Date: Sat, 2 Mar 1996 06:53:30 GMT
Mass protests in Grozny end in bloodshed
From Chris Hunter, Chechnya PeaceWatch Project, 1 March 1996
From 4 to 10 February, thousands of demonstrators for peace from all over Chechnya marched through the centre of the ruined capital Grozny, demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops, independence from Moscow and lasting peace in the Republic.
After the first three days of mass protests, involving tens of thousands in the centre of Grozny, the numbers dwindled to a few thousand people who established a 24 hour peace camp on "Freedom Square", in the shadow of the ruined presidential palace. There they erected tents to protect them from the harsh winter conditions and freezing temperatures.
At this point, Chechen police and Russian troops blockaded the central district of Grozny around the square. There were claims that the demonstrators were armed with sniper rifles and other weapons, but I visited the site on 9 February and met only teachers, doctors, mullahs and others who were trying to articulate their demands in a peaceful way. They felt driven to such actions after over a year of destruction at the hands of Russian forces and little response from people in Russia and abroad.
On 9 February at around noon, demonstrators were attacked by shell-fire from a nearby building. Two people were killed and around five seriously injured. Towards the evening and on the following day the situation in central Grozny became increasingly tense. Helicopters circled above, militia and troops gradually moved in on the demonstrators.
Further attacks followed by Chechen police and Russian troops surrounding the square. Chechen police also opened fire in a crowded market on a street adjoining the square. A young woman with her young child were killed as they were returning home from the demonstration through the market. (It was later reported on the front page of the Russian daily newspaper, Izvestia that around seven demonstrators had been killed and 16 injured.)
On 10 February, the authorities gave the demonstrators an ultimatum to leave the square by 6pm. At around noon tear gas was used to break up the demonstration. The demonstrators agreed to leave in order to avoid further bloodshed, but requested that the ultimatum be extended to 8am on the 11th. On the evening of the 10th, the demonstration was broken up. Militia and troops forced around 150 people into three buses, according to eye-witnesses, and the remaining demonstrators left the square peacefully on foot and returned home.
On 11 February the square was sealed off; and a group of relatives of demonstrators and representatives from the OSCE were allowed onto the square that afternoon to confirm that nobody remained. I met with a crowd of people at the market near the square that day. They had come to look for their relatives, who had been taken away from the square on the buses the previous evening but had not returned home since. They were later released and allowed to return home.
The tough measures taken by Prime Minister Doku Zavgaev and Russian troops against the demonstrators may have been spurred by memories of similar large-scale demonstrations which took place in Grozny at the end of August 1991. These led to the fall of Zavgaev, then chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Chechen-Ingush Republic, and his replacement by the separatist leader Dudayev. As in 1991, when the green flag of Islam was hoisted above the parliament buildings, green flags were hoisted onto the ruined skeleton of the presidential palace overlooking 'freedom square'. Over a year of killing and destruction has not forced those who want a more independent Chechnya into submission. This time Zavgaev has the presence of thousands of Russian troops to keep him in power and protect him from those who call him a traitor for supporting Moscow's war against the Chechen people.
Chechnya PeaceWatch Project, 5 Caledonian Road, London N1 9DX.