The well-known French journalist Anne Nivat, whose book “Chienne de Guerre: A Woman Reporter Behind the Lines of the War in Chechnya” (Public Affairs, 2001), has been translated into seven languages, recently returned from a three-week visit to Chechnya. As is her usual practice, she traveled about the republic, both in the highland regions and in the capital, incognito, eschewing all contact with the Russian authorities. The July 9 issue of the weekly Moskovskie Novosti carried an interview with Nivat conducted by journalist Mikhail Gokhman.
Noting that Nivat had last visited Chechnya “precisely a year ago,” Gokhman asked her what, in her opinion, had changed since that time. “Before making the trip,” Nivat replied, “I myself hoped that there were some changes. Unfortunately, in my view, the situation has not improved.”
Certain improvements, Nivat was prepared to admit, have occurred. In the Chechen capital, for example, a great deal of construction work is taking place, with women often doing plaster and painting work. In addition, she had met some young people who had found employment as traffic policemen or in the local police. The problem in both cases, she pointed out, was that these workers were not being paid.
The reason that Nivat was not prepared to say that any overall improvement had taken place was the worsening security situation for civilians. “There is a constant waiting for cleansing operations. For a long time now there have not been any large-scale military operations, excluding in the south. But cleansing operations [by the Russian forces] can occur at any time in any place. Whether you are sitting at home, traveling about in a car, or walking along a street you can become the victim of a cleansing operation. I met with some refugees who were returning to Grozny. Among them were [ethnic] Russians. I made the acquaintance of one such [Russian] family: a husband, wife and three children. They are young people and they do not want to live any longer with relatives in Stavropol’, so they returned to their home [in Grozny]. More than anything else they fear the cleansing operations.
“Russians residents are afraid of Russian soldiers!?” Gokhman exclaimed. “Of course,” Nivat responded. “The soldiers are indifferent to who it is that is in front of them. Their behavior is completely unpredictable, and anything at all can happen. Previously when the [Chechen] rebels were searching the block looking for this Russian family, they had been defended by their Chechen neighbors. Now there is no one to defend them.”
A year ago, Nivat continued, “there was hope [among the populace] for negotiations.” Now such hope has been abandoned. As for the Russian military, they appear mainly interested in extracting the maximum amount of money out of their stay in Chechnya. On one occasion, she overheard three Russian soldiers and officers calling home on the telephone: “Did you get the money?” they asked their families. “Wait, soon there will be more. I am standing here on a street paved with gold.”
Nivat noted that General Moltenskoi’s oft-cited Order No. 80 is nowhere being observed. “Although there is a regulation that during cleansing operations soldiers and officers must not wear masks and must identify themselves, this is nowhere being carried out. I was in Mesker-Yurt two days after the village was opened following twenty-two days of cleansing. Who was doing the cleansing? People in masks who refused even to admit Kadyrov himself into the village. The people in masks spat on the fact that he was a representative of the Kremlin. They themselves said that they submit to only one man–Putin.”
(In an essay appearing in the July 11 issue of Le Nouvel Observateur entitled “The Massacres of Mesker-Yurt,” Nivat reported that after Kadyrov had failed to gain entrance into the village, the elected deputy to the State Duma from Chechnya, retired MVD General Aslambek Aslakhanov, “took a turn at trying to force the blockade. On foot, walking through the fields, he managed with great difficulty to enter the village. Four days later, the cleansing operation ended, leaving behind forty persons who had disappeared without trace.”)
Concerning what happened in Mesker-Yurt, Nivat said: “I cannot even describe what I saw in that village. People were in a state of terror–worse than terror. I spoke with one woman who had lost her three sons: ages 11, 13 and 15. The soldiers carried them off. She found their dead bodies lying in pits in the fields near Mesker-Yurt. The poor residents are in horror, they are afraid to speak–these are deeply frightened people. The soldiers in masks promised to come back in ten days’ time.”
At the checkpoints, Russian soldiers, as before, continue to demand money. “They either demand money or Form No. 10, which means ten rubles…. But very often they ask for Form No. 50 or Form No. 100, if, for example, you are driving a truck.”
During her three weeks in Chechnya, Nivat said, she did not meet a single foreign or Russian correspondent. Russian journalists, she observed, normally “sit in Mozdok [military base in North Ossetia] or Khankala [the chief military base in Chechnya] under the control of the army.” That she was not exaggerating the situation of most journalists was recently confirmed in a report by Anna Badkhen of the San Francisco Chronicle (July 7 issue) who participated in a guided tour conducted by the Russian military and security officials to the Chechen capital. “The Russians,” Badkhen noted, “maintain that there is no curfew, but signs on fortified checkpoints scattered around the devastated city suggest otherwise: ‘Do not Pass after 9 p.m. You will be shot.'” “At the end of our three-day tour,” she added, “the foreign reporters clearly heard bombardment, this time coming from the southern part of Grozny. Target practice, a journalist [sarcastically] asked security agent Vitaly? ‘OK,’ he conceded. ‘It’s a war.'”
Despite all the horrors she witnessed during her three-week visit to Chechnya, Nivat insists, as she did earlier in her book, that Russians and Chechens can still live together. “There is not a single person,” she told Mikhail Gokhman, “who did not understand that Chechnya cannot live without Russia. Now it is time to think of how to live together.”
To conclude, it was good once again to hear the honest voice of this intrepid French journalist concerning what ordinary Chechen men and women who live today in the Chechen Republic are thinking and saying.