All Russia's Men Can't Put Grozny Together Again
On front lines, soldiers admit Chechnya war will take time and a toll in face of resistance
GROZNY, RUSSIA — THERE is an odd phenomenon among the Russian troops fighting in the rebel republic of Chechnya. Almost every officer you speak to gives his name as ``Ivanov,'' the Russian equivalent of ``Smith.''
They clearly are not telling the truth. But they make no bones about their desire for anonymity: They fear Chechen retribution if they reveal their real identity.
``We are taking into account the traditions of the Chechen people,'' who are famous for vengeful feuds, says one officer of the Interior Ministry troops, whose job is to restore normality to a northwestern suburb of Grozny.
His refusal to give even his rank or first name was as telling a sign as any of how distant a prospect normal life remains in the shattered Chechen capital, even in a district that has nominally been under Russian control for nearly two weeks.
Kremlin leaders have repeatedly proclaimed that the military campaign to bring the rebel republic of Chechnya into the Russian fold is nearly over, and that civilian life is resuming in Grozny.
The government hopes to subdue domestic opposition with such statements and to give the world, especially Western critics, the impression that normality is just around the corner.
To underline his point, President Boris Yeltsin has taken overall command of the Chechen operation from the Army and given it to the Interior Ministry, whose primary responsibility is police work.
But the men of the Interior Ministry's crack Dzerzhinsky Division behave as if they are fighting a war. Safely hidden by black balaclavas that cover nearly all of their faces, they keep watchful eyes out for snipers as they patrol the deserted streets in armored personnel carriers.
Three miles to the south, meanwhile, on the front line, the Army is still flattening the city with artillery and bombing raids, and Russian fighters push back forces loyal to rebel leader Dzhokhar Dudayev block by crumbling block.
President Yeltsin dispatched Russian troops to the republic on Dec. 11, 1994, to quash its three-year independence bid. Since then, thousands of civilians and soldiers have been killed in the fighting, and hundreds of thousands have fled the region.
While Chechens have resisted Russian conquest for centuries, the strategic Muslim-dominated region of 1.2 million people is important to Moscow because it is rich in oil and other natural resources.
The old industrial zone in northwestern Grozny, where the Dzerzhinsky Division's fifth regiment is stationed, is about as good as it gets for Russian forces in Grozny. It was the first district of the capital to be captured, its population was mostly Russian, and its factories and apartment blocks are relatively undamaged compared with the devastation in the city center.
But it is a bleak, deserted area. Its streets are littered with the burnt-out wreckage of Russian tanks and lined by abandoned homes and idle factories. Under a heavy sky, the occasional civilian passes, pushing a cart loaded with possessions or churns full of well water. Often they wear strips of white cloth tied to their coat sleeves, signaling their neutrality.
Aside from the district bakery, which has been working throughout the crisis, not a single business is open. Outside the bakery gates, a few women stand behind low tables selling home-pickled vegetables and candy bars. That is the full extent of commerce.
In a high school building that is now regimental headquarters, the safest place in the district, officers and men move around behind windows that have nevertheless been bricked up against small-arms fire. Every night, as artillery rumbles in the distance, snipers open fire on the headquarters from as close as 85 yards. But no patrols go out at night to find them.
At the end of the regiment's area of deployment, at the far edge of town, Maj. Vladimir Ivanov commands a checkpoint charged with searching any vehicles that come by. His position, too, comes under sniper fire each night. ``But it would be too dangerous to go looking for snipers,'' he says. ``It's not worth a soldier's life.''
He shrugs when he is asked when he thinks such attacks will end, gesturing at the low hills above him and the village of Podgorny that nestles in their folds. ``Anybody can slip down from that village with a weapon,'' he admits. ``We don't have enough troops for patrols, and they have no problems infiltrating the area.''
``We have already searched most of the houses in this region for weapons, and I think we need to do it again,'' says Lt. Oleg Borony, who heads a group of Special Forces. ``Gunmen are coming in at night from the hills and leaving their weapons with their families. We are preparing for them to try to fight here again.''
The level of Chechen infiltration appears to be such that even Russian residents, who might be expected to greet the Russian troops as saviors, avert their eyes as often as not when armored personnel carriers pass.
``If you are incautious enough to talk to Russian soldiers in the daytime, you could be killed by one of the Chechens who come in at night,'' explains Lieutenant Borony.
The main task of the Interior Ministry forces, their officers say, is to impose law and order, to begin setting up administrative structures in districts where heavy fighting is over, to restore electricity, water and gas supplies, and to distribute food and medicine.
So far, however, in the old industrial zone, officials acknowledge that they have managed to do no more than turn on the gas, provide some clothes to an old people's home, and repair two buses.
Working in chaos
Maj. Sergei Ivanov, the deputy commander of the new administrative office that has been set up in a former kindergarten - its garden now scarred by defensive slit trenches - has a rough idea of the number of people living in his district. He says that around 32,000 residents stayed, out of an original population of 130,000.
Farther south, in the Zavodsky district, Col. Bronislav Grigoryev does not even know yet how many civilians he is responsible for. ``The situation is very chaotic now,'' he apologizes. ``In these circumstances, the chances that factories and businesses will find enough workers and materials to get down to work again seems slim.''
``The place where I worked was badly damaged, and there is nobody there yet,'' bemoans Tanya Ponomaryova, as she tries to sell a pot of homemade jam and some pork fat from her stall at the bakery entrance. ``Nobody has said when it might start work again, nobody has said anything.''
Russian officials say it is the Chechen authorities' job to get life going again, and that they are only in Grozny to assist the ``Government of National Revival'' headed by Salambek Khadjiyev.
But Mr. Khadjiyev's government is clearly a sham. Its headquarters in the town of Znamenskoye, 30 miles northwest of Grozny, is the town hall, practically bereft of furniture. The only people there one afternoon this week, apart from a few armed guards, were some visiting sympathizers.
Nobody except for Khadjiyev's deputy, Abdullah Bugayev, was doing any identifiable work.
For a government without significant money, men, or organization, this was hardly surprising. But Khadjiyev is also running up against another difficulty in his efforts to establish some semblance of normal life among Chechens - distrust of Russians.
Moves are under way to form a Chechen militia that might eventually take over law-and-order duties from the Russian Interior Ministry forces. Beyond the absence of uniforms, weapons, and transport stands another obstacle: recruitment.
``There are a lot of Chechens who would like to be in a militia,'' says Maj. Sergei Ivanov, the deputy administrative chief of Grozny's old industrial zone. ``But some have a confused background, even if they are opposed to Dudayev.
``Before giving them this responsibility, they will have to pass through a selection process. It is a very complicated question,'' he adds.
How long will Russian troops be running things in Grozny? Major Ivanov is reluctant to be specific.
``A long time,'' he sighs.