Anne Nivat, a young French journalist, has published a remarkable eyewitness account, running to nearly 300 pages, on the subject of the current “second” war in Chechnya (Chienne de Guerre, Paris, Fayard, 2000). Few Western or Russian journalists have had the temerity to cover the Chechen side of this bloody conflict, and with good reason. Not only must he or she brave frequent Russian bomb and missile strikes upon Chechen towns, villages and roads, but he or she also must face a realistic threat of being kidnapped by criminalized elements among the Chechens, especially by the so-called Wahhabis. It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that Nivat has apparently written the only book to date on the Chechen dimension of a vicious war.
Between September 1999 and February 2000, Nivat, a correspondent for the French newspapers Liberation and Ouest-France, made a number of risky visits to Chechnya. Her aim was a straightforward one: to serve as an eyewitness. It is noteworthy that she attempted to gain official accreditation as a war correspondent from the Russian military press center, located in Mozdok, North Osetiya. However, Stanislav Firsov, head of the press center, brusquely turned down her request, remarking: “You are a foreigner, and not a single foreigner has yet been accredited. The men from the FSB have to know who is working in this zone.” Eschewing the “Intourist-style” trips to the war zone organized by the Russian authorities, Nivat then took a decision to travel to Chechnya alone, with the aid of a Chechen guide, Islam, age 24.
The chief value of Nivat’s book lies in her frequent contact and lengthy conversations with a large number of Chechens, especially women and young girls, whose existence she shared under harrowing circumstances. On one occasion, she endures a heavy Russian bombardment together with twenty Chechens, including five small children, in a cramped, suffocating cellar seventeen square meters in size. Often she has to sleep on a floor surrounded by large Chechen families, their relatives and friends, and strangers like herself seeking a refuge. She passes through a Russian checkpoint in a car driven by a Chechen or, dressed as a peasant woman, on a crowded bus.
One recurrent theme in Nivat’s book is the animosity felt by ordinary Sufi Chechens (that is, by adherents of the traditional Chechen Muslim tariqats, or brotherhoods) toward the Wahhabis (an extremist religio-political tendency brought into Chechnya at the time of the 1994-1996 war). Many of the Sufis believe that the Wahhabis and the Russians together represent the cause of their afflictions. One female Chechen fighter, Raisa, age 21, a Sufi, tells Nivat that after the Russians have been driven out of the republic, a new conflict is inevitable with the Wahhabis, a conflict which the Sufis will ultimately win.
On one occasion, Nivat and her guide, Islam, visit an isolated Wahhabi camp under the command of a well-known leader Akhmed Akhmadov located in the mountains. These Wahhabis are described by Nivat as Muslim fundamentalists who strictly observe the fast of Ramadan, pass around bilingual Arabic-Russian handbooks on Islam, and treasure videocassetes of pilgrimages to Mecca. One Saudi, who speaks only a few words of Russian, is present with them. Unlike the Chechen Sufis, the Wahhabis are said to be inhospitable to strangers and, to Nivat’s discomfort, they exhibit a contemptuous attitude toward women. After she leaves the camp, Nivat is informed by her guide that the Wahhabis had wanted to prevent her from leaving the camp so that she could serve them as a cook. Islam told them that she was a poor cook, but Nivat believes that it was his ties to a major Chechen clan which kept them from kidnapping her. (She notes that Akhmadov himself is suspected of having organized a large number of kidnappings.)
Earlier Nivat was able to conduct an interview with the shadowy Arab field commander Khattab. Nivat comments that “no-one truly knows who he is,” not even whether he is a Jordanian or a Saudi. Khattab is described as speaking awkward but “perfectly comprehensible” Russian. Khattab, the best-known Wahhabi fighting in Chechnya, exhibits the same religio-political fanaticism, belligerent hatred for Russians, and contemptuous opinion of women characteristic of the Akhmadov unit in the mountains. (It should be noted that, in early August, two Russian weeklies reported that sources in the GRU had accused the FSB of maintaining very close ties with and providing FSB identification papers for Akhmed Akhmadov and his brother which permitted them without hindrance to pass through Russian military checkpoints [Obshchaya gazeta, August 3, and Moskovskie nostosti, August 8].)
The Sufi Chechen separatists (a weighty majority of those fighting the Russians) are shown by Nivat in a considerably more positive light. Unlike the Wahhabis, who come across as enserfed to a blinkered and narrow ideology, the Sufis exhibit a detached, balanced, and realistic view of their Russian adversary and are in no sense Russophobes. One field commander, Ruslan, age 40, even confides to her: “I would have liked to have remained loyal to Russia. I studied there, I lived there, my wife is Russian.” Such sentiments are shown as not uncommon among Sufis combating the Russian forces.
Nivat has an opportinity to interview President Aslan Maskhadov, a leading Chechen Sufi, who underlines that he is more than prepared to work together “with a great country like Russia.” “I told President Yeltsin,” he recalls, “that I am prepared to defend the interests of Russia in the Caucasus.” The principal reason that he was unable to introduce order into Chechnya after 1997, he remarks, was that he could not trust Russia’s intentions. The Russians seemed to want to foster a civil war in Chechnya, and he had to do everything possible to prevent it.
The overall impression that one gains from Nivat’s book is of all-pervasive, wanton destruction. Civilian homes and farms and crowded hospitals are struck by Russian warplanes and by massed artillery fire. Nivat views the ruins of the city of Urus-Martan shortly after it has been devastated. On another occasion, she emerges from a cellar to see that a Russian rocket has struck a nearby farmhouse. A family of eight has been killed, including four children.
Another central theme of Nivat’s book is the enormous refugee crisis generated by the war. Nivat spends a great deal of time with Chechen refugees huddled in Ingushetia, a small autonomous republic bursting to the seams with Chechen refugees. Virtually all of these refugees are suffering from trauma. Some of the most affecting pages in Nivat’s book are her conversations with doctors, both Chechen and Russian. A Russian psychiatrist, Neila Kornienko, age 42, tells her that 99 percent of the citizens of Chechnya are suffering from grave trauma. Among men, this often manifests itself in aggression and schizophrenia. In women, it frequently results in “profound depression.”
The Russian soldiers that Nivat has occasion to view in the market places of towns which have not yet been destroyed are also shown to be in wretched psychological condition, as they desperately seek to purchase vodka and even narcotics so that they can forget, for a time, what they are doing and seeing. Even the Chechens are on occasion moved to pity for these suffering young Russians.
Yet other Russian soldiers are shown to have themselves become criminals. For example one unit is reported to have kidnapped fifty-four persons, men and women, from the town of Starye Atagi. Through intermediaries, they then offer to sell the hostages back to their families and relatives at a thousand rubles apiece.
Anne Nivat’s Chienne de Guerre is a remarkable book which can be read with significant profit by all of those interested in the current Russo-Chechen war.