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  • Satanay
    In the Ruins of Grozny Just before nine every morning Anna Vasilikhina leaves the fourth-floor apartment where she has lived for more than 30 years — and
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 1, 2011
      In the Ruins of Grozny
      Just before nine every morning Anna Vasilikhina leaves the fourth-floor
      apartment where she has lived for more than 30 years — and where her
      husband was murdered by looters 14 months ago — and walks to her job
      as head nurse in a nearby children's clinic. Like nearly every other
      building in Grozny, her five-story block was largely destroyed during
      the Russian assault in January 2000, and only one other family still
      lives on her staircase. The hall, however, is neatly swept, and chalked
      in an authoritative hand on the door of each empty apartment is a
      notice: "Checked 26.12.00."

      This is Anna's work. After the last Russian military zachistka, or
      house-to-house search, when front doors were kicked in and remaining
      property disappeared, she paid a carpenter to wedge the doors shut, and
      she wrote the inscriptions in the hopes of warding off more raids. As
      Anna leaves the building, she worries about the stench from the two
      corpses that have lain in an adjoining apartment for the past year: a
      bed-ridden woman and her adult son who were killed during the Russian
      offensive. Neither the Russian military nor the Moscow-appointed Chechen
      administration has responded to appeals to remove the remains, and local
      people worry that the horrible odor that haunted them last summer will
      return when the cold weather ends. Outside another foul smell assaults
      her nostrils: the cellars of the buildings are filled with raw sewage
      that has gathered there over the last year.

      She makes her way through the bombed-out courtyard with the water pump
      in the middle — Grozny has no running water and no electricity —
      to the end of the block, then turns left toward the clinic, which stands
      in a patch of open ground. There she passes a fresh grave amid the
      garbage. It contains two bodies, burned beyond recognition, that locals
      discovered recently in the grounds of a nearby kindergarten. The
      residents buried them there and surmise they were killed during a
      military raid. No one was surprised by the discovery: as another
      resident of the courtyard, a pretty teenager named Luiza Israilova, put
      it: "everyone has got used to killings." The district where Anna lives,
      Mikrorayon, is pretty much a safe area for anti-Russian guerrillas, who
      recently detonated two remote-controlled mines and killed a soldier in
      the space of a couple of days.

      The only things atypical about Anna are that she is an ethnic Russian
      — she came here with her family as a small girl in 1946 — and
      she has a job. The clinic's staff has not been paid since August, and it
      survives without any appreciable help from the Russians or their Chechen
      allies. But work there probably keeps Anna sane. And as she and a
      colleague talk about their lives these days, she pauses and says what
      nearly everyone here says sooner or later: "What a great city this was."

      Until the beginning of the 1990s, when the Soviet Union began to
      disintegrate, Grozny was one of the most livable places in the Caucasus.
      The climate was mild, the surrounding countryside spectacular, and
      fruit, grapes, wine and dairy products abundant. There was a
      cosmopolitan population of over half a million: Russians, Chechens,
      Armenians, Azeris, Jews and other peoples of the Caucasus. Now Grozny is
      more like a post-nuclear nightmare, a city systematically leveled by the
      Russian military campaign that propelled Vladimir Putin to the
      presidency a year ago, where gunfire and explosions are still so common
      that they blend into the normal sounds of the city.

      These days 200,000 people live here. There are no shops, just muddy,
      improvised bazaars. There is little work. Some residents scavenge bricks
      from ruins for resale, others sell the crude oil that bubbles up in many
      backyards — oil is one of the main prizes being fought over in this
      war. Many thousands depend on handouts from the few international
      agencies working in the city. Grozny's mayor, Beslan Gantemirov —
      amnestied in 1999 from a Russian prison where he was serving six years
      for embezzling municipal reconstruction funds after the last Chechen war
      in the mid-'90s — is highly visible. Thanks to his fast cars and
      retinue of heavies with nicknames like King Kong, he can hardly be
      missed. But local people say he does little to help, and official
      salaries are paid only intermittently. At 6 p.m., when darkness starts
      to fall, the city freezes in fear. A shoot-on-sight curfew comes into
      effect that lasts until around 7:30 the next morning. The only people
      who move around the streets at night are guerrillas and élite Russian
      ambush teams known as "secrets." Meanwhile the city is in almost total
      darkness, and the only permanent light comes from gas torches —
      hoses run from natural gas lines, propped against a brick and lit to
      give a flickering light — in courtyards and apartments.

      Moscow insists that it is winning the war, that the Chechens are
      rallying to its side, and that the situation in Grozny is almost normal.
      Many Western critics of Russia's operations in Chechnya, Putin said
      during an Internet conference earlier this month, just do not understand
      what is happening. "We feel that the actions of the Russian army are
      aimed at liberating the Chechen people from the terrorists who seized
      power and who compromise Islam and the Chechen people," Putin said
      reassuringly. He may well believe that. Yet as a visit to Grozny makes
      evident, the Russians are not only failing to win new friends in the
      city, they are losing old ones — the Chechens who fought alongside
      the advancing Russians last year, the city policemen who warn locals
      away from improvised checkpoints and the professionals Chechnya
      desperately needs if it is ever to re-emerge from the ruins.

      At the city's Teachers Training Institute, for example, pro-rector
      Makhmud Kerimov says attendance is down. Until December it was around
      80%. Then one morning, apparently in retaliation for an attack on a
      Russian armored personnel carrier 2 km away, Russian forces opened fire
      on the college. On and off for two and half hours they strafed the
      building — targeting kids who tried to make a break for safety,
      Kerimov says, and killing five outstanding students. An investigation
      was opened, which then lapsed. Now he and his colleagues no longer feel
      they can urge students to come to class. Without pausing for breath,
      Kerimov describes other cases of military abuse, including the way he,
      an invalid, was forced to stand spread-eagled against a wall for four
      hours during one raid. Then he suddenly stops. "This is no
      anti-terrorist operation," he says, using the official name for the
      Russian operation in Chechnya. "What's happening here is the
      extermination of our people."

      Kerimov is, like Putin, a graduate of Leningrad University. He and his
      colleagues are hardly wild-eyed secessionists. "I hated Maskhadov,
      Basayev, Khattab," he said, referring to Aslan Maskhadov, the President
      of independent Chechnya, and his most controversial commanders. "Now I
      am ready to pray to them." Other lecturers just want to leave. In 1944
      the Soviets deported all Chechens to Central Asia. Thousands died, and
      the survivors were allowed home only in 1957. This time, said Kerimov's
      colleague Said Yushaev, the Russians want to force Chechens to go, "like
      the [Jewish] diaspora."


      Amid all the misery of life here, two features stand out as the source
      of particular fear, bitterness and unhappiness. Zachistki —
      house-to-house raids — and checkpoints. The official Russian media
      describes zachistki as the surgical removal of dangerous criminals. In
      fact they are usually terrifying affairs that last hours as troops move
      from house to house in whole districts of the city. Zachistki are "total
      arbitrary abuse," said Rizvan Masayev, the head of Staraya Sunzha
      district, one of the most frequently raided parts of the city. When he
      tried to remonstrate during one recent operation, he was given short
      shrift. "I don't care if you're Putin, up against the wall," a soldier
      told him. During zachistki, people repeatedly say, the troops take
      anything they want. The routine is always the same: a soldier asks where
      is the "documentation" for a television, a radio, a cassette player. No
      documentation, and the item goes. They also take people. Early in the
      morning of Jan. 30, Kharon Khattuyev lost his 22-year-old son Zelimkhan
      during a zachistka. The choice was baffling — Zelimkhan is a
      policeman on the security detail of one of the top officials in the
      Grozny local administration. "If they want peace, why are they doing
      this?" asked Kharon, who is still trying to find his son.

      Kharon's chances of success are not high. A Chechen law enforcement
      official who fought alongside the Russians in several attempts to
      overthrow secessionist regimes here — but who now despairs at
      Russian brutality — he says that many detainees are "doomed" if the
      army or the security forces hold them for more than 10 days. After
      arrest they are taken to the massive Russian military headquarters at
      Khankala, just outside the city, or to smaller bases. There they are
      often kept in pits — literally holes dug in the ground — or
      zindan (underground cells), said another Chechen, a senior official of
      the current Russian-appointed government. "Each unit has its own
      zindan," he said. "The army, the FSB (security services), GRU (military
      intelligence), special forces."

      Under Russian law, detainees should be charged with an offense or
      released after 10 days. If they are not dead already or ransomed to
      their families — a prisoner can usually get out for $1,500 to $4,000
      — it is easier to kill them, the law enforcement official explained.
      This, Chechen officials believe, is what happened to the bodies that are
      gradually being retrieved from a mass grave near Khankala. During a
      recent visit officials put the number at 51. All of the bodies recovered
      so far — including five women, several taken straight from their
      homes, to judge from their clothes — had been shot in the head
      execution-style, officials say. A few had had their throats cut. The
      Russians say they were guerrillas killed in combat. Chechen law
      enforcement sources are convinced that they were the by-product of the
      zachistki. The raids may happen once a month, but passing through the
      20-odd heavily fortified checkpoints in the city is a daily source of
      tension. Here people are shaken down for small bribes — pay a little
      money or spend an hour having your papers checked. Guerrillas have
      little problem getting through. "For 50 rubles [USD1.80] you could get a
      nuclear bomb through a checkpoint," says a lecturer, Tamara Dzhambekova.
      But for people who earn perhaps 300 rubles a month (about $11), or
      nothing at all, it means the difference between eating that day or not.

      The effect of all this is to make the presidency of Aslan Maskhadov seem
      a happy memory. It was not: though a brilliant military commander in the
      first war with Russia in the mid-'90s, Maskhadov was a failure as
      President, allowing the country to sink into violence and lawlessness.
      For the last year he has been on the run, traveling with about 30
      bodyguards, rarely staying anywhere for more than a few days, keeping in
      touch with commanders by satellite phone. Many of his generals have been
      killed, wounded or captured. But now young guerrillas in Grozny are
      sounding increasingly confident. They speak of a new offensive to
      recapture Grozny and other major cities later this year. Meanwhile, they
      concentrate on building up their arms supplies, killing Chechen
      "traitors" — those who work for the Moscow-appointed administration
      — and picking off Russian soldiers.

      Most of their work takes place at night, though not all. An hour or so
      before curfew one recent day, a Russian soldier was foolhardy enough to
      go shopping in a small bazaar without the usual heavy backup. Guerrillas
      seized him and prepared to kill him on the spot. Local people urged them
      not to — not there, anyway, where they risked reprisals from the
      Russians. His abductors took him to a quiet courtyard and shot him
      there. Within minutes the market returned to normal. The next morning,
      no one admitted hearing or seeing anything.

      Operations like this are becoming increasingly easy, says a man named
      Zelimkhan, a businessman turned Islamic fighter who commands three
      reconnaissance and sabotage teams in the city.

      "The most dangerous place in Chechnya for Russian soldiers these days is
      Grozny," he says with a certain satisfaction. It may become even more
      hazardous in the months to come. Having spared no expense — in lives
      or money — to win the war, Moscow is now pursuing with equal
      singlemindedness a policy guaranteed to lose the peace.


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