14,000 caught in deadly crossfire of Chechnya

As shelling rages above them, and the Kremlin's troops advance, neutral villagers fear the worst
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The Independent Online

AS THE sound of artillery fire and plumes of smoke crept closer to the Chechen village of Tolstoi-Yurt, its people were trying, without much hope, to stay neutral in the latest war between Russia and Chechnya.

AS THE sound of artillery fire and plumes of smoke crept closer to the Chechen village of Tolstoi-Yurt, its people were trying, without much hope, to stay neutral in the latest war between Russia and Chechnya.

"We want to stay out of it," said Said Khasuev, a trader. "We have blocked all the roads except one into the village. We tell the [Chechen] fighters to stay away, though we let them get food and water here."

Tolstoi-Yurt, a pretty village of red brick and painted wooden houses, is on a grassy plateau a couple of miles south of the Terek river, beyond which the Russian army was massing. Its only defence was a thin line of Chechen fighters dug into an escarpment overlooking the river. From here they would try to hold back Russian tanks with sub-machine-guns and anti-tank guns.

When we first approached Tolstoi-Yurt, people standing by the road shouted at the Chechen fighters with us to go away. Several fighters shook their fists at the villagers.

Tolstoi-Yurt, with a normal population of 7,000, now doubled by refugees from the fighting along the Terek, escaped destruction in the first war between Russia and Chechnya in 1994-96. It was always a centre of opposition to Dzhokhar Dudayev, the first Chechen president, who led the fight for independence until he was killed by a Russian missile.

The village will be lucky to survive this time. Standing on concrete slabs to see better, children commented almost professionally on the bombardment, shouting "That's a Grad [multi-rocket launcher]" as the rockets exploded.

War was now very close. Aishat Nurmagomedova was in hospital with a head wound, one of eight survivors from a bus hit by a Russian tank round in which 40 passengers died.

Lisa, a middle-aged woman who had fled the nearby village of Chervlionaia, now in the middle of a battle between Russians and Chechens, said: "This is the third time the Russians have chased us out of our homes in the last five years. The children are crying all the time. We don't know what to do."

In theory, the people of Tolstoi-Yurt, regarded as collaborators by many other Chechens, should be an ideal audience for the Russian hearts-and-minds campaign to woo people back to loyalty to Moscow. The Russian government is promising to pay pensions and re-equip schools.

But Mr Khasuev, though keen to to keep Chechen fighters out of his village, had few doubts about the most likely outcome.

"If the Russians break through, the village will be looted. Nothing will remain."

Alawdi Khumadov, a refugee from the north side of the Terek, added: "They know what to rob. In the last war they shot our cattle with their Kalashnikovs and dragged off the bodies behind their APCs [armoured personnel carriers] so they could eat the meat."

A Russian carrot-and-stick policy might appeal to the many Chechens who say they are sickened by economic misery and the banditry of the Chechen warlords. "I've almost forgotten what money looks like," said an elderly man.

But in villages along the Terek the Russian stick was more visible than the carrot. On the skyline grey-blue smoke rose from burning houses. Electricity was cut off on the first day of the Russian advance into Chechnya, three weeks ago, and villagers said they were short of water because they can no longer get to the Terek.

Most of the people in Tolstoi-Yurt are farmers, but they had not gone to their fields since they were fired on by Russian helicopters rescuing a pilot from a plane shot down by a missile.

Hatred between Chechens and Russians has, if anything, deepened since the last war. The Russians blame the Chechens for the bombs that killed 300 people in0. apartment blocks in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia.

Mr Khasuev, like many other Chechens, worked in Moscow until he had to leave on 15 September. He said: "When I first went to Moscow in 1983 I didn't know where the local police station was.

"By the time I left, the detention centre there had become my second home. Finally a policeman told my wife and I to get out. If they claim Chechnya is part of Russia, why do they treat us like beasts?"