'WE ARE THE LOST ONES'
The Chechens know they have been forgotten by the West
By Anne Nivat
Washington Post - Wednesday, August 21, 2002; Page A17
The dramatic crash of a Russian military helicopter in Chechnya this week, in which more than 100 members of the armed services were killed, was a reminder to those in the West of something many of them have forgotten in recent years: The Chechnya war goes on. It may be worse then ever.
Over the past three years, I have traveled extensively throughout the tiny, mountainous republic, determined to report fairly on this forgotten conflict, which the Kremlin would like very much for the rest of the world to ignore. The West needs to know that the real and intended casualties have mostly been Chechen civilians, local independence-minded governments, the Chechen economy and the people's nonaggressive Sufi Muslim culture.
The Russians, lacking dramatic military successes, have managed to defuse Western criticism by designating the conflict an "anti-terrorist operation." They have depicted the Chechen people as bloodthirsty terrorists who would impose Islamic law on other Caucasian republics. Today even educated Muscovites commonly say there is nothing wrong with killing Chechen noncombatants, even babies.
Returning to Chechnya in June, I was hoping to find that the situation was "under the process of normalizing," as the Kremlin puts it. High-ranking military officials have repeatedly said the "military phase has been over" in Chechnya since March 2000. Instead I found that the situation was deteriorating.
Many Chechens are preoccupied with planning ways to avoid the "zachistkas," the frightening, out-of-control raids of villages by masked soldiers searching for young Chechen males. These operations are conducted every day by the Russian army. Afterward, families search out the fate of loved ones who were dragged off. In every village, young men have disappeared. Some lucky ones return after their families pay for their release. Many never come back. Chechens with whom I survived long hours of aerial bombardment during the peak of the war in winter 1999-2000 talk of their fear that any male between the ages of 12 and 60 can now disappear without a trace at any moment.
I traveled in the garb of a Chechen peasant woman, a scarf tied around my head, a long skirt brushing my ankles and a satellite phone strapped to my belly. From the start, I had declined to participate in the Russian-organized tours. One day in 2000, while my colleagues visited a flower market in the capital city, Grozny, with a government escort, I was able to make my own way to an arms market a few yards away. The Russian secret services eventually found me in February 2000 and sent me back to Moscow, but I was able to return clandestinely later.
The Chechens know they have been forgotten, and they no longer expect a Western intervention like that in Kosovo. They know that Western aid organizations consider the region too dangerous to venture into because of the continuing fighting and the risk of kidnapping. Food, shelter and medicine are delivered in insufficient quantities and at irregular intervals.
The Chechens have become obsessed with three things: how to survive in such a hostile environment, how to pass safely through the many Russian military checkpoints on the roads and how to save their young men from being kidnapped. "We are the lost ones," Tabarka Lorsanova, 46, told me when I saw her again in June.
She had said much the same thing when we first met in November 1999. She had fled Grozny for a nearby village in the south of the country, which she thought was safer. Now, back home in the capital, she was trying to rebuild her life from piles of rubble where shops had once stood, now without electricity, heat or running water.
Tabarka has only one son and doesn't want to lose him. In April 2001, he disappeared during a raid at the University of Grozny, in an operation that left most of the students in a state of shock. The mother remembers how she argued with the Russian soldiers who had encircled the building and prevented her from entering. After insisting for two hours, she finally made her way through with a group of other outraged parents.
Ten students had been arrested, one of them her son, for the simple reason that he "didn't look like his passport picture." All ended up being released, but two had to pay a ransom of $1,800 each. Tabarka summarizes well the perplexity of the Chechen population regarding the behavior of the Russian military machine: "As soon as Putin announced that the war was finished, we understood that on the contrary the situation had gotten worse. After so many horrors, how can we possibly trust them anymore?" For many Chechens, the Russian president's declaration marked the beginning of "the era of the zachistkas."
I arrived in Meskert-Yurt, a large village of 5,000 inhabitants, two days after the end of one of these "mopping-up" operations, an exceptionally long one lasting from May 21 to June 11. What I saw defies description. In late May, in a scenario that replays itself over and over, the village was sealed off -- encircled by masked Russian soldiers. Although an order from the Kremlin known as "Decree Number 80" forbade masks and mandated identification of the soldiers and of the raid's purpose, it was ignored by the perpetrators.
The method in all these operations is the same: Under the pretext of searching for rebels, the military enters each house, terrorizes every family and drags away one or more civilian men, mostly very young ones, even if their documents are legitimate. A few days later, some of the families of the disappeared are informed by intermediaries of the possibility of "repurchasing" their loved ones with money or rifles.
In Meskert-Yurt the majority of the houses are farms, sheltering geese, hens and turkeys, sometimes cows or horses. On a sunny Thursday afternoon, the only thing I could see were the stupefied inhabitants of the village, searching the fields and ditches in all directions around their farms to recover the bodies or body parts of their loved ones. When I met Maaka, 43, a mother of six, she couldn't even manage to cry anymore. Her three sons, Aslan, 15, Makhmud, 13, and Rashid, 11, had been killed by enraged soldiers after being horribly mutilated. She showed me their bodies lined up beside many others. I saw no military attire among the broken bones and shreds of flesh, but I did see a woman's scarf and a teenager's basketball sneakers. Eyes protruded, bloody flesh hung from crushed skulls, sometimes enough to show the expression of terror at the moment of death.
On the sixth day of the blockade, some grimly determined women succeeded in passing an SOS letter to inhabitants of the nearby city of Argun, who transmitted it to the kommandantura (Russian headquarters). Alerted, the head of the Chechen administration, Akhmed Kadyrov, then tried to go to the site but was not allowed to enter. Then it was Aslanbek Aslakhanov, the single Chechen deputy of the Duma (lower house of the Russian parliament), who took a turn to try to force the blockade. On foot, through fields, he managed with great difficulty to enter the village. Four days later, the zachistka ended. Forty people had disappeared.
This is the new Russian military strategy: to avoid formal combat and air bombardment and to multiply the clandestine raids under the pretext that terrorists hide in these villages.
The Russians have identified four principal "terrorists" who need to be captured to end the war. I have interviewed all but one, and I had little trouble getting to their hide-outs. In three years of war, only one of the four has been eliminated, a Saudi-born commander who called himself Khattab and who died last April. In Chechnya, nobody believes Khattab was killed by the Russian secret services. It is said he was a victim of other fighters who may have wanted to remove evidence of an al Qaeda connection or who simply didn't need him anymore.
The Russian army must know exactly where the rebel leaders are, thanks to information from intercepted satellite phone calls, aerial photographs and paid or tortured informants. Yet there has been no move to kill or capture any of them. Why? Perhaps because as long as the war goes on, underpaid Russian military personnel can augment their incomes by preying on the civilians. It has now become impossible to cross any checkpoint in Chechnya without bribing a soldier, usually a young draftee. And the benefits are shared with officers. When a car stops, the driver is asked for "the form number 10," which means a 10-ruble note folded inside the passport. Sometimes the soldier may ask for quite a bit more, "form number 50" perhaps. Because of this situation, fewer civilians can move around. People stay at home, even when the zachistka threatens.
There is no outcry in the West about a war fought on the very edges of Europe. We seem to have heeded Russia's justification for it: that this, too, is a war on terrorism. President Vladimir Putin is welcomed as a colleague and treated as a friend -- especially after Sept. 11 -- by heads of state across Europe and in the United States. But by showing its willingness to wipe Chechen civilization off the map in order to prevent a people's independence, Russia tells us a great deal about how it might behave with its own citizens under the pretext of "maintaining order."
For the time being, Tabarka, Maaka and the thousands of other mothers, elderly people and children of Chechnya wait. They have no other choice. Tabarka is living in two tiny rooms of her house in one of the most devastated neighborhoods of Grozny. A professional accountant before the war, she would like to find a job in the Kremlin-appointed Chechen administration, but that is possible only by bribing officials, and she has no money left. Her son, now 24, is in Odessa, Ukraine, trying to make a living while waiting for the war to stop. For now, she has forbidden him to return home.
Anne Nivat is a Moscow-based writer. Her book "Chienne de Guerre: A Woman Reporter Behind the Lines of the War in Chechnya" won the 2000 Albert Londres Award in France.