The war Russia still can't finish
Over a year into its current campaign in Chechnya, Russia has not stopped violence.
Wrapped in a threadbare scarf and a long winter coat, with a near-empty plastic shopping sack hanging from her chilled fingers, Aina Shovlahova walks through the center of Grozny, the devastated capital of Chechnya, avoiding the eyes of patrolling Russian troops.Skip to next paragraph
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Russia's ongoing campaign to rid its breakaway republic of separatist rebels makes Grozny a top contender for "Most Destroyed Place on Earth." But while similar leveling of parts of Beirut, Lebanon, and Kabul, Afghanistan, gave way to relative peace, embittered residents like Ms. Shovlahova live under what is essentially an occupation by Russian forces.
They say that, contrary to Moscow's assertion that it has already won this war, there is no endgame in sight. Russian troops continue heavy-handed "mopping up" operations, even as they are targeted almost daily by Chechen guerrillas - some seven Russian soldiers were reported killed in a train bombing on Saturday.
"It's only starting now. It will never be over," says Shovlahova, trying to shuffle unnoticed through the rubble of Minutka Square, in the city center. "It's impossible to live here, under the [Russian] bullets. They don't let you live peacefully. There is not a single guerrilla left in the city, but they still keep shooting."
Access for journalists is strictly limited and increasingly rare. But a recent journey into Chechnya, organized by the Russian military, reveals a people under siege, and barely under Russian control.
Moscow-appointed Chechen officials live under daily threat. Several have been killed by separatist guerrillas - and they work in heavily fortified compounds behind coils of razor wire and checkpoints. Even the simplest movement by troops in built-up areas seems to require complex security arrangements.
The Nobel Peace Prize-winning humanitarian group Medecins sans Frontieres in late November accused Russia of imposing a "state of terror" on Chechnya and creating an "illusion" of normalcy.
Tension is inescapable in the capital. "The task is to come away alive," a Russian officer instructs his crew, as he loads a 12.7 mm anti-aircraft gun for the drive into town. The soldiers chamber rounds in their Kalashnikov assault rifles and scan the muddy, frigid horizon with uncertainty.
Just days ago, a roadside bomb here blasted a Russian convoy. Every road, every day, is checked for mines. A prewar sign atop a ravaged building brings a moment of mirth: "Don't joke with fire," it reads, "Dial 01."
"This is the agony period," says Col. Sergei Andreyanov, the Russian commander in charge of Grozny's Leninsky district. "The problem, in a global sense, is finished. Now most of the fighting is with criminal gangs, which are connected to the guerrillas."
So when will Russia's military involvement end? "Spring next year," he predicts. "Maximum." But Russian officials have often wrongly predicted swift victory in the past here. Whenever the fighting does stop, it won't be soon enough for Louisa Sulumova, a mother of three who hung on despite the battles in Grozny. Today, she is hawking tape recorders, batteries, film, and a mountainous coil of sausage from a market stall.
A brief walking tour for outside visitors required the deployment of more than two-dozen anxious Russian special-forces troops, including snipers, from Colonel Andreyanov's units.
"They do whatever they want, they don't care if you are a guerrilla or not. At any moment they can come and cut your throat," Mrs. Sulumova says, nodding toward the alert Russian troops. "I've never seen a guerrilla fighter here. We don't care if Russians or Chechens rule, since we can't breathe."
One week ago, Russian troops completely razed Grozny's main central market, saying that too many of their forces -18 in November alone - had either been killed there, or simply disappeared. As stern-faced Russian troops withdrew from this smaller market, one woman shouted: "We haven't seen the light for two years!"
Nor is light likely to shine soon, analysts say. "The war in Chechnya is by no means over. The Russians are really strapped to keep a lid on what is happening there," says Terence Taylor, assistant director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. "They are in there, and you can't see an end to the guerrilla war. It may even get worse, as the Russians struggle."