Focus: 'An hour after arriving, everyone knew I was here'

Western witnesses to the reality of life in Chechnya are few. A Dutch film-maker who has just returned from Grozny tells David Winner what it's like
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
'The sound of machine guns at night is hard to get used to," says Jos de Putter, one of the few Westerners to have ventured into Grozny and returned alive during the period of the Granger engineers' kidnapping and murder. "The shooting is more or less continuous. You sleep, but you still hear it. When you wake in the middle of the night, even if only for a minute, you hear guns.

"When you ask what it's about, no one knows. Is it different clans fighting each other? Probably not. It's more like people marking their territory. But the city is at times very tense and divided. One time I had to stay inside for four days. The guards gave no reason"

De Putter, a 39-year-old documentary film-maker working for NOS, the Dutch equivalent of the BBC, spent two weeks in Grozny in September, then returned for a further 10 days last month. Although he enjoyed the hospitality and protection of a Chechen war hero with close links to President Maskhadov and the country's "so-called mafia", daily life in the shattered Chechen capital was exhaustingly tense.

"Grozny looks exactly like Hiroshima or Berlin in 1945. Totally destroyed. I was used to seeing that kind of destruction in black and white images, but I was shocked to see it in colour. Huge buildings are skeletons. Very few people are rebuilding. Most live in the ruins."

In Grozny, De Putter and his two-man Polish crew lived in relative luxury in a heavily guarded house full of lacquered black furniture, inside a walled compound reserved for visiting VIPs. Men's and women's quarters were separate. Water was drawn from standpipes and buckets are used for washing and as toilets. Private generators are common in Grozny where electricity is cut off for two hours each night. In the countryside, it's worse. Even the former president, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, filmed at his village home, lives with bare light bulbs and in complete darkness much of the time.

Outside their compound, De Putter and his crew moved only in a heavily armed convoy, stopping briefly to work. "There's a whole ritual about the cars," says De Putter. "You sit alone in a small car with blackened windows and three bodyguards. When you get out of the car everyone is looking at you because you're different. They look at you as a Westerner and they see a million walking dollars. It's that simple. You live on adrenalin. Incredible tension builds up."

At night, like the murdered telephone engineers, De Putter slept surrounded by bodyguards: three downstairs, two sleeping on the floor in the room and one outside the door. "You live with these guys. They make jokes all the time. We watched television together. They love to watch American shows on Russian television. As soon as they wake up in the morning they watch American soaps, Brazilian soaps. People talk about these people as fundamentalists, but they are not so alien. My guards had gold teeth, beards, sunglasses - and lots and lots of guns. They carry huge amounts of ammunition, handguns, Kalashnikovs and a bizarre Chechen weapon - a long dagger with a gun in the handle which they wear across their chests. I was scared at first. But you get used to it. We became friends. We played chess together. But they were not fond of going outside because they know their lives are at stake."

It was like the Wild East, De Putter says. "Everywhere you see young men with machine guns walking or just hanging around. On Independence Day in September I saw two kids having a small quarrel. One of them put his hand in the other's leather jacket and pulled out a grenade. They look like normal 17-year-olds. But they have grenades in their pockets."

Outsiders never escape the attention of locals. "Chechnya is a small place where everyone knows everything. My translator told me: 'An hour after you arrived, everybody knew you were here. Everyone knows who does the kidnapping. But there's a clan system and a system of blood revenge: if I harm you, then your brother is entitled to kill my mother or anybody he picks in my family. That makes it very difficult for Chechens to operate against other Chechens. People's first duty is to their family not the government.'"

People don't go hungry. There is plenty of meat, fish and vegetables in the city. But in a country with little employment or hope, vicious lawlessness will continue until the West decides to invest, De Putter predicts. "At the moment, the West won't do it because it's too dangerous, but then it's a story without an end. You have to believe it is possible."

De Putter believes the Granger telephone engineers may have been victims of a clan battle for control of the telephones. In Grozny, communications are a scarcely less vital commodity than the oil over which the Russians fought the war. The old, Soviet-era phone system is shattered beyond repair and the former prime minister Shamil Basayev, best known as the leader of the mass-hostage episode at Budyonnovsk hospital in 1995, is only one of the warlords who have moved into business. Basayev runs a chain of telecom and internet centres in small houses around the city.

After last week's horror, De Putter has no plans to return to Grozny, yet he retains respect and pity for the Chechens and blames much of the anarchy on the total war unleashed on them by Boris Yeltsin. "The war left people damaged mentally and civilisation wrecked - economically, but also in terms of social structures."

Kidnapping is a painful phenomenon for Chechen society because traditionally hospitality is seen as a holy duty and obligation. "One of my most moving experiences was visiting an old man whom I'd met when he led a zikr, the dance of mourning on a street in Grozny. His house was bombed in the war, his car burnt and his daughter ... 'I won't tell you what happened to my daughter but such are soldiers' was how he put it. Yet he said to me: 'But none of this matters as long as we have guests'. He was talking from the heart. The old men are horrified by the breaking of traditions. They ask: why do these young men have no roots or discipline or order?

"Chechnya is a forgotten country with a dreadful history. You could argue there have been attempts at genocide, most obviously by Stalin in 1944, but also by Yeltsin who bombed everyone. Nobody seems to care. When I met someone who could take me there and protect me, I felt I had to go."

De Putter feels pain and sympathy not only for the bereaved British and New Zealand families, but also for the directors of the company that sent them. "Their company did basically the same as I did with my Polish crew. I said: 'Chechnya is a strange place and there are risks, but I think we can handle them'. From what I've read, Granger must have believed the same."

On his first night home in the safety of his canal-side apartment in Amsterdam, De Putter had a nightmare. "I dreamed my convoy was attacked near the farm where I grew up. They were trying to kidnap me and I was running away across a corn field which I've known all my life, with a book on my head, I was running through mud."