Forgotten Land

Chechnya remains mired in misery

Fred Weir

Offshore banking has helped Citibank clients hide millions.

Zara Bashayeva is a statistic no one in Moscow or Washington wants to hear about. In early January, Bashayeva gathered up her three children and left the family home in Serzhen Yurt, eastern Chechnya, for the relative safety of a muddy and squalid refugee camp just inside the neighboring republic of Ingushetia.

Why did she flee a war the Kremlin has repeatedly declared over? Life has become impossible in Chechnya, she says. There is no food, no jobs, no electricity or gas, no schools, no doctors. But all that might be bearable if not for the constant zachistki, periodic Russian security sweeps aimed at uncovering arms caches and rebel fighters concealed in civilian areas.

Bashayeva fears mainly for her two sons, ages 13 and 11. The Russian troops come and seize the men; sometimes they are never heard from again. At least in a refugee camp, my sons will not be taken.

Its hard to independently assess her claims, since the Kremlin and Russian military still severely restrict journalistic access to most parts of Chechnya. But international aid workers and Chechen refugeesmany of whom are enduring their third winter living in rough Ingush tent camps and abandoned buildingssay conditions in Chechnya are actually worsening. Life inside Chechnya has broken down, and there is only a grim hanging on for most people, says Tamara Khaduyeva, a Chechen psychologist working for a Dutch NGO that provides services to war-traumatized children. In the first war things were tough, but people endured it. Now everything is ruined, the feelings of terror are escalating, and people just want to get out. The idea that Chechen life is normalizing can only be heard from officials who are paid, and protected, by Russian troops.

Chechnya, a mountainous, Muslim republic on Russias southern flank, declared independence as the former U.S.S.R. was disintegrating a decade ago. Since then, Moscow has invaded twice in an effort to crush the secession movement. The first offensive ended in 1996, when Russian troops were forced to withdraw, and the Kremlin recognized the election of rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov as the republics president. But Maskhadov failed to build a viable state, Chechnya spiraled into lawlessness, and Moscowblaming Chechens for a wave of terrorist bombingsinvaded again in 1999.

Virtually all of Chechnya is now occupied by Russian troops, who fight against a vicious insurgency campaign led by Maskhadov that continues to kill about a dozen Russian soldiers weekly. Chechnya has become a chronic problem for us, like Northern Ireland or Palestine, and the Russian elite appear incapable of even understanding this, says Alexander Iskanderyan, director of the Center for Caucasian Studies in Moscow. The situation is growing harsher and more hopeless with every passing month.

As always, it is civilians who bear the brunt in the continuing conflict. A handful of human rights organizations, including the courageous Russian group Memorial, struggle amid almost impossible conditions to investigate allegations against Russian troops by the increasing flow of refugees.

Since September 11, Russia has largely succeeded in convincing the United States that the war in Chechnya is a department of the global battle against Islamic extremism and terrorism, and that has practically driven the issue from Washingtons official dialogue with Russia, as well as from the pages of most Western newspapers. 

Nevertheless, there seems little evidence to back Kremlin allegations that Chechen rebels are tightly linked with Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terror network. During the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan, the Western media regularly reported rumors of thousands of Chechen volunteers fighting beside the Taliban and al-Qaeda. One Chechen warlord, the Jordanian-born Khattab, who goes by just one name, is a veteran of the anti-Soviet Afghanistan war of the 80s; he is known to have taken money from Saudi Arabia and other sources to promote the austere Wahabbi Islamic fundamentalist sect in Russias Caucasus region. Moscow also claims its troops have killed a few Arab mercenaries fighting alongside Chechen rebels in the past two years. But it has yet to produce proof of systematic contacts with bin Laden or his organization, and, according to the New York Times, no Chechens were among the 3,500 Taliban prisoners being held by U.S. forces and their allies in Afghanistan in early January.

Every day Russian TV says, as if it were a known fact, that Chechens are allied with Osama bin Laden. But I have never met any Chechen who supports him or has ever had anything to do with his cause, Khaduyeva, the Chechen psychologist, says. Our people have suffered terribly, and we have only sympathy for victims of terrorism. 

After almost three years of savage, grinding counter-insurgency warfare in Chechnya, the promised Russian victory seems as elusive as ever. Yet the Kremlin remains adamant there will be no talks with rebel leaders. For the tiny republics long-suffering people, that would seem to augur endless war, misery and exile.

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Fred Weir is a Moscow correspondent for In These Times and regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, the London Independent, Canadian Press and the South China Morning Post. He is the co-author of Revolution from Above: The Demise of the Soviet System.
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