The battle for the soul of Chechnya
With separatist rebels embracing radical Islam, the
republic's Moscow-backed president is busy promoting a
Sufi revival, finds Tom Parfitt in Khadzi Aul
Tom Parfitt in Khadzhi Aul
Thursday November 22, 2007
High on a hillside in eastern Chechnya, a new mosque
rises serenely in a grove of pear trees, its freshly
painted walls dappled with sunlight. In a cemetery
nearby, workmen have just finished repairing the white
cupola that stands over a simple tomb draped in green
"With Allah's help and the support of our president,
we are putting this sacred place in order," said
Magomed Daskayev, a stout man in a green tunic who is
imam of the local village, Khadzhi Aul.
This ziyarat on the Ertan ridge, an hour's drive from
Grozny, is one of the most hallowed spots of
traditional Chechen Islam: the final resting place of
the mother of Kunta Khadzhi Kishiev, a shepherd who
became a Sufi sheikh.
The new mosque will provide accommodation for a stream
of visiting pilgrims. And its construction is a potent
symbol of the Sufi revival that is sweeping Chechnya
under its impulsive, 31-year-old president, Ramzan
Kadyrov. The renaissance comes as the last 700-odd
rebels fighting Mr Kadyrov's pro-Moscow administration
have lurched toward radical Islam.
Earlier this month the rebel leader, Doku Umarov,
announced he was extended his movement's battle
against Russian-backed security forces to include a
wider "holy war" against the US, Britain, and Israel.
"All those waging war against Islam and Muslims are
our enemies," he said.
In proclaiming jihad, Mr Umarov marked a final break
with the separatists' aims in the 1990s, when they
gained international sympathy in their attempt to
break away from Russia.
Chechnya's rebels started out as a largely secular
force, led by the dapper former Russian air force
general Dzhokhar Dudayev, who sported a pressed
uniform and a neatly clipped moustache; now their main
commanders are fundamentalists with ties in the Middle
East who want to carve out an Islamic caliphate across
Russia's North Caucasus region.
Moderates such as Akhmed Zakayev, the Chechen
separatist envoy who lives in London, have been
rapidly sidelined. The transformation in the rebel
movement has allowed Mr Kadyrov and his pro-Kremlin
allies to assume the mantle of moderate Islam by
practising Sufism, a mystic form of the religion that
emphasises a personal union with God.
The president's fighters, the Kadyrovtsi, who have a
reputation for brutality, have stamped out most of the
rebels, ushering in a shaky peace in Chechnya after
more than a decade of war. Across the republic, new
mosques are being constructed as part of a wider
"The Wahhabis offer nothing but death and
destruction," said Sultan Mirzayev, mufti of Chechnya
and a close ally of Mr Kadyrov, in an interview at his
offices in Grozny. "We want to revive our homeland and
give its people hope."
Sufism has been the dominant form of Islam in Chechnya
for almost two centuries but was forced underground in
During the 19th century, its followers, called murids,
drew strength from their belief as they battled the
soldiers of the invading Russian empire.
Imam Shamil, the legendary leader of the resistance,
who fended off tsarist advances from his mountain
stronghold for over 20 years, was a member of the
Naqshabandi Sufi order.
And when Russian troops attacked breakaway Chechnya in
the early 1990s, separatist fighters were often seen
performing the stirring ritual the zikr, during which
murids dance in a circle while crying hypnotic chants.
But these Sufi forces were later slowly replaced by
radical militants who despised their devotion to
saints and dervishes.
Today, it is not independence fighters who are leading
the Sufi revival but rather the supporters of Mr
Kadyrov, who has strong backing from the Russian
president, Vladimir Putin.
Mr Kadyrov, a murid of the Qadiri order, holds a zikr
at his home every Thursday evening in honour of his
father, who was assassinated in 2004. Vakhit Akayev,
an expert on Sufism at Grozny State University, said
it was not so strange that the pro-Moscow
administration was now championing Sufism.
"Even the great Imam Shamil in the end gave himself up
and lived in comfort at the tsar's court in St
Petersburg," he said. Central to the revival of Sufism
is the construction of a huge, multimillion-dollar
mosque in Grozny named after Mr Kadyrov's father,
Akhmad, which will be the biggest in Europe after it
is completed next year.
The building's four 50 metre-high, fluted minarets and
main chamber are already an impressive landmark at the
end of the city's central Prospekt Pobedy. Turkish
workers climb over its multiple domes, dressing walls
with marble facade.
"Only positive energy flows from a mosque," said
Magomed Abdurakhmanov, 32, an official from the
mufti's administration, as he gave the Guardian a tour
of the construction site. "This building will radiate
goodness across Chechnya."
When finished, it will accommodate 10,000 worshippers;
an Islamic school and a new residence for the mufti
are being constructed next door. It is hoped the
mosque will encourage a new generation of believers to
rediscover their traditional faith. But the battle for
the soul of Chechnya is still far from over. The
militants remain a dangerous force, and have vowed to
kill "the puppet Kadyrov".
One government official admits they are skilled at
luring recruits into the hills. "Their promises of a
glorious death and passage to paradise can be very
attractive to disillusioned young people," he said.
No quiet on the Chechen front
Arkady Babchenko tells Meg Clothier how writing about
his time as a Russian soldier in Chechnya helped him
cope with harrowing memories
Wednesday November 21, 2007
Arkady Babchenko didn't write about fighting in
Chechnya to make his name as an author, nor to mount a
political attack against Russia's rulers. He wrote to
Sitting in a swanky London member's club, he seems
perfectly at ease, and as comfortable in conversation
as you'd expect a successful print and TV journalist
to be. He pops out for a cigarette, but there is no
anxious chaining and he drinks only one small beer as
we talk. His fingernails are unchewed. But his settled
demeanour is clearly something he's had to struggle
for after leaving military service.
"Writing was the only thing that helped," he says of
the months following his demob. "If I hadn't started
writing, I might have lost myself to drink. It was the
only real cure. When a person comes back from war,
from prison, from any extreme situation, he has to get
it out from inside himself. The whole horrific
experience - he needs to vent it.
"In Moscow people didn't want to know. So I started to
What poured out of him - at night, at work, on the
metro - is an unflinchingly un-macho record. No
comforting heroes or villains; no familiar arc of
near-defeat and triumph-against-the-odds. Instead
Babchenko presents us with a relentless account of
fear, boredom, confusion, filth, cold, disease,
hunger, thirst and lingering dread - a world that
feels far removed from the gold-embossed bestselling
accounts of square-jawed British or American
"I never thought it would be published," he admits.
"It's all notes, a rough draft. I didn't think how to
make it beautiful to read. I didn't think about how I
was writing. I just wrote how I wanted to write."
These notes became One Soldier's War in Chechnya, his
memoir of the Chechen conflict which was published in
the UK earlier this month by Portobello Books
(translated by Nick Allen). As a book, it not only
tallies with growing western dismay about life in
Russia, but has also earned Babchenko critical
comparisons with Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and
Tolstoy's early stories about Russia's 19th century
Babchenko's background is Muscovite "working
intelligentsia": only child, mother a teacher, father
an engineer. They were poor, but so was nearly
everyone, especially people who relied on the
disintegrating state for their pay packets. He was a
normal teenager (if there is such a thing) who liked
normal teenage things. But he also loved books: his
favourite subject was war and his favourite book was
Erich Paul Remark's All Quiet on the Western Front.
In the 1990s every young man in Russia potentially
faced two years' military service (since cut to one).
Babchenko hit conscript age when Mother Russia, in the
guise of Boris Yeltsin, was sending her sons south to
try to prevent Chechen secession. He did not need to
go: he was at university, which buys time; and if time
isn't enough a bribe can usually buy exemption.
"But I didn't want to defer," he says. "I can't
remember why ... youthful romantika maybe. Or maybe
I'd read too much Remark. Of course I'd just as
happily not have served. But at the end of the day
it's humiliating to get out of it."
The Russian army is a dangerous place, even in peace,
even miles from the enemy. One Soldier's War is
probably at its most disturbing - and most powerful -
when Babchenko describes the younger soldiers cowering
in fear of the older men. Drunk, seemingly deranged
bullies drag them out of bed, half-kill them, threaten
to rape them and then beat them all over again for
daring to have black eyes.
But almost as shocking is the inability of Russia to
provide even the basics for its soldiers. Babchenko
describes soldiers grazing on berries "like moose" or
drinking water tainted with rotting human flesh. A
soldier, he believes, has the best chance of survival
when he no longer cares whether he lives or dies. "If
you think 'a year after the war I'll become a writer',
then fate will get you - kill you. Fate is a very
subtle, a very sensitive system. You need to be as
imperceptible as possible. Then maybe it won't touch
The stickiest question is why, after eluding fate
during the first war, Babchenko went back -
voluntarily - for the second.
In 1996 Moscow signed a truce with the rebels, which
postponed a final decision on Chechnya's status and
left it to continue its metamorphosis into a
quasi-independent bandit state. Three years later,
however, the newly appointed prime minister, Vladimir
Putin, ordered the troops back in, saying he needed to
stop Islamic terrorism spilling beyond Chechnya's
borders. Babchenko believes his real aim was to cement
himself in power.
"The second Chechen war began. The way it drew me back
was unbearable. Only my body had come back from the
first war. My mind stayed there. My body walked around
and looked at this world without understanding it. And
seeing as the world didn't accept my body, it returned
to where my mind was," he explains. "There was no
question whether to go or not to go."
Again he survived. But it seems his greatest piece of
luck the second time was to find a way to return home
fully - body and soul. For like any addict, Babchenko
said, he had to find a way to recover from "adrenaline
"There's nothing like the density of life in wartime.
In an hour you go through so many events, so many
life-important events. There's only life or death.
Survival - that's the only thing in front of you.
Nothing else has any meaning ... life loses its
flavour, it becomes boring. And you somehow need to
drag yourself back up again. Many people drink, take
drugs ... people can only live on the brink."
Babchenko had two crucial routes back: his family and
his work as a journalist. "I was lucky to get a hold
back on life," he says, "And now I have something to
But even if he can be optimistic for himself, he is
pessimistic about Russia. Critics here may value his
book, but he is blunt about his chances of it
influencing people at home.
"In Russia the book has already been out two years. No
effect. No response. Society in Russia at the moment
is extremely indifferent, totally unconcerned about
Even Anna Politkovskaya, well known in the west as a
campaigning journalist until her ugly murder last
year, means very little to Russians.
"She wrote for years, uncovering the sort of crimes
that in any normal country would have forced the
government to resign - and landed them in court. But
we still have them. She wrote and wrote. And what
changed? Nothing. Nothing changed."
Nevertheless, Babchenko will continue, as journalist
and author, to speak: "That's what I wanted to say: 'I
exist. I was in this war. And this is what I saw.'"
The savagery of war: A soldier looks back at Chechnya
The war in Chechnya was one of the most brutal and
senseless conflicts of modern times. Here, in an
extraordinary piece of reportage, one young soldier
provides an unsparing and sometimes disturbing account
of life at the frontline
Published: 10 November 2007
An extract from 'One Soldier's War in Chechnya' by
Listen, are the Chechens our enemies or not?" Osipov
"No, we aren't fighting the Chechens but rather the
so-called illegal armed formations," Zyuzik answers.
"But what are they then, Chechens or not?"
"So we're fighting the Chechens," Andy concludes. "And
what do they want?"
"So why can't we give them independence?"
"Because it says in the Constitution that no one can
just go and break away from Russia just for the
asking," all-knowing Zyuzik explains.
"What I don't get is this: are Chechens citizens of
Russia or enemies of Russia? If they are enemies then
we should stop messing around and just kill the lot of
them. But if they are citizens, then how can we fight
He gives us another triumphant look and no one
challenges him. This sort of conversation is typical
for the army. No one, from the regimental commander to
the rank and file soldier, understands why he is here.
No one sees any sense in this war; all they see is
that this war has been bought off from start to
finish. It has been waged incompetently from the very
beginning, and all those mistakes by the general
staff, the defence minister and the supreme command
have to be paid for with the lives of soldiers. For
what purpose are these lives being laid down? The
"restoration of constitutional order" and the
"counterterrorist operation" are nothing but
meaningless words that are cited to justify the murder
of thousands of people.
"Zyuzik, are you prepared to kill children for the
constitution of your country?"
"If the war isn't going to end, then what are we
fighting for? Why kill so that there is even more
killing? Who can explain that to me?" Osipov demands.
"'Amen," says Loop.
But how really to explain? It would be wrong to think
that the war in Chechnya began the day the federal
army was brought in. And there was certainly more than
one motivation behind it. Chechnya is a complex tangle
of factors and accidents, a whirlwind of events that
the future historian will have difficulty sorting out.
The Chechnya conflict started in the early 1990s, soon
after General Dzhokhar Dudayev came to power. He had
been a pilot in the Soviet air force and fought in the
Soviet-Afghan war. From the outset he followed the
policy of political independence for Chechnya, and
ultimately declared its cession from the Russian
In 1991 Dudayev expelled Russian army forces from the
territory of Chechnya. When the army withdrew, a huge
amount of ammunition was left behind. More than 200
aeroplanes were abandoned in the airport of Grozny
alone, together with tanks, armoured carriers,
artillery and even several "Grad" rocket launchers.
The amount of weaponry was astounding whole
ammunition depots, thousands of units, were left
Growing gangsterism and unemployment undermined
Dudayev's authority and caused a split among the
population. In November 1994, pro-Moscow opposition
forces led by Umar Avturkhanov stormed Grozny and were
defeated. Twenty Russian tanks were destroyed together
with their crews, and the few surviving tankmen were
captured. Moscow renounced them President Boris
Yeltsin couldn't have cared less about individuals,
but he was infuriated that General Dudayev had acted
beyond his authority. In my opinion this was the real
reason federal forces were sent into Chechnya.
The military operation to overthrow the Dudayev regime
was launched on 11 December 1994. It was poorly
planned recall the then Minister of Defence General
Grachyov's announcement that he would "capture Grozny
with two regiments in two hours". From the outset, the
army was betrayed by the high command. Its soldiers
were insufficiently trained, depressed and
demoralised; they did not understand the aims of this
war, and they were treated as cannon fodder.
That December in Grozny the Russian army bore huge
losses. On New Year's Eve, the 131st Maikop brigade
was almost completely wiped out. Various other units
approaching the city from different directions were
blocked and partially destroyed.
People were killed in their thousands. To this day
there are no official statistics for casualties in the
first Chechnya campaign. Under the current Russian
government we'll never know them anyway because they
are catastrophic. But according to unofficial
information, in January alone almost 5,000 Russian
officers and soldiers were killed in the Battle of
The Chechen losses, not to mention the deaths among
the civilian population, are not known and probably
never will be no one counted them at all.
I was drafted into the army as a second-year law
student in November 1995. I spent six months in a
training unit in the Urals, and in May 1996 I was
transported to the Northern Caucasus together with
1,500 other conscripts. First I served at the
frontline town of Mozdok, on the border with Chechnya,
and then in Chechnya itself. Officially a truce had
been signed by then, but shooting was going on all the
time. On 6 August 1996, Chechen fighters captured
Grozny and held the city for two weeks. This was the
second-heaviest battle, and it ended in yet another
truce and the signing of the Khasavyurt Accords, by
which Chechnya practically received independence
within the Russian Federation.
After Dudayev's death in April 1996, Aslan Maskhadov
was elected president of Chechnya. Maskhadov was a
reasonable and even-tempered man, and had been Chief
of GHQ under Dudayev, but his position was not secure;
his army consisted of only 2,000 men, and he was
therefore powerless as president. In reality Chechnya
was controlled by field commanders of fighters' units
such as Ruslan Gelayev, Shamil Basayev, Arbi Barayev
and the Jordanian Khattab, to name but a few.
Lawlessness reigned supreme, and people were kidnapped
all the time. In the People's Friendship Square in the
centre of Grozny, there was a flourishing and
perfectly open slave trade. According to official
data, during the three years of Chechnya's
"independence" almost 30,000 people were kidnapped,
sold into slavery or executed in Chechnya.
After the demobilisation, I completed the remaining
two years at the Law Institute and graduated with a
bachelor's degree. It was the autumn of 1999, and the
second Chechen campaign was just beginning.
This time I volunteered to take part in the war. There
were many thousands of us, ex-soldiers, who returned
to that second war after the first. I have no answer
to why I went there again. I don't know. I just
couldn't help it. I was irresistibly drawn back. Maybe
it was because my past was there, a large part of my
life. It was as if only my body had returned from that
first war, but not my soul. Maybe war is the strongest
narcotic in the world.
The second war was quite different from the first. For
Chechnya, the first had been a war of liberation, a
war for independence when the people were united and
inspired; in the second it was not the Chechens we
fought, but the rebel bands. By then the Chechens were
tired of lawlessness and dislocation. The second war
was even more incomprehensible and dirty than the
Strictly speaking, there is no dedovshchina bullying
in our regiment. Dedovshchina is a set of unofficial
rules, a kind of a code of laws which, if violated,
incur corporal punishment.
For example, your walk. Your walk is determined by the
amount of time you have served. The "spirits", those
who have just been called up, are not supposed to walk
at all, they are supposed to "flit" or " rustle".
Those in their second six months the "skulls" or
"bishops" are entitled to a more relaxed mode of
walking but their gait is supposed to reflect humility
none the less.
Only the "lords", who are about to be demobilised, can
walk with a special swagger that is allowed to the
older recruits alone; a leisurely pace, their heels
scraping the floor. If I had even thought about
walking like that in training I'd immediately have
been showered with punches. " Up for demob now, are
you?" they'd have asked, and then they'd have given me
hell. If I stuck my hands in my pockets I'd also get a
thump on the head: that is the privilege of the older
soldiers. A spirit should forget about his pockets
entirely. Otherwise they fill them with sand and sew
them up. The sand chafes the groin and two days later
you have weeping sores.
You can get a beating for anything at all. If a spirit
doesn't show respect in his conversation with an older
soldier, a "Granddad", he'll get beaten up. If he
talks too loudly or goes about the barracks clattering
his heels, he'll get beaten up. If he lies on his bed
in the day, he'll get beaten up. If the people back
home send him good rubber slippers and he decides to
wear them to the shower, he'll get beaten up and lose
And if a spirit even thinks of turning down the tops
of his boots or walking around with his top button
undone, or if his cap is tipped back on his head or to
one side, or he doesn't do his belt up tightly enough,
they'll thrash him so hard he'll forget his name. He
is a spirit, the lowest dregs, and it's his job to
slave until the older soldiers have been discharged.
But there is none of this in our regiment. All of that
stuff the unbuttoned tunics, the belt and the walk
is just child's play. It's the big league here. I can
walk how I like and wear what I like and it doesn't
bother anyone. No, here they beat us for completely
different reasons. Our older conscripts have already
killed people and buried their comrades and they don't
believe they'll survive this war themselves. To them,
beatings are just the norm: no excuse is needed.
Everyone is going to die anyway, both those doing the
beating and their victims. So what's the big deal?
Everybody beats everyone. The dembels, with three
months service to go, the officers, the warrant
officers. They get stinking drunk and then hammer the
ones below them. So the colonels beat the majors, the
majors beat the lieutenants, and they all beat the
privates; and granddads beat new recruits. No one
talks to each other like human beings, they just smack
each other in the mouth. Because it's easier that way,
quicker and simpler to understand. Because there are
unfed children back home, because the officer corps is
addled with impoverishment and hopelessness, because a
dembel has three months left, because every second man
is shell-shocked. Because our Motherland makes us kill
people, our own people, who speak Russian, and we have
to shoot them in the head and send their brains flying
up the walls, crush them with tanks and tear them to
pieces. Because these people want to kill you, because
your soldiers arrived yesterday straight from training
and today they are already lying on the airstrip as
lumps of charred flesh, and flies lay eggs in their
open eyes, and because in a day the company is reduced
to less than a third, and God willing, you'll stay
among that third. Because the one thing that everyone
knows is how to get drunk and kill, kill and kill some
Because a soldier is a stinking wretch, and a spirit
doesn't have any right to live at all, and to beat him
is to actually do him a favour. "I'll teach you what
war is about, you pricks! You can all have a smack in
the mouth so you don't think life is too rosy, and
thank your mother that she didn't have you six months
earlier or you'd all be dead now!"
Everyone hates everyone else in this regiment the
hatred and madness hang over the square like a foul
black cloud, and this cloud saturates the young boys
with fear, just like pieces of barbecue meat being
marinated in lemon juice, only they get stewed in fear
and hatred before they get sent off to the
It is August 1996, and in Grozny it's hell on earth.
The Chechens entered the city from all sides and
captured it in a few hours. Fierce fighting is
underway and our forces are cut off in isolated
pockets of resistance. Those that get surrounded are
mercilessly wiped out. Our lads have no food, no
ammunition, and death roams this sultry city. Several
burial detachments are formed in our regiment and they
stick our company in one of them.
The bodies keep on coming, a steady stream of them,
and it seems it will never end. There are no more of
the pretty silver bags. Bodies torn to pieces, charred
and swollen, are brought to us in any state, in heaps.
Some bodies are more than half burnt we refer to
these among ourselves as "smoked goods", to the zinc
coffins as "cans", and to morgues as "canning
factories". There is no mocking or black humour in
these words, and we say them without smiling. These
dead soldiers are still our comrades, our brothers.
That's just what we call them, there's nothing more to
it than that. We heal ourselves with cynicism,
preserve our sanity this way so as not to go
completely out of our minds we have no vodka to help
So we unload bodies, again and again. Our senses are
already dulled, and we don't feel pity or compassion
for the dead. We are so used to mutilated bodies by
now that we don't even bother washing our hands before
we have a smoke, rolling the tobacco in the Prima
cigarettes with our thumbs. We don't have anywhere to
wash them anyway; there's no water around and it's a
long way to run to the fountain every time.
We stop noticing living people, in fact we hardly see
any. Every thing that's living seems temporary to us,
everything that leaves this runway, everything that
arrives here in columns, and even those who have just
been called up into the army, all of them will end up
heaped on top of one another in the helicopters. They
simply have no other choice. They'll be starved of
food and sleep, tormented by lice and filth, be beaten
up, have stools smashed over their heads and be raped
in the latrines so what? Their suffering is of no
importance; they're going to get killed anyway.
They can cry, write letters and beg to be taken away
from here, but no one will come for them, no one will
pay attention to them, and all their problems are just
trivia. A busted skull is better than this helicopter,
of that we are now certain. We are also temporary,
like everything else on the cursed field. And we will
It's quiet. Day has broken but the sun still hasn't
risen and the cloudless sky in the east is illuminated
by pink reflections. That's bad it'll be another
bright day, perfect for snipers. We sit in the cellar
of the command building, warming ourselves by a fire
and devouring our dry rations. We're a bit scared,
jittery; it's as if we're suspended in weightlessness,
just temporary life-forms. Nothing lasts long here:
the heat from the fire, breakfast, the silence, the
dawn, our lives. In a couple of hours we will advance.
It'll be a long, cold, hard slog, but still better
than the uncertainty we face now. When it starts
everything will be crystal clear, our fear will abate
and yield completely to the strong nervous tension
that is starting to overtake. My brain is already
lapsing into soporific apathy and the urge to sleep is
strong. I just want it to start. I am woken by a
rumbling that squeezes my ears. The air shakes, like
jelly on a plate, the ground trembles, the walls, the
floor, everything. The soldiers get up, keeping close
to the wall, and peer out of the window. Only half
awake, I don't understand what's going on and I jump
up, grabbing my rifle.
Have the Chechens started shelling us, I wonder? One
of the lads turns round and says something. He is
speaking loudly, his throat visibly straining to force
out the words, but the noise muffles and I can't hear
anything. From his lips I read the words: "It's
It's started. Now I really am scared. I can't stay in
the gloom of this cellar any more. I have to do
something, go somewhere, anything but stay sitting
I go out on to the porch and the rumbling intensifies
so much that my ears hurt. The infantry press
themselves against the walls and hide behind the
carriers, all of them in helmets. The commanders stand
at the corner of the HQ house: the Kombat, the guys
from regiment headquarters, all craning their necks as
they look round the corner in the direction of Grozny,
where the explosions are coming from.
My curiosity wakens and I too want to see what's going
on. I go down the steps and have only moved 10 paces
when a sturdy piece of shrapnel the size of a fist
slams down at my feet and lies there, hissing in a
puddle, its jagged blue-charred edges flashing up at
my eyes. Right after comes a shower of hundreds of
tiny pieces of shrapnel bouncing off the hard clay. I
shield my head with my arm and run back into the
building, tripping and flying inside as I cross the
doorstep. I have no more desire to go outside and I
make my way down to the basement, to a breach in the
wall where light is shining through.
A crowd stands at the opening, half of them inside and
half outside, exclaiming from time to time: "Wow, look
at that, they're giving them a right pounding! Not
half! Where did they get anti-aircraft guns? Look,
there's another one!" I look out cautiously and see
soldiers standing with their heads tipped back as they
gaze into the sky. I go up to a platoon commander I
know and ask what's going on. He motions upward and
shouts above the roar: "The Chechens are firing
anti-aircraft guns at those Sukhoi jets bombing the
city." Sure enough, the black clouds of explosions are
erupting around a tiny plane spinning in the clear
sky, first above it and to the right, and then closer
and closer. The plane goes into a dive to escape the
barrage and then returns and rakes the area with its
rocket launchers before flying off.
Everyone suddenly crouches down and somehow I end up
on the ground when a burst of heavy machine-gun whips
through the air, followed by an explosion, and once
again metal showers down from the sky, clattering on
armour, walls, helmets. We hear swearing and shouts:
"Those morons in the artillery can't shoot for shit,
falling short again!" Beside me hunches Odegov, our
mortar man. For some reason he's grinning as he shows
me a thumb-sized piece of shrapnel: "Look, this just
hit me in the back!" he tells me.
"Are you hurt?"
"No, it stuck in my flak jacket!" he marvels, turning
round. Between his shoulders there is a hole in his
"Odegov, that's a bottle of vodka you owe me!" A day
before the storming operation, when he was pulling the
metal plates out of his jacket to lighten it, I
advised him to leave the Kevlar plating since it
doesn't weigh much and would protect him from flying
shards. And so it did the plating saved his spine.
The next salvo rushes overhead and the shells fly into
the city. You can't see anything down there because of
a large embankment in the road ahead blocking the
view. I go up to the second floor and run into the
Kombat, who's leaning over a map on the table
discussing something with the company commanders.
The Kombat glances at me and I make like I'm busy with
something and duck out of sight into the next room.
Yurka, the 8th company commander's orderly, is there
sitting in a rocking chair, smoking and looking out of
the window like he's watching TV. Another rocking
chair beside him is empty. I wait round the corner for
10 minutes and nothing happening, no sniper fire, so I
join him and light up. And there we sit, rocking
gently, watching the bombardment while we smoke, as if
we're at the cinema. All we're missing is popcorn.
No one returns from the war. Ever. Mothers get back a
sad semblance of their sons embittered, aggressive
beasts, hardened against the whole world and believing
in nothing except death. Yesterday's soldiers no
longer belong to their parents. They belong to war,
only their body returns from war. Their soul stays
But the body still comes home. And the war within it
dies gradually, shedding itself in layers, scale by
scale. Slowly, very slowly, yesterday's soldier,
sergeant or captain transforms from a soulless dummy
with empty eyes and a burnt-out soul into something
like a human being. The unbearable nervous tension
ebbs away, the aggression simmers down, the hatred
passes, and the loneliness abates. It's the fear that
lingers longest of all, an animal fear of death, but
that too passes with time.
And you start to learn to live in this life again. You
learn to walk without checking the ground beneath your
feet for mines and tripwires, and step on manholes on
the road without fear, and stand at your full height
in open ground. And you go shopping, talk on the phone
and sleep on a bed. You learn to take for granted the
hot water in the taps, the electricity and the central
heating. You no longer jump at loud noises. You start
to live. At first because that's how it's worked out
and you have stayed alive, you do it without gaining
much joy from life; you look at everything as a
windfall that came your way through some whim of fate.
You lived your life from cover to cover in those 180
days you were there, and the remaining 50-odd years
can't add anything to that time, or detract from it.
But then you start to get drawn into life. You get
interested in this game, which isn't for real. You
pass yourself off as a fully fledged member of
society, and the mask of a normal person grows on to
you, no longer rejected by your body. And those around
you think you are just the same as everyone else. But
no one knows your real face, and no one knows that you
are no longer a person. Happy, laughing people walk
around you, accepting you as one of their own, and no
one knows where you have been.
But that doesn't bother you any more. You now remember
the war as some cartoon horror movie you once saw, but
you no longer recognise yourself as one of its
characters. You don't tell anyone the truth any more.
You can't explain what war really is to someone who
has never been there, just as you can't explain green
to a blind person, or a man can't know what it's like
to give birth. They simply don't have the necessary
sensory organs. You can't explain or understand war
all you can do is experience it.
This extract is taken from 'One Soldier's War in
Chechnya' by Arkady Babchenko, published by Portobello
Books, £15.99. To purchase a copy at a special price
(including free p&p) call Independent Books Direct on
08700 798 897
Explosion rips through Russia bus
Thursday, 22 November 2007
An explosion aboard a bus in Russia's North Ossetia
region has killed at least five people, including a
nine-year-old girl, and hurt 12.
The bus was travelling from the city of Pyatigorsk and
had stopped on the border with the Kabardino-Balkaria
region when the explosion took place.
"It was an attack," a police official told AFP news
Unrest linked to militants and criminal gangs is
common in Russia's Caucacus republics bordering
The blast was caused by a device containing over 300g
of explosives and loaded with nails and scraps of
metal, police sources told the Reuters news agency.
As many as 19 people were on the bus, including two
drivers, when the explosion took place.
Russian prosecutors have begun investigating the blast
as a terrorist attack, according to the Interfax news
A school in the town of Beslan in North Ossetia was
the scene of a siege by militants in 2004, that left
more than 300 people dead, most of them children.
Russians vote in parliamentary elections on 2
December, and authorities have warned of the
possibility of terrorist attacks during the campaign.
On October 31, a bomb on a bus in the southern Russian
city of Togliatti killed 8 people and left 50 injured.
Powerful bomb found in Chechnya
Published: Nov. 24, 2007 at 7:45 PM
GROZNY, Russia, Nov. 24 (UPI) -- Authorities in
Chechnya have found a powerful homemade bomb in a
house in the Russian republic's Urus-Martan region, an
official said Saturday.
An unidentified spokesman for the Chechen Interior
Ministry said the homemade explosive device has been
linked to a militant Muslim, Itar-Tass reported.
"Law enforcers and sappers have found in a ruined
house near the federal highway Kavkaz on the outskirts
of the village Gehi a cache belonging to militant
Islam Shakhsaitov who is on the wanted list," the
The ministry representative said the bomb contained
more than 130 pounds of TNT.
The Russian news agency said authorities detonated the