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News from Chechnya: The battle for the soul of Chechnya

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  • Zafar Khan
    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,
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 25, 2007
      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
      Guardian Unlimited


      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
      rebuilding programme.

      "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
      Soviet times.

      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
      Guardian Unlimited


      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
      Caucasus wars.

      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
      live for."

      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
      Arkady Babchenko

      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
      against them?"

      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?"

      "Get stuffed."

      "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
      his slippers.

      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
      also die.

      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
      restive Chechnya.

      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
      spokesman said.

      The ministry representative said the bomb contained
      more than 130 pounds of TNT.

      The Russian news agency said authorities detonated the
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