The war in the North Caucasus is about to lose one of its most intrepid front-line reporters as Anne Nivat prepares to end her long residence in Moscow and return to her native France. It is unfortunate that her second book on Chechnya (La guerre qui n’aura pas eu lieu, Editions Fayard, Paris, 2004) is unlikely to be translated into English; it deserves as wide an audience as possible.
Nivat used Moscow as a base for frequent visits to Chechnya—almost always traveling on her own and using her extensive network of Chechen friends and acquaintances rather than placing herself in the hands of the Russian authorities with their tightly controlled, stage-managed tours for journalists. (On one occasion, however, the FSB stumbled across her by accident; she made no attempt to conceal that she was in Chechnya as a journalist.) In 2003, she had to stop wearing the black garments which she had worn in order to blend in as a Chechen woman: suddenly her long black skirt meant risking arrest as a suspected suicide bomber. She quickly found more brightly colored clothes.
In Moscow itself, Nivat has found since the Nord-Ost hostage drama of 2002 that even her cultivated Russian friends are apt to say that there is nothing wrong in killing a Chechen, even a baby, because “as a Chechen he is by definition a terrorist.” She has learned the hard way that “there is no better way to spoil a dinner party in Moscow than to raise this subject….Your interlocutors will immediately make parallels with the Americans in Iraq or with the French in Algeria…in order to emphasize that this war is only a means for Russia to return to the ranks of the great western powers united against global terrorism.”
Even when trying to evaluate the situation according to the Kremlin’s criteria, Nivat finds it impossible to agree that Chechnya is “normalizing”; to her the conflict seems at a standstill militarily, economically and psychologically. (That impression was fortified by a rare visit under the escort of the Russian authorities, during which an officer of the Russian Interior Ministry took her to observe a training session with young troops. One of the 19-year-old recruits started talking to her in English, a language unknown to the Russian officers present; he told her that in fact Chechnya was becoming more and more dangerous for him and his comrades.) But she leaves to others the perhaps hopeless task of devising grand peace initiatives; for the most part her book is a mosaic of stories from individual Chechens, whom she wisely lets speak for themselves.
For example, Nivat learned from a teacher that his school had reopened and that the number of pupils was growing, but that he and his colleagues were receiving no subsidies to buy books, school supplies or even furniture for the classrooms—nothing but their own salaries. A Grozny grandmother told her last year, “In August, it will be exactly four years since this capital, where I have lived for four decades, has been living without drinkable water or electricity. Can one call that ‘normalization’? A group of neighbors barely manages to scrape together enough money to buy electric cables when the money gets confiscated. Is that ‘normalization’?…What’s going on now sadly reminds us of 1937. This is not war, it’s much worse.”
Nivat also provides further evidence of how heavily rigged was the October 2003 presidential election conducted by Chechnya’s pro-Moscow administration under Akhmad Kadyrov (who was assassinated not long after her book went to press earlier this year). A member of the local election commission in the town of Tolstoy Yurt told her how the head of that commission stuffed the ballot boxes for Kadyrov. A head of another local administration revealed that he received a new car in exchange for helping to guarantee a high Kadyrov vote. Like other visiting foreign journalists, Nivat found it ridiculously easy to cast an illegal ballot herself.
The French journalist personally witnessed an unintentionally hilarious scene in late 2002, in which a rebel vehicle with two Russian prisoners of war in the back rendezvoused with a car of the FSB secret police. An FSB officer handed over some money and the two prisoners were transferred to him; clearly he had paid a ransom. The next day, state-controlled Russian television announced the “heroic” rescue of the prisoners.
Nivat is also strong in conveying the sense of cynicism and despair in today’s Chechnya—the pulverizing of all normal human ties and social networks, the latter being especially important in such a tradition-oriented society. It was not unusual for her to find a family with one son working in the pro-Moscow administration, another with the Wahhabi extremists, and a third with Maskhadov.
She has a reporter’s ear for the evocative detail, the personal story that embodies the tragedy of a whole people. She describes how the corrupt authorities in Grozny are dismantling half-ruined apartment buildings in which people are still living in order to sell off their construction materials. She interviews a Chechen who knew the notorious warlord Arbi Baraev, and who confirmed how the latter used to kill Russians and Chechens indiscriminately before he himself was killed. She meets with a Chechen family in Ingushetia, who tell her how Russian agents are monitoring them even within their refugee camp—from which they are now being forced out. She overhears a Russian soldier’s long-distance telephone conversation with his wife, in which he says that the Russian forces will not leave Chechnya until the only Chechens left there are the women. She finds that after the Nord-Ost raid, the bribes required to get through federal checkpoints within Chechnya immediately doubled in size.
One of the book’s most evocative sections is Nivat’s eyewitness account of what it is like to be caught up in one of the federal troops’ zachistka security sweeps. A column of armored vehicles rumbles slowly into the targeted neighborhood, with soldiers leaping out to line up alongside the road. Their assault rifles are leveled are leveled directly at whatever civilians happen to be unlucky enough to be on hand at that moment. A bus full of Chechen civilians stops as soon as its driver spots the approaching Russians. The women passengers let the men get off first so that they will be able to run to hiding places: they are in greater danger of being detained and tortured.
Chechens who are simply trying to survive face agonizing moral dilemmas. Often the only way to secure decent pay is to go to work for the Russians or their puppet government in Grozny, as did one young lawyer who had voted for Maskhadov. When Nivat interviewed him he was looking for a chance to arrange a fictitious marriage with a Russian woman so that he could move to Moscow.
Before 2003, Nivat had never met any of Chechnya’s now-celebrated “black widow” suicide bombers, but after this phenomenon rapidly emerged it became possible for her to meet not only with them (or at least with women who claimed to be preparing for suicide missions) but with surviving relatives of some of the women who had taken part in the Nord-Ost raid. She was shown a letter from one of them, who wrote to the sister of the man whom she had loved (and who had been killed by the pro-Moscow forces), “Tamara, I have left by the will of Allah, you know where….Your brother and I will meet again in Paradise.” Tamara herself told Nivat that “all we want is to be able to live in peace, to wear a head scarf if we choose, to study whatever we want including the Koran, to start families.” Nivat comments that “nothing can stop these young women who share the same despair and absence of fear as they face their own deaths….They want only one thing, to practice freely their religion. People talk about the ‘Palestinization’ of the Chechen conflict, but in Palestine the families of ‘Shahid’ martyrs are proud of their terrorist attacks, while in Chechnya the relatives of female kamikazes live in agony.”
The journalist provides an unusually balanced discussion of Aslan Maskhadov’s relations with the Wahhabi extremists. Even Chechens who support Maskhadov, she notes, consider that one of his greatest mistakes was not to get rid of the Arab warlord Khattab after the first Chechen war. Maskhadov is not a supporter of Wahhabism, her sources tell her, but he has done nothing to prevent it from spreading: it was under his presidency, as Chechnya was enjoying de facto independence in 1999, that about 30 Sharia courts began to operate within the republic. “This minority extremist current is tolerated by the local Chechen authorities,” she writes, “because the separatist rebels and the Islamic fundamentalists are making common cause against ‘the Russian aggressor.’ One proof is the creation in 2002 of a new Military Council, at the heart of was appointed warlord Shamil Basaev, known for his extremist views, as adjunct chief of operations.”
Nevertheless, Nivat finds that the federal forces still fear Maskhadov so much that they take ridiculously clumsy measures to try to undermine his standing. For example, nine deputies of the separatist parliament who, according to Russia’s state-controlled media, had voted in September 2003 to depose Maskhadov, apparently were living together in a Moscow apartment financed by the federal government.
On the other hand, Nivat finds it difficult to believe that the Russian security forces do not really know where the Chechen separatist leaders are hiding. She suggests that perhaps the true reason why most of these leaders remain at large is that too many well-placed Russians and pro-Moscow Chechens find it advantageous to continue enjoying the “filthy profits” which the war has been producing for them.
Perhaps most evocative of all the book’s word pictures are the observations of one of Nivat’s closest Chechen associates, an ex-guerrilla named Islam who now lives in Moscow but still occasionally visits Ingushetia and Chechnya. He had fought hard for the separatist government in the first war, and had often purchased arms from corrupt federal servicemen and transferred them to the rebels. But he painted a picture of a resistance movement slowly being worn down: In the case of his own unit, “out of the 70 guerrillas of the first campaign, hardly one-fourth have agreed to fight this time.”
Islam was invited to join a rebel band using Georgian territory but he refused: in his words, “the time has not yet come for a counter-attack.” He also thought that this band spent too much time in Georgia rather than in Chechnya. He said that he could have joined any of various bands under commanders who are opposed to Maskhadov but as a matter of principle refused to do so: He blames them for the outbreak of the second war. At the end of the first Chechen war he had rejected opportunity to go to Pakistan with Basaev and others for training under Osama Ben Laden. As far as he was concerned, he said, the war was over and the separatists had won.
Now Islam is “conscious of Maskhadov’s weakness.” He told Nivat that all his friends who used to be guerrillas have now become members of the Kadyrov security forces, and are advising him not to return to Chechnya as long as the situation remains tense. “They pretend that they sold themselves to the enemy only for money. I don’t believe them. How can you have confidence in people who have switched sides?” Other guerrillas, he said, have left Chechnya to rest and recover—and have then decided that they don’t want to go back. The new recruits who replace them are often inexperienced in fighting. Islam considers that the war is at an impasse.
After the first war, Islam went to Paris, applied to join the French Foreign Legion and even went through some preliminary training with them: He was attracted to being part of a truly disciplined army after the anarchy of Chechnya. But he was rejected after an interview with two Legion officers who were of Russian origin and who astutely refused to believe him when he falsely told them (following the advice he had received from other Legionnaires) that he had never fought for the separatists.
Islam then went back to Moscow, where he found employment in the shadowy business of debt collection and then of selling stolen cars. All the ethnic Chechens of his acquaintance there, he said, “even those who are best established, at one point or another in their lives have been connected with banditry.” He said that he had not had one day since without being stopped by corrupt policemen. Usually, he said, he could either accompany them to their headquarters for a discussion which might last six hours, or get out of the situation quickly by paying a substantial bribe on the spot. He concluded that Moscow “an inhuman city where it is hard to survive without becoming a criminal.”