The no. 16 (March 5-11) issue of the weekly Novaya Gazeta contains a piece by the well-known war correspondent Anna Politkovskaya concerning conversations she had with three eighteen-year-old soldiers who had sought her out in mid-February while she was momentarily alone at a paratroop base on the outskirts of Khatuni in Vedeno District. Explaining their motivation for talking to her, one of the soldiers said: “Young people should know what awaits them [when they are drafted into the military]…. And their mothers should know too.” “Why,” Politkovskaya asked the first soldier, “do [Russian] officers and sergeants fear that the soldiers want to shoot them?” “Because,” he replied, “they know that they deserve it. They mock us incessantly. For a mistake or simply because they’re in a bad mood…. I myself have had to say to them a couple of times: ‘Listen, you reptile, if I meet you in civilian life, I’ll kill you.’ And other lads have spoken like that to their commanders.” Most of the officers, he added, bear such threats in silence.
A second eighteen-year-old related that he had been sent into combat without having being trained in the use of a Kalashnikov. “You should have refused to go into battle [without having been trained],” Politkovskaya told him. “If I had refused,” the soldier responded, “they would have killed me, allegedly during an attempt to desert from the army…. A soldier can demand nothing in an army, all the more so since the officers are insane and bitter–they’ve seen a lot of blood and had to bury their comrades.” Young conscripts, he confided, are sent out into the mountains in front of their fellow soldiers in human “chains” to see whether they step on any mines. “We are fodder here,” he commented, “only fodder. The officers want to survive. They believe that our purpose is to ensure their survival…. One fellow in our chain perished when he stopped in terror [fearing to step on a mine] and could not go further; it was as if he were in a stupor…. They shot him through the heart…. The bullet came from behind, from his own people.”
The third young man Politkovskaya spoke with described the “total hazing” taking place in military units based in Chechnya. “It’s like a [prison] zone,” he said, “You have to have ‘your own’ people…. Then you will survive and get home alive.” “Everything here is broken down into groups of three and four [soldiers]. If you’re not with someone, then they’ll hammer you…. The army is a prison.”