a marked Red Cross convoy have come under attacks that have cost many people their lives. Doctors, too, have been attacked, hospitals have been closed, and wounded refugees have died for lack of medical help while traveling on the road to the neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia, where hospitals are operating.

The Russian military has repeatedly denied that it is targeting civilians, yet any action that demoralizes the population yields military gains for Russia.

"Russia wants all the people to leave Urus-Martan and never to come back. In the end, no one will be held responsible, and we will be left with no place to return to. The whole of Chechnya is crumbling to pieces all around me and dying," says Israilov, the former driver.

In the weeks or months ahead, Russia will probably capture Grozny, as it did in the last war. But a map of Chechnya shows the southern slab to be a mass of swirling contours, like the tight ridges of fingerprints--hostile mountainous terrain that is inaccessible to invaders but that makes ideal country for guerrillas. The fighters have had plenty of time to prepare and stock their mountain bases. Even if it does win control over most of Chechnya, Russia could face a bitter and unwinnable terrorist campaign lasting many years.

Lechi Khatuyev, 52, an oil pipeline technician, is a tall, thin man in an old black hat, who wears a shabby summer suit despite the biting winter cold. He gave his one warm coat to a sick relative who fled to Ingushetia.

To him, Russia is like someone who owns a forest but is afraid to walk there because it is full of snakes.

"So this person sets fire to the whole forest to get rid of the snakes. And we stand here like trees and watch the fire burning under our feet. True, someday new trees and new grass will grow back. But I am afraid the snakes will be the first to come back.

"They always come back."


Special correspondent Nunayev reported from Urus-Martan and staff writer Dixon from Moscow. Sergei L. Loiko of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.


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