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In the shadow of a siege

Eight days after the Beslan school siege that left more than 300 people dead (half of whom were children), the world’s newspapers and TV screens were filled with pictures of students, cowering in front of heavily armed Chechen militants. For many, the graphic images compounded initial feelings of outrage.

Some journalists likened the siege to Pearl Harbor and September 11. ‘We have to ask whether the hostage-taking of the schoolchildren of Beslan on September 1, 2004, the 65th anniversary of the outbreak of the World War II, was another of these historic tragedies’, wrote The Times commentator, William Rees-Mogg.

‘There is a blank horror about what they did to the young children that, fortunately, has few parallels in the history of evil’, he added. Yet these distressing images of students, parents and teachers crammed into the suffocating school gym, of the ‘black widow’ holding a Makarov pistol close to her obscured face, or the masked ‘terrorist’ wiring a bomb, do not provide the full picture of the Chechen conflict.

Since 1999, Russia’s authorities have severely restricted access to the war zone. Fears for journalists’ safety in a region disfigured by kidnappings have created a near total blackout on reporting the war. Further, as the head of the human rights organisation Memorial, Oleg Olov explains, post September 11: ‘Russia’s participation in the worldwide anti-terror coalition has given Moscow political cover for continuing the military operation’.

The picture emerging from Chechnya is terrifying. Despite the official end to hostilities in 2001, the US State Department says the situation is worsening. Chechnya’s population is estimated at 734,000, down from 1.2 million in 1989. Hundreds of thousands have fled to refugee camps abroad, or are displaced throughout the country. Thousands have been detained in jails where torture and killings are commonplace, or in ‘filtration camps’ set up to sift Chechen militants from the general population.

‘Here people are massacred. You should hear their screams, howls of strong men in whom everything that can be broken is being broken.’ This comes from a letter allegedly written by a Russian soldier that Le Monde published in 2000. Only seven of the 700 Chechens detained in the camp, the soldier estimated, were militants. Most were arrested because of irregular papers, or after ducking out for a cigarette during a curfew. ‘I have trouble expressing in writing the exotic ways in which a man can be broken, or turned into an animal’, the soldier wrote.

Human Rights Watch claims that more than 400 Chechens were ‘disappeared’ by the Russians, or gangs loyal to the Kremlin-installed president, Akhmad Kadyrov in 2003. Despite a law aimed at limiting human rights abuses during Russian ‘mopping up’ operations in Chechen villages, there is still little security. As Manasha, a Chechen nurse, said in 2002, ‘I constantly fear losing my three men: my husband and two sons’.

Both sides, however, are suffering huge losses. In 2002, The Economist reported that up to 30 Russian soldiers were being killed each week. The same year, Moscow military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer noted that while the official death toll was 3,000 Russian fatalities (9,000 wounded), the unofficial figure was twice that. Without distinguishing between Russians and Chechens, General Alexander Lebed said that in the war’s first two years between 70,000 and 80,000 people had lost their lives.

Immediately after the Beslan siege, The Australian carried letters from readers angry at what they felt to be the media’s political correctness. Stop calling these Chechens militants or separatists, the readers fumed, they are Islamic fundamentalists, or terrorists. Considering the extreme nature of the siege, where children were forced to drink urine in order to survive, such strong reactions are understandable.

Politicians and the media have, moreover, argued that Beslan is the latest link in a chain of global (Islamic) terrorism. Referring to the 1,000 US soldiers killed in Iraq, the New York Post wrote: ‘It is they who stand between America and another 9/11, or a Madrid, or a Bali, or … a Beslan’. Rejecting calls for a public inquiry into the massacre, Russian President Vladimir Putin lashed out: ‘Why don’t you meet Osama bin Laden, invite him to Brussels or to the White House and engage in talks, ask him what he wants and give it to him so he leaves you in peace?’

Neither approach helps us understand the Chechen crisis. Islam is an important cultural marker for the separatists but this is not a war about religion. Until recently, Putin called the Chechens ‘bandits’, not terrorists. ‘In so far that it has taken a religious colouring, this was mainly because Islam is seen even by irreligious Chechens, as an integral part of the national tradition and of the nation’s past struggle against Russian domination’, says former Russia Times correspondent, Anatol Lieven.
Chechnya declared its independence from the fast disintegrating Soviet Union in 1991. Since then there have been scattered attempts to impose sharia law, culminating in a push by Shamil Basaev (the accused Beslan mastermind) to transform the nation’s legal system in 1999. But when Chechnya’s elected president, Aslan Maskhadov, said that Islamic law would be phased in over three years, Shamil Basaev started lobbying for the constitution to be rewritten and Maskhadov sacked.

Unemployment has encouraged some to embrace Saudi largesse and its brand of Islam, Wahhabism. There have also been some sightings of a few hundred Arab fighters in Chechnya. ‘They came to the market and they paid in dollars,’ one Russian administrator recalls. But few of the key Chechen leaders, despite their extremism in other areas, behave like Islamists. Asked about the religious affiliations of Khattab, his murdered Arab accomplice, Basaev joked: ‘Wahhabite? No, he’s a Khattabite’. And as terrorism expert Walter Laguev notes, during peace talks, the Chechen chiefs made the most of the free vodka and pork, just like their Russian counterparts.

For such a tiny country, Chechnya has had a remarkably tragic history. During the 19th century, under the command of the warlord Shamil, the Chechens fought a losing battle for their independence that lasted 25 years.

In 1943, Stalin personally ordered the transfer of the entire Chechen population to camps in Kazakhstan. More than 470,000 Chechens were deported, including over 130,000 people who subsequently died. Memories of this atrocity persist, so much so that it is often called Chechnya’s ‘open wound’. In 1991, the writer, Abdurahman Avtorkhanov characterised Chechnya’s push for independence as a ‘revolt of the children in revenge of the deaths of their fathers in deportation and exile’.

History is often used to explain the Chechen war’s particular intensity. Gaining access to Caspian Sea oil reserves (allegedly equal to those of the North Sea) is also put forward as a reason. But as the US administration and international oil companies understand: nations like Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan are valuable, not landlocked Chechnya.

In Soviet times, Grozny ranked second to Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, as an oil-refining centre, but by the 1980s, Chechen oil wells accounted for only three per cent of the USSR’s output. Russia appears determined to regain control. In September, Russian Rosneft and British-Dutch Shell agreed to transport the 100,000 tons of oil extracted in Chechnya each month to the Russian centre, Kropotkin. In the future, oil extracted from the troubled republic—along with that from the Caspian Sea—will be re-routed north.

Writers on the Chechen wars have emphasised the way the leaders’ flaws have deepened the conflict. From this angle, the first war (1994–1996) embodied Boris Yeltsin’s hubris and the second (1999–present) Vladimir Putin’s ruthless thirst for power. Following the 1999 bombing of Moscow apartment blocks (attributed to Chechen separatists despite the suspected involvement of the FSB, the Russian secret service) Putin’s tough stance won him the presidency.

Putin’s refusal to seek out, or endorse, a more moderate Chechen leadership has created a situation where terrorism has become the separatists’ strategy of choice. ‘Young Chechens are growing impatient’, says journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, and ‘believe only the most painful terrorist methods will win’. This is supported by a view that Basaev’s 1995 raid on a Budennovsk hospital forced the Russians to the negotiating table and thereby ended the war.

Although many characterise the war as a David and Goliath struggle, this is not accurate. Ninety three per cent of Russian soldiers are conscripts (in 1999); or as analyst, Pavel Felgenhauer says, ‘teen-aged former school kids, badly trained and badly commanded’. Recruitment campaigns have, through poor screening, enlisted ‘drunks, tramps and other fallouts of Russian society’.

Because of Russia’s shambolic army, the military depends on aerial bombardment, and this, Felgenhauer says, leads to ‘massive war crimes’ (including the use of ballistic missiles against civilians). Anatol Lieven remembers how Grozny’s empty streets during bombing raids felt ‘like a city stricken not by war, but by plague’. Most of those killed in the raids, Lieven says, were ethnic Russians and pensioners.

On 6 December 1999, Russian aircraft dropped a leaflet on Grozny giving the city’s inhabitants five days to escape. ‘You are surrounded’, the pamphlet read. ‘All roads leading to Grozny are blocked. Those who remain will be viewed as terrorists and bandits. They will be destroyed by artillery and aviation. There will be no further negotiations. Everyone who does not leave the city will be destroyed. The countdown has started!’

Five days later the bombing stopped and another leaflet advised the residents of a safe corridor out of the city. Within two days, the shelling recommenced. Photos of Grozny show a city full of spectral buildings, shelled beyond recognition, that look as if they have been eaten away from the inside.

Nothing like this has been seen in Europe since the end of World War II. ‘At the height of the shelling at Sarajevo’, David Remnick writes in Resurrection: The struggle for the New Russia, ‘there were 3,500 detonations a day, while at Grozny the (1995) winter bombing recorded a rate of 4,000 detonations an hour’.
The second consequence of Russian military weakness is corruption. Terrorist ‘suspects’ are routinely kidnapped, then released at a price. And, perhaps most strangely, the Russian army reportedly sells arms and ammunition to the rebels, who use these weapons to fight them. Corruption is not confined to the Russian military.

The Economist claims the Chechen illegal oil trade has become a ‘nice little earner’. When the first war ended, rebel commanders allegedly divided Chechnya’s oil wells among themselves. Soldiers and police are said to turn a blind eye to the illegal oil trade (and sometimes help transport and sell the petrol). Chechen historian, Jabrail Gakaev, says the profit motive has become ‘the major driving force of the continuing violence’.

During the Beslan siege, the militants said they wanted Russia to experience the terror Chechens face on a daily basis. ‘Russian soldiers are killing our children,’ a hostage remembers one saying. ‘So we are here to kill yours.’ This objective is nothing new. In 1993, Basaev warned that if the Russians invaded, his followers would ‘carry the war to Russia’. This appears to be happening. After Beslan, Moscow police rounded up 10,000 people for questioning and the Russian Parliament is debating anti-terror laws that will restrict freedoms and centralise political power.

In 2002, around 500 writers, human-rights activists and politicians gathered at Moscow’s Cosmos Hotel to debate the Chechen war. One observation kept recurring in the speeches: the one million Russians who had fought in Chechnya were bringing the war home with them. Violent crime and torture by law-enforcement agencies, says human rights campaigner Andrei Babushkin, increased in the mid 1990s ‘precisely among people who had gone through the school of hatred and humiliation in Chechnya’.

Another speaker mentioned a police captain who had kept both his uniform and weapon from his Chechen service. One day the man opened fire on a Moscow street for no apparent reason, wounding an innocent passerby. During an unrelated court case before the shooting, the veteran said, ‘I learned how to break people in Chechnya’. 

Madeleine Byrne is a Fellow at OzProspect, a non-partisan public policy think tank.



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