Covering War Means Knowing When to Go

Grozny's press corps shrank to single digits as journalists saw what `stragetic bombing' meant

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THE first time that the shells hit Grozny, I ran outside and stuck my microphone in the air to record the sound.

But it didn't take long for me to decide that I would be better off ducking for cover instead.

Among the journalists who first arrived in Chechnya, many believed, at least outwardly, that it was possible to take precautions against the increasing barrage of tank, artillery, and rocket fire blasted at this capital by advancing Russian forces. At first, the well-armed Russian military was throwing its massive firepower at strategic targets, such as the Chechen capital's oil refinery and television tower.

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But less than two weeks after the Russian advance began on Dec. 11, attacks had grown so indiscriminate that only seven hold-outs of the original Grozny press corps remained.

We began to see bombs fall so often that even civilians who went out to inspect the rubble of buildings were targeted. In one attack, at least 25 people were killed by flying shrapnel, including one of our own: American photographer Cynthia Elbaum.

The longer I stayed, the more often I faced the agonizing decision of whether to stay put or seek safer ground, not knowing whether by fleeing one would only cross the trajectory of another rocket.

But I also had to decide whether to run from the war itself. By early January, many of the most experienced war photographers and journalists in the world joined us in Chechnya. Without exception, they said the situation was among the worst they had ever seen.

``Everything is so indiscriminate here, you have no idea when and where the shells, missiles, or rockets will land,'' said Patrick Chauvel, a French photographer who has covered dozens of conflicts since the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict - and who has been wounded seven times for his efforts.

When visiting bomb sites to assess the aftermath, one always kept an eye and an ear toward the sky, and never lingered too long. Yet jets could appear in seconds, and bombs might land even before being heard. The only thing to do was fall flat, hoping to avoid the shrapnel and flying debris.

After a bombing raid on Christmas Eve, several reporters moved to a small bungalow on the western edge of Grozny - the house of our Chechen interpreter, Macksharip Chudayev. A young man who spoke excellent English, Macksharip had good contacts with the fighters, some of whom helped get us safely to the front one day on a ridge outside of town.

He also smoothed things over when Chechens questioned our purpose in Grozny. At times, there was explaining to do on international politics.

``You are Beell? From Amereeca? Like Beell Cleenton? And why doesn't Beell Cleenton help us?!'' was a common response from many people who could not understand the lukewarm position Western leaders took on the Chechen conflict.

As time went on, the danger of air attacks increased exponentially as the jets began targeting the only highways that gave Chechens (and journalists) access to Grozny. Everyone hoped for foggy days, because blue skies meant the jets would be far more accurate.

One day we entered a highway intersection well outside the city that had just been blasted by rockets from fighter jets. One car was on fire, and several bodies lay next to two other cars.

We quickly raced away, but minutes later the jets returned, and we abandoned the car to scramble into a ditch. For 40 minutes the sleek, shiny planes fired rockets at a bridge we had crossed moments before, destroying it. After each pass they streaked through the sky directly overhead with an ear-splitting roar.

``This is definitely it, tomorrow I'm out of here,'' said photographer Paul Lowe, my closest companion throughout.

I stuck it out another two weeks. But after that day, I never again covered the war directly under hail of fire.

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