1 April 2004 Edition

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Ethnic cleansing behind closed doors

Belfast-based Italian journalist SILVIO CERULLI sent this, the first of two articles, to An Phoblacht last Tuesday 23 March from somewhere along the Russian border, just hours before he entered Chechnya. He has gone to the region to witness at first hand the scale of the war between the Russian Army and Chechen fighters in an area that has been devastated by war since the 1990s. Next week, Silvio writes about what he witnessed in the region.

Still miles of snow away from the Chechen border and it seems like the mountains are slowly swallowing us. As there are simply no roads to the border, tracks sneaking over the mountain passes are the only possible route. The emotion of having my feet on 'Soviet' soil has already vanished; the region resembles an underground shooting range kept away from prying eyes; echoing through gorges and peaks, automatic weapons firing, the sound of grenades exploding and on a few occasions the frightening roar of artillery.

The chances of crossing the border are slim as the war being fought in and around Chechnya is a dirty and forgotten conflict, continuing as it is behind closed doors. During the last ten years of conflict, 200,000 Chechens have died and a further 300,000 have been forced to leave their homeland to take refuge in the mountains or in the refugee camps outside Chechnya. Tens of thousands have survived so-called filtering camps after being mutilated, tortured or traumatised.

Two jet fighters break through the low clouds with a frightening thunder, shaking the forest.

After the events of 11 September 2001 in New York, silence fell over the conflict. The situation in Chechnya may be the worst of the worst, but international interest in the war is only sustained by the few humanitarian aid workers or journalists that have managed to cross the border.

After the disingetration of the USSR, an independent republic was declared in Chechnya in 1991. Three years later, Boris Yelstin's Minister for Defence declared on TV that "with just one parachute regiment we'll take Grozny in less than two hours".

Russian artillery failed on the ground and it was then that Yelstin ordered attacks from the sky and the carnage began. Thousands of civilians fell under a deluge of fire, bombs and possibly chemical weapons, an entire arsenal that under international law is forbidden to be used against a civilian population was utilised in what Moscow calls an "anti-terror operation".

In August 1996, Chechen rebels forced the Federal army into a humiliating retreat; its generals were ridiculed and the Kremlin was forced to enter peace talks. The Chechens obtained de facto independence and free elections were held, however, some Islamic extremists, covertly helped by both Middle-Eastern fundamentalists and fringes of the Russian secret services, made the situation uncontrollable.

The background to a new occupation was provided by the death of 200 people blown up in their beds in two apartment blocks in Moscow. Chechen rebels were blamed without any shred of evidence; they had never targeted civilians before and there was no war going on in Chechnya at the time.

It was never clear who was responsible for the bombings but Putin was the main political beneficiary and a new invasion was launched.

During this second invasion, Moscow learned from the mistakes of 1996. Knowing that it was useless to fight the war as a purely military exercise against a mobile and determined Chechen resistance with expert knowledge of the terrain, the Russians knew that 'pacification' would only be achieved through terror.

Also, they learned that there would be no war without the western media. Media coverage had to be 'discouraged' so Putin charged the FSB, the Russian Federal Security Service (created by the KGB) with ensuring the media stayed clear of the story. Since 1994, 148 journalists have died of "unnatural causes" in the region. Were it not for the courage and determination of a small group of international observers, no foreign eye would see the daily tragedy of the Chechen people.

What followed was the kidnapping of Westerners, but if on the one hand the Chechens are masters in the 'art' of taking hostages, the Russians on the other are masters of provocation, since they are the intermediaries and also profit from it.

The ransom varies according to wealth, nationality and the number of days held in captivity. A freed person may be re-arrested because he/she has a certain 'value', or in the case of Westerners, because they do not have permits.

Kidnapping (there have been more than 2,000 hostages taken) is like an exchange currency here in a country where unemployment is 90% and people trade everything for survival; my life could fairly be exchanged for a generator or a goat.

The Federals, for their part, request ransom for prisoners and even their dead bodies. To them, Chechnya is an "open bank" where all is negotiable, from oil (illegally pumped and exported) to humanitarian aid. The Chechen land and its inhabitants are practically financing their own destruction in a melting pot of collusion, underground connections between local warlords, tribesmen, rebels, criminals, the Kremlin's securocrats and businessmen, secret services and Federal forces. This means the Russians have been working with the very 'bandits' they claim to have come to disarm.

The tiny village we spend the night in has no electricity or water: we are not even in Chechnya and we are already being cut off from the rest of the world; from here on there will be no means of communication.

The sound of creeks turned into torrents by the melting snow and a wolf crying in the distance makes sleeping a hard task. At dawn we take a short cut northbound as our guide, on his satellite phone, has been told of a violent feud between two clans in the mountains. Reaching the valley below us is not easy as under the snow there might be landmines, these are usually placed along crucial routes from the improvised market to the humanitarian distribution point.

A few hours later we meet four Chechen women and a child. They are too afraid to remain in the mountains and too scared to try reaching the few refugee camps. They mention jet fighters and helicopter flying-fortresses with the red star; they talk about their burning house.

The person I'm travelling with (as he works here I can't reveal his identity) asks them about medical and sanitary conditions, since nearly all hospitals in Chechnya have been levelled by Federal artillery. He explains how skin and lung disorders related to the long and cold months spent in the shelters, exposure to the fumes from illegal refineries or biological weapons are spreading and becoming chronic.

In Chechnya, only one child out of eight is born in healthy conditions. Less than 15% of all international aid gets through the Russian bureaucracy, while more consistent help arrives from Islamic organisations. The UN presence is minimal compared to the scale of the disaster.

A disused farmhouse further down the slopes of the mountain has been turned into a shelter by an elderly couple; they will try to reach the camps in Ingushetia as soon as the spring arrives. They also warn us to come back to use the mountain tracks as pro-Russian militias have turned access to the valley into minefields. Some 5,600 people were killed by mines here in 2002 alone.

"We are a land with less than a million people occupied by a foreign state that counts 145 million citizens, yet we are still beating them," says the old man, while his wife puts some bread she made into our bags.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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