Forgotten Land

Chechnya remains mired in misery

Fred Weir

Chechen refugee Zara Bashayeva at a tent camp in Ingushetia.

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.

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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