Good hearts, bad lands

Last week, Camilla Carr and Jon James, both 35, each with a child waiting at home, were taken hostage in Chechnya, a place even more dangerous than it was when it was a war zone. Good people, motivated by care for the afflicted, they travelled in love to a place where the ruling emotion is fear. By Phil Reeves
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There was a time, not very long ago, when it seemed impossible that Chechnya could become any more lethal. Bombs and shells were tumbling down on its towns and villages as the Kremlin blindly tried to force the recalcitrant Islamic republic to bend to its will.

Grozny, the capital, had become a battlefield, a maze of ruins through which it seemed almost impossible to pass without running into a firefight. At night, machine-gun fire and grenade bursts were so common that they barely merited comment from those Chechens brave enough to go on living in this hell-hole. War was their daily life - and, very often, also their death.

Now the fighting has stopped, and most in this turbulent pocket of the North Caucasus have set their minds to trying to rebuild their broken society, and steadily to asserting their independence from Moscow. And yet, for foreigners, the place is far more dangerous than ever before. These days, even Shamil Basayev, the hard-nut ex-Chechen commander whom the Russians still brand a terrorist, tells outsiders to keep away.

Most of the journalists who went to Chechnya by the score during its 21-month conflict now do just that. A wave of kidnappings has earned the republic a reputation to rival that of Beirut during the worst phase of hostage-taking. That, and the murder in December of six expatriate Red Cross workers, who were shot dead in their beds in a hospital 15 miles outside Grozny. For the majority of foreigners - aid workers included - the risks are simply too great.

Not, however, for Jon James and his partner, Camilla Carr, the Britons abducted last week in Chechnya by six masked men. It would be unfair, at this early stage, to speculate on what motivated the couple to go where most dare not; but an overwhelming desire to provide help seems to have prevailed over other considerations.

The couple, both 35 years old, had been living in Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire before travelling in a second-hand Lada to Moscow in April, their jumping- off point for their Chechen mission. About a month ago they set off south, to work in the Quaker-established Centre for Peacemaking and Community Development on the outskirts of Grozny, providing help to children traumatised by the war. Friends say they were due to return to Britain next month.

They met two years ago at a t'ai chi class Ms Carr was running. She has a 10-year-old son, Ashok, who spends much of his time in France with her ex-husband; Jon James has a teenage son, Ben, who lives with his mother in Cheltenham.

They appear to be people who care deeply about their calling. Until their departure Ms Carr had been working as an administrative assistant in a community centre in Ross-on-Wye, running play schemes for children during the school holidays. In Chechnya she sought to use her skills and compassion, offering drama, art, and therapeutic games, to help a still more needy category: the orphans of war. E-mail received by a friend of Ms Carr suggested that she had found her metier. "Everything seemed very nice for them. There was nothing sinister in the information she sent me."

There was, however, no shortage of sinister goings-on around them, of which they may or may not have been aware. A pattern of kidnapping, which began shortly after the peace deal last August, has steadily continued this year, prompting rumours that some malign political force is at work.

The list of suspects belongs to the peculiarly intrigue-laden world of the Caucasus: radical Chechens who resent making peace with the Russians without first winning independence; rivals of the Chechen president, Aslan Maskhadov, determined to bring down his administration; criminals determined only to make a fortune; and finally - that hardy perennial in all such line-ups - a rogue element in the Russian security forces, who hate the fact that Russia was defeated by a small mountain people, who are Muslims to boot.

But while most were fearful of entering Chechnya, the two Britons were not alone. A handful of foreign aid workers have carried on working in the republic, despite everything, often by slipping in from neighbouring republics for two or three days at a time, using unmarked vehicles.

Members of the Russian media have also carried on going there intermittently, although their experience has served to underline the perils of visiting the place. This year alone, 13 Russian journalists have been abducted.

Another to brave the new brutality of post-war Chechnya first-hand was the British journalist Carlotta Gall, a contributor to this newspaper and a veteran of Chechen war reporting. She says she found Grozny more dangerous than any of the many visits she paid to the city during the conflict. "Even during the height of war, there was never a feeling that the missiles were aimed at you. But this time people stared at me in the airport in a way that they never did before. Friends and strangers warned me constantly of the dangers. Every interview with a minister began with the questions: have you registered with the authorities? Have you got guards?

Ms Carr and Mr James had guards - two men, now under arrest alongside an aid worker. It is unclear whether they were truly involved, but if they are found guilty of kidnapping, the penalty could be death - a penalty that the Chechens have introduced in defiance of Moscow, which has begun to phase out capital punishment.

Yet even honest guards offer limited protection, unless you have a squad of them. When two Russian journalists were seized in broad daylight in Grozny last month, their small escort was reportedly faced by a kidnap team of 12 gunmen. Worse, guards who are willing to resist kidnappers face the prospect of having to shoot dead a fellow Chechen. This matters in a republic with a strong tradition of blood feuds - where a killing must, by tradition, be met by a revenge killing. Unsurprisingly, reports are now circulating that some guards have asked for daily fees of up to $1,000 - a sum well beyond the range of any aid worker.

Ms Gall, who was in the republic last month, also had an escort as she moved carefully through the former war-zone: two men, armed with Kalashnikovs and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

Ms Gall encountered another disturbing problem. A Chechen friend of hers found herself under pressure to set her up for abduction. When the woman refused, she was beaten up, and had her ribs broken. It seems not only are visitors at risk; so, too, are their acquaintances.

The fate of the two Britons will now depend on the Chechen authorities and whatever the Foreign Office can achieve in an area which their diplomats very rarely visit. The outlook is grim: although captives in Chechnya usually emerge alive, their release can take months of complex negotiations.

For now, the Foreign Office has decided to say as little as possible to the media, restricting comments to foggy claims that they are "being very active" and "urgently" seeking information. Whitehall believes that the best strategy - at least at the start of kidnappings - is to keep mum due to "operational requirements". Although it says it does not pay for hostages, the Government is keen to avoid encouraging the kidnappers from elevating any ransom demands, which they might be tempted to do if the couple's plight is widely publicised (in the unlikely event that they have access to the British media).

This argument cuts both ways. The Chechen separatist authorities have set up a special group to help find the Britons; the pressure of publicity might help to intensify their efforts, as well as keeping Whitehall on its toes. These days, the Chechen government - anxious, as ever, to shed Russia's yoke - cares about its international image.

Moreover, in Chechnya, past examples suggest that abductors ask for vast ransom sums, headlines or no headlines. Sometimes these demands work; there is little doubt that five, or even six-figure sums, have been paid in return for kidnapped foreign hostages - no matter that this only encourages further kidnappings.

The Chechen authorities do not take the same guarded line as Whitehall. Officials in Grozny have commented more openly on the Britons' plight, including Mr Maskhadov, the republic's president, who has publicly lambasted his security officials, giving them 24 hours to come up with a plan for releasing the Britons. It is an optimistic deadline, but one can only hope it helps. Camilla Carr and Jon James may have been naive and rash, but no one deserves their fate.