Under seige: when they shoot toward the right side, sleep on the left side

Chechen nightmares

By Julia Kalinina | 1995-07-01 12:00:00

I was lucky. I received a great journalistic opportunity: I was surrounded. I came to Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, spent a night there, and the next morning found I couldn't leave the area. The last road from Chernorechie (the southwest district of the city) was blocked by the federal troops. A herd of armored vehicles occupied the road and, all around, soldiers were in a great hurry, digging trenches in the fields. The teams of volunteer fighters who controlled this area of Grozny were encircled--and so was I.

I couldn't even consider getting closer to Russian positions or asking the soldiers to let me go back home. The soldiers shot immediately whenever they noticed anything moving. In the morning four cars with inhabitants of the area had been shot that way. Two wounded people were lucky to escape by crawling across the field until they reached the wood. The others were still lying on the road. The Chechen detachment was really alarmed because of such news. According to all rules of military science, eventually the federal forces were going to enter this area and take control.

Apparently my confused face expressed everything about my feelings. Nobody could look at me without laughing. "Why are you journalists always going where you don't need to be? For us it makes no difference. We are condemned men already. Either we win this war or we'll die. But why did you come here?"

Having mocked me for a while, they started to reassure me: "Don't worry. We'll break it. Or take you out some way." In the evening the heavy shelling started. Two shells exploded in the yard of the headquarters building, so everybody rushed to the basement. For a couple of hours I sat there in the first aid room with several Chechens and a 17-year-old girl who was supposed to be a nurse. To tell the truth, she was absolutely helpless. I tried to help her. That direct shelling didn't wound anybody but later five men were brought from the neighboring area. They were wounded by the shrapnel of shells. Normally all the wounded are transferred to the hospitals in the villages around the south but we were now surrounded, so such a trip was impossible. One of the wounded died that night, though he could have lived if somebody had extracted the shrapnel.

It was amazing how the Chechens discussed what to do with the wounded. Most of them just couldn't believe that the Russians wouldn't let the bus with the wounded pass through their positions. "But they are wounded! No armed persons will go with them. How it can be, not to let a wounded man get medical help?" So naive. But I've seen that they always treated the wounded Russians.

In the kitchen the commanders held a meeting to discuss the issue. They wanted to stay in the area and fight, for they were absolutely sure the Russians would never be able to capture the area if they stayed. There could be problems with ammunition, but the main argument against such a plan was that a lot of ordinary civilians, mostly Russian, were still living in the region--old men, women, and some women with children. Most of the fighters who constituted the detachment were also inhabitants of the area, so they knew their neighbors and didn't want to harm them. In that light they had two options: to leave the area themselves or to force the inhabitants to leave it.

One of the proposals was to gather the people and send them along the road to the Russian positions. I was supposed to lead the procession with a white flag and explain to the soldiers that we are all women and elders without any arms and that we just want to leave the area. It was supposed that my journalistic certificate would protect us from shooting. (I knew that the shooting would certainly start while we were long distance away, where nobody could see my identification card. And even if they noticed it, they wouldn't care about the press. That idea had been tested several times in this war). Anyway I certainly agreed to play this honorable role, though the prospect of being shot was obvious. However, I was happy when most of the commanders rejected the proposal, saying simultaneously that we would be shot.

By then it was late at night and there was no place to sleep except in the headquarters building. The shelling was so heavy that I doubted it was safe to sleep anywhere in the building except perhaps in the basement. The Chechens comforted me, saying that Russians are shelling the left side and we would sleep on the right side, so there was nothing to worry about.

At dawn the commander woke me up, saying that the Chechen detachment would break through the encirclement today. Probably they'd find a corridor. If not, they'd fight until they broke through. He said it would be better for me to stay in the area for a day or two until the Russian troops arrived. Then I would be able to leave the Grozny region without risk. He took me to his neighbor, a woman of my age with two daughters, and went away to order the breakthrough.

The Russians didn't come. Neither in a day nor in a week.

While we drank our morning tea, my hostess Helen explained to me that she and the other inhabitants of Chernorechie who had stayed here didn't have relatives in the countryside who could take them in for awhile. They just didn't have any place to go from the war zone. Moreover, they didn't want to leave their apartments because of the marauders who would certainly start their job as soon as the region was captured by Russian troops. I had always supposed that your life and your children's life would be more valuable than your apartment and furniture, but there was nothing to argue about. We both happened to be surrounded and we had to think of how to survive.

The process of survival is simple. It includes the following requirements: You need to eat, to drink, to sleep, and to avoid the shrapnel. That's all. There were no food stocks because nobody had been preparing for a blockade. For me it was evident that in a couple of weeks people would start to eat the bark from the trees. Before I appeared, Helen had possessed one kilo of rice, a pack of tea, and two thousand rubles (half of a dollar). My travel allowance saved the situation; we bought some potatoes and a jar of coffee, and we found a woman who was baking bread and selling it. She said that her flour stock was coming to an end but anyway we felt much better for having at least a certain amount of food.

We were looking for food to the accompaniment of explosions and the buzz of airplanes. People immediately explained to me that the Russians are not shelling here but somewhere else. And the plane--it isn't a bomber but only a reconnaissance aircraft. Helen showed me two little boys who recently had "collected pieces of their grandmother." While there was shelling going on, the family had gone down into the basement. The grandmother was kneading dough and didn't want to stop because the dough would be spoiled. A shell exploded exactly in the kitchen.

People spoke amazingly lightly of the shelling. At first I supposed that all of them were very brave in comparison to me. Later I understood that during these last months they had completely lost the feeling of danger. For example, during the night I jumped because of a loud explosion, but Helen explained that the thing hadn't fallen here but somewhere out there. And in the morning we found out that the shell had hit the neighbor's house.

To sleep during shelling--that's something that you have to learn to do. The massive shelling usually starts at 10 p.m. and continues until the morning, so you can sleep only when you are so tired that you simply can't stay awake. People slept fully dressed, in case they had to jump up and run away. Children didn't sleep either. They sat with us until 2 a.m. playing cards by the light of a candle, drawing, and recording jokes on my tape-recorder. For some reason the inhabitant supposed that a shell doesn't break two walls, only one. So when the shelling was extremely loud, we forced the children to hide in the corridor between the bath and another room. There, in this "secure" place, they continued their night games. When at last you fall asleep usually you cannot sleep longer than 20 minutes between the series of shellings. Every time when you wake up, you must quickly assess the strength of explosions and decide what to do next--either stay in bed or go to the basement in another house. To get water you need to go to the spring. It is situated in an open zone that has been heavily shot up, so it's very risky. When it's quiet people are trying to go there as often as possible to collect huge amounts of water for their homes. Maybe you won't be able to go to the spring again for the next several days.

Two weeks before we were surrounded, a helicopter had thrown a bomb right into the crowd of civilians who were waiting their turn at the spring. Nine persons were killed immediately and seven of the wounded died later--mostly women and children. At that time the road was open. It was possible to transfer the wounded to the hospital. But now any injury is a catastrophe. Even the splinter of a shell--nobody will extract it. There is no surgeon in the area. But every day the number of wounded is increasing. If they don't get to the hospital, all of them are doomed.

All these routine problems were exhausting but the worse thing was that I couldn't communicate with Moscow, couldn't tell my relatives that I'm alive and staying in Chernorechie. During the first days after the fighters' departure the inhabitants of the area sent several old men to the Russian positions to request them politely to enter the area. The old men were severely beaten. One of them died. The chief of the local police, the last authority in the region, made several unsuccessful attempts to get in touch with the Russians. As soon as he appeared somewhere with his white flag, Russians started to shoot. We tried to send women there. Young women were excluded; the Chechens supposed that they would be raped by the soldiers. At last two old women agreed to try but the result was the same. The Russians shot and wounded one of the women.

The situation turned out to be desperate. No news appeared in Chernorechje. There had been no electricity for more than two months. No newspapers, no TV. During the nights I was trying to get something on the radio but the endless flights of shells by the window agitated the air and it was practically impossible to catch a wave.

Actually I didn't know what news I was waiting for. There are no journalists in Chernorechie except me. That means that no one in the whole world could know what was going on there. Anyway it was silly to hope that the radio would suddenly say: Tomorrow Russian troops will stop shelling and enter Chernorechie.

Finally I caught a Russian radio wave and learnt that Russian troops had suppressed the fighters' attempt to break through the encirclement. Good news except for the fact that the fighters had successfully left the area three days ago. I knew that better than anybody else.

The inhabitants were just sleep walkers after the past four months. They kept asking, "Why don't they enter? There are absolutely no fighters here!" They certainly knew that the coming of Russians would bring the stress of permanent check-ups, arrests, maraudings, and murders. Still, they supposed that a horrible end is better than endless horror. They blamed everyone in the same terms: Dudayev and Yeltsin and Russian army. For Chernorechie there is already no difference.

My questions had no answer. Why don't our troops enter the area? Don't they know that the fighters have left? That means that our troops doesn't have any intelligence. Unbelievable!

And suppose they know that but don't enter anyway? Even more interesting. They are afraid that some fighters are still in the area and prefer to create just a semblance of fighting. For how long can that go on before the whole region dies of hunger and shrapnel wounds? If that is the goal, itwould be much more humane to use air strikes. At least they wouldn't torture people for months but would finish them off in a few days.

It was the deadlock of a war in which the army is forced to fight against people. You can't win. Either eliminate everybody or retreat. Those in the first line can't eliminate everybody. Those who give orders can't retreat. We Russian citizens can't influence the situation because we know practically nothing about it--and don't want to know. Thanks to our indifference, we have victimized thousands of innocent people who are absolutely like ourselves.

I spent only one week in that blockaded city. Then the police chief found a corridor and helped a few of us to go out. I brought one of Helen's children. We crawled 500 metres on our knees through the Russian lines, then walked four hours in the woods to reach safety.

I left Chernorechie but its inhabitants stayed there. Back in Moscow, for the next three weeks I kept listening to the radio, which reported that "the federal troops continue to shell the south-western regions of Grozny that still are under the control of Chechen fighters."

Julia Kalinina is a reporter for the large Russian daily Moskovsky Komsomolets.

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1995

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1995, page 20. Some rights reserved.

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