Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 18

By Ilias Bogatyrev

The flow of humanity leaving Chechnya looks like mass flight. An almost constant stream of people in cars and on foot flows along the Caucasian highway linking the republic with Ingushetia. Even according to the artificially low official statistics from the Federal Migration Service, 168,000 people–one quarter of the population–have already left the republic. Many have gathered in those regions bordering on Ingushetia which have not yet been subjected to bombardment, hoping to cross the border at the first sign of danger. In the villages of Samashki and Asinovskaya, for example, refugees are living in the school, the hospital and with almost every local family. The main reason for this mass exodus is that, just as in 1994-96 campaign, the federal troops are killing not the paramilitaries but civilians. What is more, unlike the last campaign, the civilian population has decided not to wait to see how events unfold, but has begun leaving the republic immediately. “We could see straight away that just as in the last war, it’s the civilians rather than the paramilitaries who are going to suffer at the hands of the federal troops,” a refugee from Djohar, Ayub Magomedov, told Prism. “You can see for yourself: None of the strategic and military objects have been touched, but civilian houses are being subjected to aerial bombardment.”

Indeed, Prism’s correspondent saw that fuel stocks which the Russian authorities claimed had been destroyed had hardly suffered in the Russian air raids; there is no fuel problem in Chechnya. Neither have the arms depots situated all over the republic been destroyed. To be fair, it should be noted that at the start of the campaign the Russian air force did indeed attempt pinpoint strikes, but after the Chechens managed to hit two aircraft, the bombers began flying very high and accuracy was greatly reduced. Today the only noticeable difference from the last campaign is that the Kremlin is using state-of-the-art technology more intensively. Around the village of Bamut, for example, which the Chechens have turned into a military base, Prism’s correspondent saw the remains of ground-to-ground missiles.

The first impression in the Chechen capital of Djohar is that the city is practically unchanged since the war. The ruined buildings are still there, but in contrast to them traffic is busy and a large number of shops and markets are standing and open. However, the standard of living has substantially declined over the last few years. For example, a large number of poor elderly Chechen men and women have appeared in the city (a previously unthinkable phenomenon for Chechen society). The Slav population has also almost entirely abandoned it. Compared with 1996, the number of armed civilians has noticeably declined: Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov’s decree banning civilians from carrying weapons is being implemented, at least in the capital.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Chechnya is the great tension among the population. As soon as they see a journalist, people quickly crowd round him and begin relating their troubles. Almost everyone is convinced that the hostage-taking and Chechen raids on territories bordering on Chechnya are deliberately inspired by the Kremlin as a way of providing an excuse for exacting revenge for the military defeat last time round. “When Russian television shows how badly the hostages are treated, we are no less outraged than the Russians. But, believe me, there are degenerates in every race, and the Russian special forces are behind all these kidnappings–it is in their interests to turn the international community against the Chechens, and to organize an information blockade of our republic.” This viewpoint is common among the local people. “Whether we went into Dagestan or not, the Kremlin would have attacked Chechnya sooner or later regardless,” the field commander Shirvani Basaev (brother of Shamil) told me. “Moscow was only waiting for a good opportunity to intervene, and eventually it presented itself. We saw this coming, and began preparing for another war as soon as the Khasavyurt treaty was signed.”

As for Shamil Basaev himself, the attitude towards him in Chechnya is rather ambiguous. Many consider him an agent of Moscow, helping Russia start a new war against the Chechens. Basically, the whole of Chechnya today is divided into the spheres of influence of the feuding field commanders. Western Chechnya is controlled by the Bamut group, for example, central Chechnya by the republic’s president Aslan Maskhadov, and the south east by the Basaev brothers, while the regions bordering Dagestan are the patrimony of both Khattab and, in part, Salman Raduev. Today there are about 1,500 soldiers in Chechnya’s official armed forces under Maskhadov; Khattab and Basaev have about 800 paramilitaries each, and Raduev has about 500. However, these figures are rather provisional, because they only include those who are mobilized now. Almost the entire male population of Chechnya owns weapons, and in a crisis the size of the units of each of the above-named field commanders could grow to number several thousand. The mutual antagonism is so great that the paramilitaries in each group can move without fear only around their own territories. By way of illustration, each group offered me protection on their own territory only, and when I crossed the borders into another “zone of influence”, they handed me over to the other field commander’s men in exchange for a signed receipt.

Sending Russian troops into Chechnya, however, is likely to reunite the Chechens into a single force, as happened during the 1994-96 campaign. “Our previous differences with Khattab, Basaev and the Wahhabites no longer matter. We now have a common cause–to repel the Russian intervention. After that, when we have destroyed the Russians, we will sort out our own differences,” Magomet Khambiev, Chechnya’s defense minister, told Prism.

Khambiev has no doubt that the Chechens will secure a military victory over the federal troops. “The federal forces are already suffering huge losses. We have already shot down two of their aircraft, and taken more than fifty Russian soldiers prisoner. But this is only the beginning. We are looking forward to the Russians entering deeper into Chechnya and storming Djohar. In the highlands and in the towns the Russian army is powerless in comparison with us,” says Khambiev. “Moscow will face an even more crushing defeat than last time.”


Ilias Bogatyrev is a correspondent for the Russian television company Vzglyad.