8 April 2004 Edition

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Chechnya: The forgotten war

On New Year's Eve 1994, a large Russian force tried to storm Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. The attempt failed and a drawn out urban battle raged until the Russians two months later claimed to be in control of the city. One year later, a Chechen force entered the city for a few days, and in August 1996 the Chechens retook Grozny in an offensive that paved the way for the Khasavjurt Peace Agreement, which led to the withdrawal of the Russian forces from Chechnya. In 1999, the Russians again invaded Chechnya, with much greater force, flattening Grozny by aerial bombardment in the process. The rebel Chechens have been fighting a guerrilla war ever since. In his second article on the wartorn country, SILVIO CERULLI reports from the Caucasus Mountains.

They are all dressed in black from head to toe, the hair covered by long black pashmina. With the men vanished, either captured by the Russians or hiding in the mountains, these women wander from one ruined village to the next, avoiding minefields and snipers, looking for drinkable water or an international humanitarian flour distribution point.

They are as strong as iron. Over their shoulders they carry panniers with some fruit and vegetables, both for food and for bartering; others pull wood or scrap metal to fix up a shelter.

Women here are the ones who do reconnaissance at checkpoints, they raise the alarm when columns of Russian tanks are seen, they spread the news of deportations and executions and roam the region's "filtering camps" looking for loved ones.

Tall weeds grow out of the debris of abandoned houses. During the winter, snow covers all traces of an ignored and denied war, but now, at the dawn of spring, the hulks of ruined tanks and Soviet industrial ruins emerge out of a broken land.

The author of the legendary work, The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, remarked how "this is a nation over which the psychology of submission has had no effect, the rebels are not isolated individuals but the entire nation. These are the Chechens".

The wolf is their shield and as hungry wolves they attack because they have no other choice; historically speaking, Russia has divided and created hate within the region but in exchange the Russians have received blood and pain.

After ten years of carnage, even if the resistance keeps inflicting heavy losses on their enemy, shooting down helicopters and destroying tanks, they appear unable to impose a level playing field, in military terms, as happened during the re-conquering of Grozny in 1996.

However, often only armed with old Kalashnikovs exchanged for food or vodka, between 10,000 and 15,000 rebels, mostly based in southern Chechnya (while Moscow controls the fertile valleys and steppe plains in the north), continue to keep the Federal army in check.

Over the last four centuries, the Russian Empire has been trying to impose control over the Caucasus and the Chechen people have repeatedly known invasion. Long before this war, in February 1944, 200,000 Chechens were deported en masse by closed trains under the false pretence of Nazi collaboration and Chechnya as a state was abolished, erased from the maps.

In such a manner, a third of the Chechen people disappeared and the survivors were not permitted to return until 1957. From then, deportation has been employed as another dimension of ethnic cleansing, and the present resistance is regarded as the last resort to avoid the erasing of an entire people. Such suffering has ingrained a hardness in the Chechen people that has enabled them to resist first Czarist, then Bolshevik and then Soviet colonisation.

It is an extraordinary place of breathtaking beauty, and standing on top of the mountains, so close to the sky that you feel you could touch it, feels liberating.

However the reality is more like the bottom of the pit, a door to hell. Jet fighters, death squads, snipers and minefields hidden under carpets of snow. Yesterday the rumour of Russian soldiers killed in a minefield bounced from village to village. Ten were said to be dead in a war that officially does not exist, being fought with no rules and away from intrusive eyes.

The track we are walking on emerges onto a small plain that had probably been used as a night camp by the rebels. Now it's a pile of rubble surrounded by craters: strategic bombing. Two Chechen families walk some of the way with us. They are surprised at us being there and are not comfortable with our presence.

There are tales of atrocious torture techniques coming from the "filtering camps", the new Russian gulags where more than 30,000 Chechens have been detained. Many of them are now dead.

With the melting of the snow, mutilated and tortured bodies are often found with their hands tied behind their backs, however mass graves in Chechnya do not attract as much attention as those in Serbia or in Iraq.

Officially, only 3,000 Chechens have been identified from Russian mass graves. Many disappeared during so-called "sweep operations", often carried out by squads of masked and heavily armed personnel without identifiable insignia, notorious for kidnapping, torturing, raping and executing civilians.

Some Russians serving in Chechnya are not military professionals but mercenaries, contract killers rather then servicemen.

Ten years of ruthless war have also generated a tide of refugees, who have scattered over the mountains or are in camps along the borders. The Russian Ministry for Emergencies blackmails them for tents, food parcels and heating gas, denying them medical help, humiliating them with police checks.

And since 2000, Moscow only recognises women, children and the elderly above 65 years old as refugees. Everyone else is a "terrorist".

Exiled in their own land, these refugees keep moving through plains and ridges, knowing there's no safe place for them in the Caucasus, a region already regarded as part of a wider Europe and yet, their fate does not seem to make anyone uncomfortable.

Many westeners give credence to the Kremlin's line, linking the Chechens to the Islamic network of Al-Qaida, but such links have not been proved. People here say there has never been any Islamic Jihad in Chechnya but the Kremlin has a huge interest in linking the war in Chechnya with Al-Qaida as that blunts UN criticism and fits in with the United States' so-called 'war on terror'.

Immobilised by censorship and confused by Russian disinformation, the international community seems to have accepted the sacrifice of the Chechens.

But the Chechen people are not expendable. There is a humanitarian catastrophe here and no kind of aid is getting through. War crimes are being committed daily b yet officially there is no war in Chechnya.

The Russian Army, 130,000 strong, continues to lose an average of 30 soldiers a week. And despite its overwhelming supremacy, this military giant can't defeat the Chechen resistance.


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