Despite Russian Assurance of Safety, Chechen Capital Lives Under Siege

Grozny Experiences Peace in Name Only
25 June 2001

GROZNY, Russia -- It has been 18 months since Russian soldiers wrested this rubble-strewn capital city from the grasp of Chechnya's guerrillas and more than a year since officials declared it secure and began reopening schools and markets. Two months ago, Chechnya's pro-Russian government moved its offices here from the smaller town of Gudermes -- a symbolic declaration that Grozny was again a safe place in which to live and to rule.

Berland Kadirova begs to differ. Here in the remains of Hospital Number Nine -- Grozny's only hospital with electricity -- she sees a ceaseless stream of mangled bodies, victims of gunfire and shellings. People live under any roof they can find. Gas is rare, electricity rarer and working toilets nonexistent. Water comes from a truck.

Grozny is not safe, says Kadirova, 49, a nurse with thick, brown-rimmed glasses, who is in charge of registering patients. It is terrifying.

"We are under such stress," she exclaimed, her voice rising so loud the head nurse stuck her head in the door and urged her to calm down. "Shooting at night. Every night. Shells flying around. No life, no place to go. No one even to complain to. We are still trying to live, but we are just crawling."

To visit Grozny these days is to witness the contrast between the symbolic peace and security declared by Russian officials and the city's mine-ridden, bullet-flying reality.

No one breathes easily here.

Not the Russian soldiers, the target of dozens of ambush attacks every week. Their quarters are fortresses, mined and piled high with sandbags. Between dusk and dawn, says Grozny's former mayor, Bislan Gantamirov, they cede control of the city to the rebels.

Not the newly appointed civilian administrators, Russian or Chechen. By one estimate, rebels have picked off 17 administrators and staff workers this year. Confronted with a flock of resignations, the Russian-appointed government decided this month to issue handguns to administrators.

Not the Chechen civilians, who are subject to roundups by Russian troops and risk summary execution if they cannot convince them they are not rebels. Teachers complain that schoolboys can't even come to class without fear of arrest.

Not Grozny's dwindling population of Russian civilians. Unidentified gunmen have hunted down and killed more than a half-dozen of them in the past month.

Not even international aid workers. Three weeks ago, the international Red Cross stopped distributing bread in Chechnya after Russian soldiers at a checkpoint near Grozny shot and wounded one of its workers as he rode in a clearly marked car.

Russian officials say the only hope of curbing the violence is to show the Chechen population that Russian rule offers advantages and that the rebels offer only war.

Yet the effort to repair water plants and douse flaming oil refineries remains secondary, because even with 75,000 troops, this territory the size of Connecticut in southern Russia is still not securely under Moscow's control. Last month's loss was typical: Thirty servicemen were killed, according to the Military News Agency, an independent news service in Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's pledge in January to withdraw all but 20,000 soldiers from Chechnya has been suspended. And for the first time Kremlin officials are intimating that the conflict with secessionist rebels will continue indefinitely.

"They don't know what to do in Chechnya. They don't have any plan. It is an endless conflict," said Alexei Malashenko, an analyst specializing in Chechnya with the Carnegie Moscow Center. "Putin wanted to be a winner in Chechnya, and now everyone understands he has failed."

'There Is No Security'

Last year, the Russian government opened schools in Chechnya and began to pay pensions and salaries. Nearly 5,000 acres of wheat, rye and vegetables planted by government workers are now ready for harvest. Firemen have extinguished blazes at 24 of the 40 oil refineries that have been burning since 1999.*

A train now runs to Moscow from Gudermes, Chechnya's second-largest city, and a new children's hospital has opened there. Thousands of Chechen children have been bused to summer camps.

"We have to solve the economic and social problems first," Dukuvakha Abdurakhmanov, the Chechen-born agriculture minister, said in an interview. "We have to give people bread, a place to study, jobs."

Yet government officials are afraid to display their hard-won results, because they say they cannot guarantee that visitors will not be blown up. Stanislav Ilyasov, a round-faced, diminutive Russian who is Chechnya's prime minister, abruptly canceled a recent visit to Grozny's streets arranged for a group of foreign journalists. He replaced it with an hour-long lecture, delivered in shouts, on the dangers of radio-controlled land mines and armed criminals in camouflage and masks.

"Who told you there is any security. There is no security!" Ilyasov said, glaring down the length of a polished wood conference table in the government's smart new four-story office building.

"I am not saying you can walk with a balloon and an ice cream in the city. No. That is not the case. . . . It is safer now to see everything from the air."

The government compound where he and other employees work and live in a row of tiny one-room cottages is like a little island of safety in Grozny. Even with their guards, workers say they are afraid to venture out to the central market.

And even the compound is not that safe. On April 23, Ilyasov's first night there, he said the sound of gunfire kept him awake until dawn. Two days later, an explosive-stuffed car was discovered outside the office building. Last month, a bullet came through the office window of Akhmad Kadyrov, a pro-Moscow Chechen who serves as the region's top administrator. There have been three other attempts on Kadyrov's life since March.

"Do you think I am trying to suger-coat things?" Ilyasov asked journalists. "There are only problems here. Okay. Write down: only problems."

A visit two days later to the neighborhood outside the government complex proved his point. The road to Grozny from the neighboring Russian region of Ossetia runs through fields of wildflowers and velvety hills dotted with cemeteries, the graves adorned with small metal flags atop tall, slender poles. Each flag is said to represent a Chechen killed by a Russian -- to be removed after a Russian is killed in return.

Life Amid the Rubble

Before the first Russian-Chechen war, which ended in 1996 with Chechnya's de facto independence, Grozny was home to five times as many residents. Many of them are now refugees, living in tents and train cars in the neighboring region of Ingushetia, afraid to come home.

In northeastern Grozny's Leninsky district, residents eke out an existence amid rubble, trash, rats and weeds. As elsewhere, most of the neighborhood's apartment buildings are crumbling hulks; the houses are roofless and mostly abandoned. In the last week of May, the Russian military reported that rebels fired on Grozny forces 84 times.

The district's Hospital Number Nine has a sign and a gate; otherwise it could be mistaken for more ruins. The five-story main building, once the hospital's pride, is windowless and pockmarked by bullets. The seriously hurt are now treated in a two-story pink stucco building, down a muddy path and past a crude water pump that draws a stream of children and adults toting metal containers and buckets.

One recent morning, the hospital was full of the traumatized -- nurses , as well as patients. Seven people who stopped to talk all agreed: Grozny is more dangerous now than it was even a few months ago -- maybe because the government's renewed presence has drawn the militants back. They were not short on examples.

In one, two nurses discussed how a pregnant medical student was blown up by a mine June 1 on her way home from exams. In another, two orderlies carried a stretcher into the hospital lobby, past posters illustrating how to identify mines, and deposited its occupant on the linoleum floor. The man had been high in a tree, picking cherries, when an explosion blew him to the ground, fracturing his hip. That same day, a mine exploded in another tree in a neighboring district, killing a Grozny policeman who was walking past and injuring five others.

Marian Iskhabov, the head receiving nurse, said she records five or six victims of gunfire or mine explosions every day. Many are children, like the 6- and 8- year-old brothers killed by a mine earlier this month. "Our biggest need is that this war is over. We will be able to live," she said. "We just want this to stop."

The daily exchanges of ethnic hatred in the city make it achingly clear, however, that that is not likely to happen any time soon.

Since March, six people have been killed on nearby Akademika Pavlova Street -- all Russians, all at night, all, almost certainly, by rebels.** Natasha Hibulina, 40, who lives there with her husband and 7-year-old son, is a Chechen. But she, too, is terrified, because, desperate for money, she found a job as a secretary in the government pension office.

"They kill Chechens who work with the authorities," she said. "At night it is awful. Sometimes we don't even sleep here -- we go to friends. We don't have any feeling of being protected."

Maisa Algayeva, 41, the director of the nearest school, wants protection, too -- but from the Russians.

The schoolyard is deserted, unkempt and forbidding. The school itself is more than two-thirds rubble. In the remainder, Algayeva and her teachers installed windows, hauled in scrap furniture and, 15 months ago, began classes for 745 students. When planes fly overhead, they have to coax the youngest out from under their desks.

Three times last month, Algayeva said, Russian soldiers broke in, threatening to shoot the school's guard. They smashed doors, locks and desks. The last time, May 20, they took sugar, plates and a brass bell that was rung at school ceremonies.

Outraged, Algayeva said she marched over to the Russian military commandant's office and planted her thin frame in front of him. "If this happens again," she warned, "I myself will start to fight against you."

By Sharon LaFraniere
© 2001 The Washington Post Company

* These are propaganda numbers from a "Just the facts" sheet that Russian embassies and press officers have been distributing around the world for some time. This Soviet-style talk about "5,000 acres planted" , "24 oil fires extinguished" and other beautiful numbers are just plain cynism. One has to remember that the Russian forces have mined almost all arable land in Chechnya and that it was they who set most of the oil wells on fire.

** Why is this so certain? What should "rebels" get out of killing harmless Russian civilians when the city is full of war criminals and occupiers to target? Why are those journalists so gullible when obvious gangsters present them with obvious nonsense? - Norbert Strade