One day in the life of Chechnya's Grozny

By Alix de la Grange, Asia Times, 30 October 2002

Editor's note

For more than a year, Russian President Vladimir Putin has had a free hand and the blessings of the international community to intensify his “anti-terrorist operation” in Chechnya. This is a war that he has declared to be under control and “under normalization” in the past few months. But then came August 19, when Chechen fighters attacked a huge MI-26 Russian transport helicopter over the federal headquarters in Khankala, in the suburbs of Grozny, with a Russian-made Strella missile. There were 117 dead, the heaviest loss by the Russian military since the submarine Kursk sank a little more than two years ago, with 118 dead.

Now comes the daring attack on a Moscow theater by a group of 50 Chechen guerrillas that ended with all of the hostage-takers killed, as well as more than 100 hostages, after Putin ordered his Special Forces to release a narcotic gas into the theater. The Kremlin's response was wholly Soviet: a mix of obsession with military secrecy, state lies, manipulation of public opinion and absolute disregard for human life [publisher's note: The Soviet government had fallen some years before this].

Similarly, information about what really happens on the ground in the war in Chechnya has been totally controlled by Russia. No foreign journalists are officially allowed inside Chechnya by the Russians under any circumstances. Russia says that Chechens are terrorists. Chechens say that they are involved in a freedom struggle for independence. Chechen civilians are the main victims of the war.

This exclusive Asia Times Online report comes from a European female journalist who has recently travelled underground to Chechnya, at enormous risk.

GROZNY—It's another hot day in the capital of Chechnya. It's barely 6am and a number of women are already cleaning up the streets. This is a strenuous job because the city is entirely destroyed. It doesn’t matter, though, because today the women seem to have decided to eliminate all traces of the war that has ravaged the region for three years now. Grozny, “The Terrible” in Russian, aka “Putingrad”, according to its own citizens, maybe is ready for a facelift.

At Mayakovsky Street, in the north of the town, a surprisingly elegant woman waits for her bus under a pink umbrella. Beside her, a Russian soldier is lying down under the shade of a tank, hands holding his Kalashnikov. The woman knows that her umbrella will protect her from the heat, but not from the bullets. It also won’t prevent her from stepping on one of the countless mines scattered around, and it won’t shield her from shrapnel flying from the grenades and rockets raining daily over the almost deserted city. Under apparent normalcy, terror reigns more than ever over the ruined capital.

The main road leading to the city seems to be clear. Cement blocks litter the roadside. Maybe it will be easy to go through the checkpoints today. Further on down the road, dozens of tanks are parked. They seem to be abandoned, like the countless tanks on the roads of Afghanistan. But this is an illusion. It's imperative to be suspicious of silence. Here, silence never lasts long. A small movement betrays a human presence. Five centimeters to the right, two down. The calibration of cannons is subtle but precise. Hundreds of Russian soldiers are hidden around the tanks—ready to shoot anything untoward that moves. They are everywhere. Isolated or in small groups. Big checkpoints are preferable to this one because they are more visible and in theory less dangerous. Officially, 80,000 troops are stationed in the small Chechen Republic. There are in fact closer to 120,000. In spite of repeated promises of normalization by Putin, Chechnya constitutes the largest barracks in the country and the favorite playing field of the FSB, the former KGB.

After 300 yards, there's a deviation. Locals demonstrate in front of one of the numerous checkpoints around the city. They block any passing vehicles to protest against a massacre the night before. “At two in morning, the Feds [Federal troops] barged into our neighbor's house. They killed a father of five point blank, wounded one of his children with a grenade, and took the grandfather away,” says a villager. Since then, the eight-year-old boy has been prostrated at the corner of his house, immersed in his nightmare. No adult can come near him, not even a doctor. “These people didn’t do anything, they were not boievikis [Chechen fighters],” says an old woman waving a sweeper under the nose of the soldiers. The locals are extremely angry: “We demand the release of the grandfather. Or at least they could hand us his body!” Surprised by their determination, the soldiers don’t do anything. They behave like traffic wardens. Traffic is heavy. Trucks, buses and cars are forced to one very narrow and bumpy side road.

We finally reach the central market. Regularly plundered by the soldiers, the stalls today are miraculously tidy—offering fruit, vegetables, clothes, paper, CDs, state-of-the-art stereo systems. But a glance through the rearview mirror paints a gloomier picture. Federal troops are positioning themselves around the market with armored vehicles. License plates are covered in black. This is zatchiska time. These sinister “clean-up operations” are part of the current practices of the Russian army. The official objective is to check identities. But by encircling whole neighborhoods, people are caught in a trap. Any tentative move to escape means death. Protected from any outside examination, the Feds—frequently masked—can get away with anything: torture, pillage, arbitrary arrests, summary executions. Once they’re done with, the perimeter is reopened. And they leave behind them a few traces of barbarity. These types of operation could be qualified as war crimes. In Russia, they are called routine controls.

In Meska-Yurt, a village of 5,000 near Grozny, the latest “clean-up operation “ lasted no less than 22 days. Nobody is talking. Threats of retaliation have definitely silenced the villagers. Only a few people who managed to get to the place after it was reopened risked talking about the horror: “I came at dawn, the Russians were just quitting the village. The women suddenly came out of their houses, they went running around the fields crying out loud the names of their sons and husbands, hoping to find them alive. Some of them returned with horrendously mutilated bodies, others with bits of human flesh.” The young woman stops talking. She looks around, very worried: “If the Russians know that I said this, I am dead.” Her hands are trembling, but she goes on, lowering her voice, “Lately, the Feds have been exploding the bodies with grenades.” This is a way to eliminate the traces of torture and to further humiliate the Chechens, who, according to Muslim custom, must retrieve a body or at least an identifiable part of it for funeral ceremonies. “The retrieved bodies had traces of torture by electricity, some men had their teeth pulled out, fingers, hands and ears cut off, and many were sodomized with bottles or clubs, their intestines were showing.”

As usual there are no direct confrontations with the boievikis, the Chechen civilian population has systematically become a target for the Russians. This arbitrary war may have decimated 10 percent of the population since October 1999—more than 100,000 people. On this particular day, the clean-up operation in Grozny's central market will last only three hours. And what is most exceptional, it won’t finish in a bloodbath. Only a few scattered arrests—something that in the context is quite normal. The Russians prefer to wait to get their hands on a Chechen combatant—eager to collect their “commission”. A few minutes after the neighborhood is reopened, the market comes back to life, like nothing ever happened. “Hell? We never get used to it, but one has to keep on living,” says a fruit seller, rearranging his merchandise.

Now we’re on the way to Hospital Number 9, the most important in Grozny. From the outside, there's no reason to believe this partially destroyed building with its walls filled with bullets is a working hospital. Bombed many times, it keeps being rebuilt by whatever means available. Between the decrepit walls the feeling is one of impotence and despair. On the second floor, the surgical and trauma rooms are full. But people don’t stay long in the hospital. They are afraid of being arrested. Here, nobody feels safe, even if the Feds' visits are less frequent than two years ago. “Yesterday a family brought us a 24-year-old man, he had seven bullets in his body and both arms broken. We operated on him on the spot, and his family came back to fetch him this morning, 12 hours after his admission. Now, nobody knows where he is, or if he is still alive,” explains a doctor lighting one cigarette after another. Behind him, the noise of combat helicopters renders the conversation increasingly inaudible. “When they come, the soldiers and militia search all the rooms, all the offices, they destroy everything, they destroy the registry and they never leave empty-handed. They always take away young people suspected of being combatants, people who are wounded, or just plain visitors,” says a nurse, visibly tense.

A few days ago, Salman, a boy of 12, was playing football with his friends. “I was walking back to my house. I saw an old tin of condensed milk, I kicked it just for fun, and then everything exploded.” It was a landmine. In the last few hours, Salman lost a leg. He tells his story in amazing detail. But he has to stop. His face becomes pale. There are no painkillers. When the pills are strong enough to calm the pain, they fall under a list of forbidden items by Russian legislation—like psychotropics and other anesthetics. People have to buy their own medicine underground and with their own money in certain back rooms in the central market.

Beside Salman, a 17-year-old is lying motionless. His eyes are blank and he is speechless. His spinal column was touched yesterday by shrapnel. He is paralyzed. “We have the specialists, but not the necessary material to operate. His only chance of survival is to be sent as soon as possible to neighboring Dagestan, to Makhachala hospital.” The chief doctor is not exactly enthusiastic over the success of this transfer—with checkpoints every 10 yards and roads that open and close according to the whims of Russian officers. Situations like Salman's are found in every bed and every floor of this sinister hospital. The wounded remember very well what happened to them, but no one knows who shot them, and why. In Chechnya, silence is part of the survival kit.

In a slightly less devastated neighborhood there are cafes, and as surprising as it may seem, they are not deserted. For a foreigner though, this is definitely not an option. The thing to do is to go to the back room of a dirty local bar. Without a word, and with a thorough check of the people hanging out. In Chechnya, when one does not speak Tolstoy's language, the key to remaining alive is to remain silent.

The ceasefire for lunch is brief. As one steps out of the bar, the firing of automatic weapons brings one back to reality. The shots intensify and become closer. Combat is nearby, in front of the administrative buildings of the pro-Russian President Ahmed Kadhirov. The official version is of an attack by Chechen independence supporters against a military convoy. The version cannot be confirmed. It's not uncommon that the Feds open fire on the population, claiming enemy presence.

In a few seconds, a neighborhood is turned into a battlefield. Everybody runs for cover. After half an hour of hostilities and heaps of ammunition spent, everything again becomes relatively calm. One has to profit from this calm to run away. And it has to be fast. It is already 4pm. In a while, as after any attack, all of the city's exit points will be closed. They can remain closed for hours or for days. The number of vodka bottles being emptied correlates to the intensity of the shots being fired. Without vodka, Putin's soldiers are dangerous. With vodka, they become terribly dangerous. Fear in their bellies, a travelling bag ready to go, people go to sleep with their clothes on, just in case. Tomorrow, the sun will shine, and it will be an ordinary day in Grozny—just like today.