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.

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."

Russia was humiliated in the previous 1994-96 Chechnya war, and forced to grant autonomy to the republic. But law and order fell apart under Chechen leadership, and kidnappings, killings, and other forms of lawlessness became routine.

Russian troops poured into Chechnya again in September 1999, prompted by two August invasions by Chechen militants into the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan. A string of apartment bombings across Russia that left nearly 300 dead - and which the Kremlin continues to blame on Chechens, while to date showing no evidence - was portrayed as the final straw.

At first, Russia billed this as a limited "antiterrorist" campaign. But Chechnya quickly turned into a costly quagmire. Official figures show 2,600 troops killed so far; unofficial estimates run far higher. After 60 days of constant artillery and air bombardment of Grozny earlier this year, the separatists have been pushed back into the snow-capped southern mountains. But they still exact near-daily casualties with ambushes. "Long months are passing, the people are suffering, and the antiterrorist operation needs to be completed," Russian President Vladimir Putin told military chiefs last month. Mr. Putin was elected president in March, in part on a wave of popular support for the war in Chechnya. But marking his current frustration last Tuesday, he created a new Cabinet post to deal directly with Chechnya.

Moscow's writ here is severely limited, if visits to embattled officials of the pro-Moscow Chechen administration in Gudermes, east of Grozny, are any indication. Offices appear besieged: Windows in the white-columned City Hall are sandbagged, with tiny openings for sniper rifles; and the building is surrounded by antitank barriers.

Mayor Malika Gezimilyeva says she is the target of daily death threats. Since an assassination attempt on Nov. 6, she drives to work escorted by an armored vehicle. On Nov. 23, her car came under fire again.

"I have a lot of enemies, but a lot of friends as well," she smiles, her bright red lipstick in sharp contrast to the somber atmosphere in town. "The guerrillas are very angry with me, and won't rest until they murder me."

She calls herself a "full blood" Chechen, and says that self-rule has been a disaster for her country. "For 10 years of this freedom, this is what we have gotten," she says, ticking off problems left unsolved by the elected Chechen leader, Aslan Maskhadov. "So let this freedom disappear for good. The people are spiritually and emotionally ruined."

Like many pro-Moscow officials, she says Chechnya's future can only be as a part of Russia, and dismisses the "terrorists" as "criminals, bandits, Wahhabis [a strict Islamic sect]; people with no consciences who would sell their mothers for money."

The rebels once had strong popular support, but that has changed, she contends. "People used to help the guerrillas hide, but now they don't even give them water," she says. "They know who their real friends are, and are afraid that if the Russians go away, the guerrillas will eat us."

Still, few civilians bold enough to speak briefly to visitors, often in the presence of Russian troops, support Russia's intervention - or the apparent arbitrary nature of the "mopping-up" operations.

Mr. Maskhadov told a Moscow newspaper what is widely apparent on the ground: "[The military] can't even say they're in charge of the checkpoints at which they stand." That makes declarations of victory in Chechnya - as Russia first made in March - especially difficult to defend.

"In history, there has always been conflict in the Caucasus, though in the last century there were no foreign journalists to cover it," says Col. Igor Yegiazarov, commander of forces in northern Chechnya.

"We don't care who controls us," says Dokhi Medio, a civilian walking past a Russian checkpoint, before disappearing into the darkening winter afternoon. "The main thing is to establish peace now."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.