Britain stokes up diplomatic war over Chechnya

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The Independent Online
VAKHID ZAIPULAEV'S world began to collapse as the Russian army's pincers closed around the southern section of Grozny, capital of the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

His 15-year-old son Zelimkhan and two friends had gone for a walk by a stream just as Russian troops were advancing. "Shells started bursting around them," he said yesterday while sitting at his son's bedside. "They started to run, but Zelimkhan was hit by shrapnel in the leg. The bone was shattered."

Mr Zaipulaev had just arrived at a hospital in Nazran, capital of Ingushetia, with his son. Previously he had lived all his life in the village of Goity, on the outskirts of Grozny.

A small, tense, unshaven man, he looks 20 years older than his 39 years. He is scathingly contemptuous of the Russian offer of a safety corridor for civilians fleeing Grozny. "We have seen their corridors before," he said. "They shell them all the time. If they were serious about getting people out they would organise transport.

"Will the Russians destroy Grozny?" he asked before answering his own question: "Of course they will. They are not just planning to do it when their ultimatum expires. They are already destroying it.

"It is just one more attempt to exterminate the Chechens," he continued as he reflected on the blood-soaked history of his country.

"When all the Chechens were deported by Stalin in 1944 my wife's grandmother was killed. She got off the train to go to the toilet. The train started suddenly and cut off her legs. When her husband tried to help her the soldiers beat him with rifle butts. He never saw her again."

Mr Zaipulaev said: "I used to work as a bricklayer and I made furniture. When everything began to collapse in Chechnya 10 years ago I started making raspberry jam. It's popular here because people take it for sore throats. If I hadn't done that my family would have starved."

The efforts to bring Zelimkhan to safety illustrate the danger facing anybody in and around Grozny trying to escape. Mr Zaipulaev said: "First I took him to a small hospital in Goity. The Russians suddenly said it should be evacuated, along with the local bakery. There was nowhere for patients to go, so they stayed where they were. Zelimkhan was actually on the operating table when Russian shells started landing just by the hospital. I took him to the basement of our house."

Mr Zaipulaev said that by then food was running short in the village: "Some women brought flour and bread from Dagestan, but they had to bribe Russian soldiers to get through, so it costs three or four times as much as normal."

He tried to go to another hospital. It was only six miles away but the road was being shelled. "I offered people 500 roubles to drive us, which is a lot of money for us, but nobody would risk it."

Finally Mr Zaipulaev decided to try to reach Ingushetia, to the west. Before the war the journey took less than an hour, but by now Urus-Martan, a substantial Chechen town near by, was being shelled and bombed. He found a bus packed with refugees and got Zelimkhan on board.

"By now the roads were too dangerous because of the fighting, so we drove across country just below the mountains. In one sense we were lucky: the weather got colder, so the mud in the fields froze and we could drive on it. If it had been sunny we could not have got through."

The bus did not meet any Russian troops but Mr Zaipulaev had one more bad moment. The bus was suddenly confronted by a band of about 100 pro- Russian Chechens loyal to Bislan Gentamirov, a Chechen politician recently released from jail in Moscow where he was serving a sentence for corruption. "They pointed their guns at our bus but eventually let us go," said Mr Zaipulaev.

Father and son eventually reached a hospital in Nazran where Mr Zaipulaev, by now penniless and homeless, sleeps in a chair outside his son's ward. He said: "I'm not meant to be here at night, so I hide whenever the doctors come."

As he described his journey Mr Zaipulaev kept emphasising that other Chechens in Grozny were worse off than he was. Even if they tried to reach the Russian so-called safety corridor to the north they will face a bombardment on the way and male Chechens may be arrested as suspected guerrillas when they arrive.

If they try to escape from the city to the south, they must evade Russian shellfire and try not to get caught up in ground fighting. Not surprisingly, many people in Grozny think they have a better chance of staying alive if they remain in their cellars.