CHECHNYA DAYS

Christopher Bellamy finds the traditions of a hospitable people live on amid warfare
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The Independent Online
"Where are you going, sir?" the Spetsnatz man asked.

"Achkhoy Martan" - a village south-west of Grozny.

"Well, be careful. They're bombing in that area. Have a good journey, and good luck with your work." The Russian special forces soldier handed back my documents.

Sometimes the Spetsnatz run this checkpoint and sometimes soldiers from the Interior Ministry. On one occasion one of the latter started firing his pistol off to one side of the road, the spent cartridge cases bouncing off the windscreen of my car.

The thousands of Russian troops in Chechnya have come from all parts of Europe and Asia. To the west, at Nasran, some vehicles bore the cryptic letters TOF. A small blue St Andrew's cross on a white background gave a clue: TOF stands for Tikhookeanskiy Flot - Pacific Fleet - and these were marines from the Far East.

Technically, Chechnya is part of Europe, just north of the main chain of the Caucasus, which marks Europe's southern boundary. But Chechnya is farther east than Turkey and on the same longitude as Iran. In spirit it is part of Asia, as the problems of transmitting reports by satellite make clear. The eastern Atlantic Ocean satellite is so low on the horizon it is impossible to use it.

The old man who was head of the farmhouse where I stayed was fascinated by this "instrument" and asked how often the satellite circled the earth. He was one of the hundreds of thousands of Chechens deported by Stalin in 1944, who returned only in 1957.

Of all the foreigners who have descended on this proud people the British are most popular, partly because British engineers helped to develop the oil industry at the beginning of the century and partly because of a prophecy by a Chechen seer, Mansur, that the destinies of Britain and Chechnya would be entwined in friendship.

The oil pipes have been struck by Russian bombing, and fuel is scarce. At the roadside, people stand with jerrycans or glass jars full of a dark yellow liquid on sale for a few hundred roubles. Zalimkhan, my Ingushetian driver, compared the prices. "Bad petrol is easy to get. But good petrol - that comes dear".

The cities were named to invoke fear. Vladikavkaz, in North Ossetia, means "commanding the Caucasus", while Grozny means the "awesome fortress".

The Chechens came into the Russian Empire less than 150 years ago, because it seemed a better option than Turkish suzerainty. They have no more in common with Russia than do Georgia, Armenia or Azerbaijan - now independent states. The guerrilla leader, Shamil, fought for a quarter of a century against the Russians in the flat, formerly wooded plain to the north. The plain is crossed by roads that are broad and straight and lined with trees to shade marching troops. Eventually, a Russian army of 40,000 men ran Shamil and about 2,000 supporters to earth.

But the people have never become Russian. "We were never under the Tartar yoke" - the 250-year rule of the Mongol Khans over Russia - said Shamkhan, 38, a Chechen fighter in Grozny. "That was for the Russians in the towns. And even the great Genghis Khancould not conquer us."

The Chechens have a reputation for cruelty. "They say we castrate prisoners", another Chechen fighter said. "But it's not true. We've never done that. It's the Russian generals and the KGB who say that."

The local people converse mainly in the Chechen language, which sounds a little like Arabic, in Russian, their second language, and occasionally in a mixture of the two. Arabic greetings are widely used. Social life is typically Muslim. The men talk and do business, the women keep house and cook. Until 1917, Chechens were not allowed to live in Grozny - it was a Russian city - hence the large number of Russian inhabitants whom the Russians have killed. Men still pay a dowry for a bride.

Chechen hospitality is legendary. After visiting the hospital at Achkhoy Martan, it was time for lunch. This could not be hurried.

Though the Chechens are Muslims and usually do not drink alcohol, there were many toasts. What could one say? That it was terrible that such events should be the cause of our meeting? That the tales of legendary Chechen hospitality were true? And so, to a toast. To peace, but to freedom, too.

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