THE END OF A CHECHEN DREAM

The word Grozny means terrible; the city of that name has had awful destruction wreaked on it. These photograph s capture the bitter legacy of a modern siege
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The Independent Culture
EVERYTHING around Grozny is monochrome, like these photographs. Grey, scorched buildings; grey mud; dirty snow; grey skies. Only occasionally does a colour stand out: the bright yellow, for instance, of a sign seen on the way into the city, on which has been scrawled the words: "Better to die standing than to live on our knees."

For Grozny's 400,000 inhabitants, caught up in the fury of a Russian assault, there has been little choice. Destruction has been rained upon them, their city laid to waste. Fifty thousand Russian troops were committed to the attack on the Chechen capital, together with endless columns of tanks, armoured personnel carriers and trucks, rolling into the city from west and north, day after day, behind a dreadful curtain of air and artillery bombardment. Some of the weapons used were designed to kill while doing comparatively little damage to buildings: fuel air explosives, spreading a cloud of vapour that detonates; "needle bombs", raining thousands of tiny "flechettes" that pierce the flesh. Other weapons were more old-fashioned, and it is their work that has left blocks of flats and the 11 storeys of the Presidential Palace in ruins: shells from howitzers called "Acacia" and "Carnation"; bombs; rockets with names redolent of their effects: "Hail", "Hurricane", "Death"; and withering fire from helicopter gunships called "Crocodiles".

Death, and destruction; no wonder the survivors, shell-shocked and terrified, display every sign of disorientation. Amid total devastation, a table is laid for a meal, complete with tablecloth; people begin to tidy up flats whose entire walls have been blown away, and offices which will not be open for business for months, maybe years; others move aimlessly around the city, lugging their possessions on small barrows; still more scrabble for food, hunger dominant over dignity.

These are contemporary images of conventional war, the sort of war that left Leningrad in ruins in 1944. But this was not a simple war. Until 1917, Grozny was an all-Russian city - the Muslim Chechens had to live outside the gates. So, many of those caught in the Russian storming of the city last December and January were ethnic Russians, terrified women and children with blue eyes, who buried their dead according to the Christian rite. They had little reason to thank Dzhokhar Dudayev, the first Chechen general in the Soviet Army, for declaring the little republic independent and bringing on it the terrible anger of the Kremlin. And there were ethnic Chechens who did not thank him either, forming strong outposts of pro- Russian, anti-Dudayev resistance in some of the sprawling villages round Grozny, and blowing up bridges along the pro-Dudayev Chechens' lines of communication. But the indiscriminate bombing and the indiscipline of the Russian troops had the effect of uniting resistance.

The Russian Federal troops first attacked on 11 December. They sent in mechanized columns, more for show, one suspects, than as a serious military operation, hoping to shock the rebels into surrender. It did not work. The Chechen rebels, natural guerrilla fighters, isolated the Russian tanks and armoured vehicles, and they took a heavy toll. Many had served in the Soviet Army - when it was a much more professional organisation than the badly organised, uncoordinated Russian force then being hurled at Grozny. The Russian response to the unexpectedly fierce and competent resistance consisted of further waves of furious but ill-planned assaults, notably on New Year's Eve, in which they suffered far more severely than the defenders. But they were learning. Better quality troops were drafted in from all over the Empire - including marines from the Pacific Fleet. And they fell back on their old standby: overwhelming firepower. The results of that decision are obvious from the photographs printed here.

By 25 January, the Russians had captured almost the entire city, ensuring access to the precious oil pipelines from Baku and Astrakhan which run across Chechnya. Since then, the process glibly known as "mopping up" has been taking place."Mopping up", for the Russian troops, means searching every cellar, every house, expecting either to find booby-traps or to be fired upon by snipers. You shoot first and you ask questions afterwards. You are the only law. And as far as the Russians are concerned, you are not foreign soldiers, but troops suppressing an internal revolt. Perhaps in consequence, respect for the Geneva Convention has been patchy; in Samashki, a village to the west of Grozny and one of the last Chechen rebel strongholds to fall, the Russians went berserk. Up to 250 people were reported killed in the "mopping up" - burned "like shish kebab". No wonder Anthony Suau's photographs show survivors helping troops to flush out snipers.

And always, the people must submit to the soldiers' searches. The Spetsnaz (special forces) are polite and efficient, the most disciplined and therefore the best: clad in grey camouflage and black woollen hats, they search people professionally, but with good humour. But woe betide a genuine Chechen guerrilla, a boyevik. The ordinary army soldiers, in ill-fitting uniforms, on the other hand, look young and frightened; the Interior Ministry troops plain unpleasant. In an "emergency zone", the Russian forces have total power, and the Interior Ministry troops let it be known that people here have no rights - not even the right to life.

As President Yeltsin and the Western powers commemorate the Allied victory in 1945, Grozny serves as a terrible testimonial to the destructiveness of modern weapons. But it is more than that. It is also an unambiguous statement of Moscow's determination to keep the Russian Federation intact, without regard for lives or property. The Union Republics of the former Soviet Union - places such as Georgia and Kazakhstan - had been allowed to secede, although Russia is now pursuing a policy of binding them more tightly to her as members of the Common- wealth of Independent States. But the autonomous republics within the Federation, like Chechnya, must not be allowed to break away. The line in the snow has been drawn, and the message is clear. Let anybody else try to break away, and they will be treated as Grozny was treated - to total war. !

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