Dangers of getting too close to the story

BUDENNOVSK DAYS
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The Independent Online
For those of us not held captive inside the Budennovsk Central District Hospital, the hazards were spookily familiar: checkpoints manned by drunken, jittery Russian soldiers, unhinged Cossack vigilantes with pistols and hunting rifles, the occasional sprint across an exposed alleyway said to be in the line of sniper fire, nervous nights tormented by dive- bombing mosquitoes and endless days waiting in the blistering sun of a southern Russian summer.

With some minor allowances for weather and insect life, such are the elements of what has become a grimly familiar Russian drama. After watching tanks shell the Moscow White House in 1993 and Russian artillery and planes bomb the Grozny presidential palace, I joined my colleagues this week outside yet another burning Russian building.

On the final day of the hostage crisis, though, there arose an altogether more novel and unnerving peril. The hazy line between covering a story and getting too close to it is usually a fairly academic notion, a theme for those who teach journalism rather than actually do it. Not in Budennovsk.

On the last morning, I was awakened shortly before five o'clock by the din of buses and ambulances trundling towards the hospital. The departure of the hostage-takers and the release of their captives seemed imminent. I joined a procession of journalists staggering half-asleep down Prospekt Kalinina to a Russian military roadblock outside the hospital. The elderly couple who had given me a place to stay also dragged themselves from bed: their daughter-in-law was among the hostages.

Six hours later - and still no sign of either the hostages or their captors - an official from the Federal Security Bureau, the new-look KGB, arrived to address waiting journalists. He said his boss, Sergei Stepashin, might be giving a press conference soon and invited us to put our names down on a list for this and other, unspecified "upcoming events". We rushed to get on the list, shouting our names and newspapers, jostling against a line of bullying soldiers called in to control the stampede. An hour or so later, we found out what it was exactly we had signed up for. "You should discuss it and make your own choice," said Vladimir Vorozhtsov, the press flack for Russia's Interior Ministry. "It is quite a risky undertaking."

There would be no press conference with Mr Stepashin, no interview with the Interior Minister, Viktor Yerin, and no photo opportunity in the hospital with Shamil Basayev, the Chechen commander.

Instead, Mr Vorozhtsov announced, we would all get a free ticket for what threatened to be a once-in-a-lifetime journey: a seat in a convoy of Hungarian-made Icarus buses carrying Chechen gunmen back to Chechnya. Or at least as far as they could get before some branch of the Russian security services or a gang of freelance Cossack avengers decided to attack the cavalcade, which included a refrigerated lorry carrying Chechen corpses. In other words, we were being cordially invited by Russian authorities and Chechen fanatics to offer ourselves as human shields.

It was hardly a consolation that we would not be alone as "volunteer hostages". The company offered little comfort. Several score hostages from inside the hospital would make the journey too. But since Russian troops already had risked the lives of more than 1,500 people by storming the hospital only two day's earlier, it seemed unlikely they would flinch from risking just a few dozen lives somewhere along the road to Chechnya.

Also on the passenger list was Sergei Kovalyov, the Russian human-rights activist. Mr Kovalyov is brave and indefatigable. His presence, though, was no guarantee of safe passage: he is detested by the military.

Oh, and just one other thing, said Mr Vorozhtsov. We would all have to sign a waiver form, releasing the Russian government from all responsibility for our security.

I've never seen such unanimity among a group of normally gung-ho foreign journalists. For some the decision was made easy. In London and New York, the bosses of big television agencies sent word by satellite telephone that any member of staff who got on the buses would be sacked. The rest of us pretended to weigh up the risk and rewards. The calculation did not take long. "Journalistically, it is a no-win situation," pronounced the correspondent from ITN. "You sit in a bus for 14 hours or more ... If you get there there is no story; if you don't get there you are dead." Another colleague suggested we try to negotiate a better deal: the press should have its own separate bus at the end of the Chechen cavalcade. The plan was a non-starter. The Chechens needed human shields, not spectators.

The gunmen initially insisted on 60 local and foreign journalists. For a few nervous minutes it seemed as if the reluctance of the international press corps to embrace the risk of collective suicide might scupper everything. The Chechens relented. They settled for a dozen Russian journalists.

I admire the courage of those who agreed to go. They got as close as you can get to a story. I am also pleased to see they made it, after long delays, hours at roadblocks and several very close calls, to Chechnya and back in one piece. I am also very glad I stayed behind. That night they served champagne in the house where I was staying. Their daughter- in-law was free.

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