Life During Wartime

Chechen refugees are forced to return, but the battle continues.

Fred Weir

A Russian soldier on patrol on Pervomayskaya Street, once the main commercial district in Grozny.
—Savdat Kalimuliyeva huddles in terror every night with her three children as Russian forces and elusive Chechen rebels battle each other with grenades, machine guns and mortars in the shattered buildings and streets around their refugee center.

Kalimuliyeva, who was forced by the Russians to move to Grozny from a relatively safe U.N.-supplied refugee camp in northern Chechnya last June, says that life in the shattered Chechen capital is a struggle to find food and water by day and a nerve-wracking ordeal of nearby gunfire by night.

Most of all, she fears for her 16-year-old son, Timur. “The Russians are always arresting Chechen boys at blokposti,” she says, referring to the fortified security checkpoints that dominate every major intersection in Grozny. “Every Chechen male is a potential terrorist to them. What if they take my boy?”

Once a graceful, Caucasus-foothills city of 1 million, Grozny has been heavily shelled and carpet-bombed by Russian forces in two ferocious wars in the past eight years. While a few hundred thousand people may still inhabit the less severely damaged suburban areas, central Grozny today is a twisted landscape of wrecked buildings, minefields and rubble.

Those who still live here say they feel trapped between the harsh Russian security crackdowns and the still-active rebels who roam the ruins by night, planting mines and ambushing Russian patrols. “There is not even the most elementary safety,” says Ruhman Musayeva, a news producer at the town’s single state-run TV station. “People can’t be sure they will even be alive tomorrow. Everything is so hard.”

In a bid to end the war on Moscow’s terms, President Vladimir Putin has decreed Chechnya will hold a referendum this March to vote on a new constitution, which would give the republic limited self-government within Russia. At the same time, Moscow is creating Chechen government institutions—including a pro-Russian native security force—in an effort to “Chechenize” the conflict.

Russian officials insist the time is ripe for a change because life is “normalizing” in the war-ravaged republic. “The Russian forces here are not fighting a war,” says Col. Ilya Shabalkin, head of the FSB security service’s regional operations. “They are carrying out specific, targeted operations to catch individual terrorists. They are acting under the law.”

But Chechens insist the war erupts all around them every night, and everyday life in Grozny is anything but normal. Even pro-Russian Chechens experience terror and humiliation when passing through the blokposti and during zachistki, the periodic security sweeps through neighborhoods by Russian forces. “So many men get arrested, insulted and beaten at blokposti,” says Roza Yusupova, a senior nurse at the Grozny hospital. “My husband was dragged out of his car by Russian soldiers last summer—he was kicked and punched.”

Chechen families have filed almost 2,000 complaints with military prosecutors regarding relatives they say were seized by Russian security forces and have disappeared. Her husband was “lucky,” Yusupova says. “Many men from our village have been taken away and never returned.”

Since Chechen terrorists seized 800 hostages in a Moscow theater in October, Russia has refused to consider the elected Chechen rebel president, Aslan Maskhadov, a legitimate negotiating partner. The only widely recognized democratic polls ever held in Chechnya, in early 1997, elected Maskhadov the republic’s president.

“First there must be peace talks that include those who are actually fighting,” says Tatiana Kasatkina, executive director of Memorial, the only Russian human rights group with a regular presence in Chechnya. “The Kremlin is backing itself into a corner, in which there will be no one to talk to except its own appointees. This means the political process cannot work, and violence may even escalate.”

To facilitate the transition, the Russians are planning to force the about 200,000 refugees—a third of the republic’s population—who have fled Grozny over the past three years to return. Ten “temporary settlement centers” are being prepared in the city to receive them, though Memorial has reported that only half are so far habitable. Putin has pledged that no force will be used, and Russian officials on the ground repeat those assurances. But there is a hard edge to their words. “It’s time to liquidate those rebel rest-houses in Ingushetia,” says Shabalkin of the neighboring province where most refugees have gone for safety. “By spring, there won’t be any Chechens in Ingushetia. They must return to their homeland.”

Putin’s political plan may work, if only because Moscow intends to keep its occupation force of 80,000 troops in the tiny republic for as long as it takes to impose the Kremlin writ. “Once I believed that Chechnya would gain its freedom, but now I see Russia will never let us go,” says Uvais Musayev, a local politician who insists he doesn’t support the rebels. He says Putin’s scheme is just window-dressing to mask Russia’s ongoing suppression of independent political expression in Chechnya. “We can only hope the world will wake up and do something to stop the genocide of the Chechen people.”

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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