Hide-and-seek with Russia's news minders

Our arrest happened within half an hour of arriving in Vladikavkaz, the capital of the mainly Christian Caucasian republic of North Ossetia.

We were caught talking about the Chechen war with a couple of off-duty soldiers lounging on the street. Hauled off to police headquarters, after a couple of hours we were sent politely but firmly on our way by an officer of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the former KGB.

The message was clear: Don't try finding out anything about Chechnya here.

In what is being called "the information war," journalists are apparently the enemy. The Russians have decided that one mistake of the unsuccessful 1994-96 campaign to crush Chechnya's independence drive was to allow the press to cover it. Not any more. The embattled territory of Chechnya has been closed to reporters, except for a tiny handful who are granted special military accreditation and go in under close supervision. Many major news organizations have tried for months, unsuccessfully, for this press pass.

But to arrive anywhere in the North Caucasus today is to pass unwillingly under tight FSB surveillance.

North Ossetia is the only traditionally Christian region among the six Russian republics that nestle up against the high, snow-capped Caucasus Mountains. In Soviet times it was spa country, where people came to ski, drink from mineral springs, and enjoy the fresh mountain air. Our brief police episode notwithstanding, the local people are warm and friendly.

But post-Soviet times have not been kind. The Ossetians fought a savage 1992 war against their Ingush neighbors, and hundreds of local boys are serving with Russian units nearby against their hereditary enemies, the Chechens.

Barbed wire between

Theoretically, Ossetia's border with next-door Ingushetia is an internal Russian boundary, like the line between two states in the US. But it looks more like the Berlin Wall, with barbed wire, minefields, and heavily armed guards. We passed through three separate checkpoints - where Ossetian, then Russian, then Ingush security scrutinize us in turn. On the Ingush side, refugees from the brutal ethnic cleansing in that forgotten 1992 conflict still live in forlorn little clusters of huts.

Of Russia's 89 republics and regions, Ingushetia is by far the poorest. The republic's unemployment level approaches 80 percent. Sociologists say if it weren't for the safety net of strong family and clan structures, many of its 300,000 people would be starving. Since Russian airstrikes began last September, Ingushetia has been inundated with an estimated 170,000 fleeing Chechens. The two peoples are closely related and share a language, but the strains are growing.

On the Ingush side, we hired our own driver and stayed in a private home, eschewing the Assa, the republic's one official hotel, in the capital of Nazran. Our intent was to keep a low profile and avoid having a security guard assigned to us. That decision carries its own risks. Since the end of the first Chechen war in 1996, hundreds of Russians and foreigners have been kidnapped by the crime gangs that flourish here and next door in Chechnya.

The last person to disappear was, in fact, a journalist. Dmitri Balburov, correspondent for the Russian paper Moskovski Novosti, was seized by gangsters last October in Nazran, apparently sold out by his driver. He was freed in southern Chechnya last week by Russian troops. We eyed our own driver suspiciously, especially when he began to protest - quite unsolicited - that he would gladly lay down his life to defend us.

Leila's place, where we stayed on advice from other journalists, was a snug, Caucasian-style brick house, with a chicken-infested, courtyard where we set up our satellite phone. Leila, a sweet-natured woman, cooked for us, cranked up the gas boiler for our occasional showers, even washed the caked mud off our boots when we came trudging back from the border refugee camps. She made it seem like a good idea to steer clear of the Assa Hotel.

But when night fell over Nazran, the silence was deep and heavy. The occasional roar of a passing Russian military convoy or a burst of automatic-weapons fire from who knows where made us sit up in bed, sweating and listen intently. I even caught myself longing for the company of the FSB a couple of times.

Gold domes in the snow

We paid the price for going incognito when we tried to arrange an interview with Ingushetia's president, Ruslan Aushev. We drove out to Magas, a new capital city that Mr. Aushev is building on a bleak plain a few miles from Nazran. So far only the government headquarters, a lavish presidential palace, and the parliament have been completed. Here in the poorest place in Russia, flooded with starving and freezing refugees, was the set of a science-fiction movie: three modernistic, gold-domed buildings rising from an empty landscape with the brooding, snow-swept Caucasus beyond.

But Aushev's press secretary raged at us. Why weren't we staying in the Assa Hotel with the other journalists? Why didn't we register ourselves with security when we entered Ingushetia? In the end, we got no interview.

As we were leaving the president's palace, we met a miserable little group of Chechen women who said they'd been living on the street with their children since fleeing their homes in Grozny the week before. They told us they were out of money and out of hope, and had come to beg Mr. Aushev for help. But they didn't get an interview either.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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