The savagery of war: A soldier looks back at Chechnya
The war in Chechnya was one of the most brutal and senseless conflicts of modern times. Here, in an extraordinary piece of reportage, one young soldier provides an unsparing and sometimes disturbing account of life at the frontline
Saturday 10 November 2007
An extract from 'One Soldier's War in Chechnya' by Arkady Babchenko
Listen, are the Chechens our enemies or not?" Osipov asks.
"No, we aren't fighting the Chechens but rather the so-called illegal armed formations," Zyuzik answers.
"But what are they then, Chechens or not?"
"So we're fighting the Chechens," Andy concludes. "And what do they want?"
"So why can't we give them independence?"
"Because it says in the Constitution that no one can just go and break away from Russia just for the asking," all-knowing Zyuzik explains.
"What I don't get is this: are Chechens citizens of Russia or enemies of Russia? If they are enemies then we should stop messing around and just kill the lot of them. But if they are citizens, then how can we fight against them?"
He gives us another triumphant look and no one challenges him. This sort of conversation is typical for the army. No one, from the regimental commander to the rank and file soldier, understands why he is here. No one sees any sense in this war; all they see is that this war has been bought off from start to finish. It has been waged incompetently from the very beginning, and all those mistakes by the general staff, the defence minister and the supreme command have to be paid for with the lives of soldiers. For what purpose are these lives being laid down? The "restoration of constitutional order" and the "counterterrorist operation" are nothing but meaningless words that are cited to justify the murder of thousands of people.
"Zyuzik, are you prepared to kill children for the constitution of your country?"
"If the war isn't going to end, then what are we fighting for? Why kill so that there is even more killing? Who can explain that to me?" Osipov demands.
"'Amen," says Loop.
But how really to explain? It would be wrong to think that the war in Chechnya began the day the federal army was brought in. And there was certainly more than one motivation behind it. Chechnya is a complex tangle of factors and accidents, a whirlwind of events that the future historian will have difficulty sorting out.
The Chechnya conflict started in the early 1990s, soon after General Dzhokhar Dudayev came to power. He had been a pilot in the Soviet air force and fought in the Soviet-Afghan war. From the outset he followed the policy of political independence for Chechnya, and ultimately declared its cession from the Russian Federation.
In 1991 Dudayev expelled Russian army forces from the territory of Chechnya. When the army withdrew, a huge amount of ammunition was left behind. More than 200 aeroplanes were abandoned in the airport of Grozny alone, together with tanks, armoured carriers, artillery and even several "Grad" rocket launchers. The amount of weaponry was astounding – whole ammunition depots, thousands of units, were left behind.
Growing gangsterism and unemployment undermined Dudayev's authority and caused a split among the population. In November 1994, pro-Moscow opposition forces led by Umar Avturkhanov stormed Grozny and were defeated. Twenty Russian tanks were destroyed together with their crews, and the few surviving tankmen were captured. Moscow renounced them – President Boris Yeltsin couldn't have cared less about individuals, but he was infuriated that General Dudayev had acted beyond his authority. In my opinion this was the real reason federal forces were sent into Chechnya.
The military operation to overthrow the Dudayev regime was launched on 11 December 1994. It was poorly planned – recall the then Minister of Defence General Grachyov's announcement that he would "capture Grozny with two regiments in two hours". From the outset, the army was betrayed by the high command. Its soldiers were insufficiently trained, depressed and demoralised; they did not understand the aims of this war, and they were treated as cannon fodder.
That December in Grozny the Russian army bore huge losses. On New Year's Eve, the 131st Maikop brigade was almost completely wiped out. Various other units approaching the city from different directions were blocked and partially destroyed.
People were killed in their thousands. To this day there are no official statistics for casualties in the first Chechnya campaign. Under the current Russian government we'll never know them anyway because they are catastrophic. But according to unofficial information, in January alone almost 5,000 Russian officers and soldiers were killed in the Battle of Grozny.
The Chechen losses, not to mention the deaths among the civilian population, are not known and probably never will be – no one counted them at all.
I was drafted into the army as a second-year law student in November 1995. I spent six months in a training unit in the Urals, and in May 1996 I was transported to the Northern Caucasus together with 1,500 other conscripts. First I served at the frontline town of Mozdok, on the border with Chechnya, and then in Chechnya itself. Officially a truce had been signed by then, but shooting was going on all the time. On 6 August 1996, Chechen fighters captured Grozny and held the city for two weeks. This was the second-heaviest battle, and it ended in yet another truce and the signing of the Khasavyurt Accords, by which Chechnya practically received independence within the Russian Federation.
After Dudayev's death in April 1996, Aslan Maskhadov was elected president of Chechnya. Maskhadov was a reasonable and even-tempered man, and had been Chief of GHQ under Dudayev, but his position was not secure; his army consisted of only 2,000 men, and he was therefore powerless as president. In reality Chechnya was controlled by field commanders of fighters' units such as Ruslan Gelayev, Shamil Basayev, Arbi Barayev and the Jordanian Khattab, to name but a few. Lawlessness reigned supreme, and people were kidnapped all the time. In the People's Friendship Square in the centre of Grozny, there was a flourishing and perfectly open slave trade. According to official data, during the three years of Chechnya's "independence" almost 30,000 people were kidnapped, sold into slavery or executed in Chechnya.
After the demobilisation, I completed the remaining two years at the Law Institute and graduated with a bachelor's degree. It was the autumn of 1999, and the second Chechen campaign was just beginning.
This time I volunteered to take part in the war. There were many thousands of us, ex-soldiers, who returned to that second war after the first. I have no answer to why I went there again. I don't know. I just couldn't help it. I was irresistibly drawn back. Maybe it was because my past was there, a large part of my life. It was as if only my body had returned from that first war, but not my soul. Maybe war is the strongest narcotic in the world.
The second war was quite different from the first. For Chechnya, the first had been a war of liberation, a war for independence when the people were united and inspired; in the second it was not the Chechens we fought, but the rebel bands. By then the Chechens were tired of lawlessness and dislocation. The second war was even more incomprehensible and dirty than the first.
Strictly speaking, there is no dedovshchina bullying in our regiment. Dedovshchina is a set of unofficial rules, a kind of a code of laws which, if violated, incur corporal punishment.
For example, your walk. Your walk is determined by the amount of time you have served. The "spirits", those who have just been called up, are not supposed to walk at all, they are supposed to "flit" or "rustle". Those in their second six months – the "skulls" or "bishops" – are entitled to a more relaxed mode of walking but their gait is supposed to reflect humility none the less.
Only the "lords", who are about to be demobilised, can walk with a special swagger that is allowed to the older recruits alone; a leisurely pace, their heels scraping the floor. If I had even thought about walking like that in training I'd immediately have been showered with punches. " Up for demob now, are you?" they'd have asked, and then they'd have given me hell. If I stuck my hands in my pockets I'd also get a thump on the head: that is the privilege of the older soldiers. A spirit should forget about his pockets entirely. Otherwise they fill them with sand and sew them up. The sand chafes the groin and two days later you have weeping sores.
You can get a beating for anything at all. If a spirit doesn't show respect in his conversation with an older soldier, a "Granddad", he'll get beaten up. If he talks too loudly or goes about the barracks clattering his heels, he'll get beaten up. If he lies on his bed in the day, he'll get beaten up. If the people back home send him good rubber slippers and he decides to wear them to the shower, he'll get beaten up and lose his slippers.
And if a spirit even thinks of turning down the tops of his boots or walking around with his top button undone, or if his cap is tipped back on his head or to one side, or he doesn't do his belt up tightly enough, they'll thrash him so hard he'll forget his name. He is a spirit, the lowest dregs, and it's his job to slave until the older soldiers have been discharged.
But there is none of this in our regiment. All of that stuff – the unbuttoned tunics, the belt and the walk – is just child's play. It's the big league here. I can walk how I like and wear what I like and it doesn't bother anyone. No, here they beat us for completely different reasons. Our older conscripts have already killed people and buried their comrades and they don't believe they'll survive this war themselves. To them, beatings are just the norm: no excuse is needed. Everyone is going to die anyway, both those doing the beating and their victims. So what's the big deal?
Everybody beats everyone. The dembels, with three months service to go, the officers, the warrant officers. They get stinking drunk and then hammer the ones below them. So the colonels beat the majors, the majors beat the lieutenants, and they all beat the privates; and granddads beat new recruits. No one talks to each other like human beings, they just smack each other in the mouth. Because it's easier that way, quicker and simpler to understand. Because there are unfed children back home, because the officer corps is addled with impoverishment and hopelessness, because a dembel has three months left, because every second man is shell-shocked. Because our Motherland makes us kill people, our own people, who speak Russian, and we have to shoot them in the head and send their brains flying up the walls, crush them with tanks and tear them to pieces. Because these people want to kill you, because your soldiers arrived yesterday straight from training and today they are already lying on the airstrip as lumps of charred flesh, and flies lay eggs in their open eyes, and because in a day the company is reduced to less than a third, and God willing, you'll stay among that third. Because the one thing that everyone knows is how to get drunk and kill, kill and kill some more.
Because a soldier is a stinking wretch, and a spirit doesn't have any right to live at all, and to beat him is to actually do him a favour. "I'll teach you what war is about, you pricks! You can all have a smack in the mouth so you don't think life is too rosy, and thank your mother that she didn't have you six months earlier or you'd all be dead now!"
Everyone hates everyone else in this regiment – the hatred and madness hang over the square like a foul black cloud, and this cloud saturates the young boys with fear, just like pieces of barbecue meat being marinated in lemon juice, only they get stewed in fear and hatred before they get sent off to the meatgrinder.
It is August 1996, and in Grozny it's hell on earth. The Chechens entered the city from all sides and captured it in a few hours. Fierce fighting is underway and our forces are cut off in isolated pockets of resistance. Those that get surrounded are mercilessly wiped out. Our lads have no food, no ammunition, and death roams this sultry city. Several burial detachments are formed in our regiment and they stick our company in one of them.
The bodies keep on coming, a steady stream of them, and it seems it will never end. There are no more of the pretty silver bags. Bodies torn to pieces, charred and swollen, are brought to us in any state, in heaps. Some bodies are more than half burnt – we refer to these among ourselves as "smoked goods", to the zinc coffins as "cans", and to morgues as "canning factories". There is no mocking or black humour in these words, and we say them without smiling. These dead soldiers are still our comrades, our brothers. That's just what we call them, there's nothing more to it than that. We heal ourselves with cynicism, preserve our sanity this way so as not to go completely out of our minds – we have no vodka to help us.
So we unload bodies, again and again. Our senses are already dulled, and we don't feel pity or compassion for the dead. We are so used to mutilated bodies by now that we don't even bother washing our hands before we have a smoke, rolling the tobacco in the Prima cigarettes with our thumbs. We don't have anywhere to wash them anyway; there's no water around and it's a long way to run to the fountain every time.
We stop noticing living people, in fact we hardly see any. Every thing that's living seems temporary to us, everything that leaves this runway, everything that arrives here in columns, and even those who have just been called up into the army, all of them will end up heaped on top of one another in the helicopters. They simply have no other choice. They'll be starved of food and sleep, tormented by lice and filth, be beaten up, have stools smashed over their heads and be raped in the latrines – so what? Their suffering is of no importance; they're going to get killed anyway.
They can cry, write letters and beg to be taken away from here, but no one will come for them, no one will pay attention to them, and all their problems are just trivia. A busted skull is better than this helicopter, of that we are now certain. We are also temporary, like everything else on the cursed field. And we will also die.
It's quiet. Day has broken but the sun still hasn't risen and the cloudless sky in the east is illuminated by pink reflections. That's bad – it'll be another bright day, perfect for snipers. We sit in the cellar of the command building, warming ourselves by a fire and devouring our dry rations. We're a bit scared, jittery; it's as if we're suspended in weightlessness, just temporary life-forms. Nothing lasts long here: the heat from the fire, breakfast, the silence, the dawn, our lives. In a couple of hours we will advance. It'll be a long, cold, hard slog, but still better than the uncertainty we face now. When it starts everything will be crystal clear, our fear will abate and yield completely to the strong nervous tension that is starting to overtake. My brain is already lapsing into soporific apathy and the urge to sleep is strong. I just want it to start. I am woken by a rumbling that squeezes my ears. The air shakes, like jelly on a plate, the ground trembles, the walls, the floor, everything. The soldiers get up, keeping close to the wall, and peer out of the window. Only half awake, I don't understand what's going on and I jump up, grabbing my rifle.
Have the Chechens started shelling us, I wonder? One of the lads turns round and says something. He is speaking loudly, his throat visibly straining to force out the words, but the noise muffles and I can't hear anything. From his lips I read the words: "It's started."
It's started. Now I really am scared. I can't stay in the gloom of this cellar any more. I have to do something, go somewhere, anything but stay sitting here.
I go out on to the porch and the rumbling intensifies so much that my ears hurt. The infantry press themselves against the walls and hide behind the carriers, all of them in helmets. The commanders stand at the corner of the HQ house: the Kombat, the guys from regiment headquarters, all craning their necks as they look round the corner in the direction of Grozny, where the explosions are coming from.
My curiosity wakens and I too want to see what's going on. I go down the steps and have only moved 10 paces when a sturdy piece of shrapnel the size of a fist slams down at my feet and lies there, hissing in a puddle, its jagged blue-charred edges flashing up at my eyes. Right after comes a shower of hundreds of tiny pieces of shrapnel bouncing off the hard clay. I shield my head with my arm and run back into the building, tripping and flying inside as I cross the doorstep. I have no more desire to go outside and I make my way down to the basement, to a breach in the wall where light is shining through.
A crowd stands at the opening, half of them inside and half outside, exclaiming from time to time: "Wow, look at that, they're giving them a right pounding! Not half! Where did they get anti-aircraft guns? Look, there's another one!" I look out cautiously and see soldiers standing with their heads tipped back as they gaze into the sky. I go up to a platoon commander I know and ask what's going on. He motions upward and shouts above the roar: "The Chechens are firing anti-aircraft guns at those Sukhoi jets bombing the city." Sure enough, the black clouds of explosions are erupting around a tiny plane spinning in the clear sky, first above it and to the right, and then closer and closer. The plane goes into a dive to escape the barrage and then returns and rakes the area with its rocket launchers before flying off.
Everyone suddenly crouches down and somehow I end up on the ground when a burst of heavy machine-gun whips through the air, followed by an explosion, and once again metal showers down from the sky, clattering on armour, walls, helmets. We hear swearing and shouts: "Those morons in the artillery can't shoot for shit, falling short again!" Beside me hunches Odegov, our mortar man. For some reason he's grinning as he shows me a thumb-sized piece of shrapnel: "Look, this just hit me in the back!" he tells me.
"Are you hurt?"
"No, it stuck in my flak jacket!" he marvels, turning round. Between his shoulders there is a hole in his jacket.
"Odegov, that's a bottle of vodka you owe me!" A day before the storming operation, when he was pulling the metal plates out of his jacket to lighten it, I advised him to leave the Kevlar plating since it doesn't weigh much and would protect him from flying shards. And so it did – the plating saved his spine.
The next salvo rushes overhead and the shells fly into the city. You can't see anything down there because of a large embankment in the road ahead blocking the view. I go up to the second floor and run into the Kombat, who's leaning over a map on the table discussing something with the company commanders.
The Kombat glances at me and I make like I'm busy with something and duck out of sight into the next room. Yurka, the 8th company commander's orderly, is there sitting in a rocking chair, smoking and looking out of the window like he's watching TV. Another rocking chair beside him is empty. I wait round the corner for 10 minutes and nothing happening, no sniper fire, so I join him and light up. And there we sit, rocking gently, watching the bombardment while we smoke, as if we're at the cinema. All we're missing is popcorn.
No one returns from the war. Ever. Mothers get back a sad semblance of their sons – embittered, aggressive beasts, hardened against the whole world and believing in nothing except death. Yesterday's soldiers no longer belong to their parents. They belong to war, only their body returns from war. Their soul stays there.
But the body still comes home. And the war within it dies gradually, shedding itself in layers, scale by scale. Slowly, very slowly, yesterday's soldier, sergeant or captain transforms from a soulless dummy with empty eyes and a burnt-out soul into something like a human being. The unbearable nervous tension ebbs away, the aggression simmers down, the hatred passes, and the loneliness abates. It's the fear that lingers longest of all, an animal fear of death, but that too passes with time.
And you start to learn to live in this life again. You learn to walk without checking the ground beneath your feet for mines and tripwires, and step on manholes on the road without fear, and stand at your full height in open ground. And you go shopping, talk on the phone and sleep on a bed. You learn to take for granted the hot water in the taps, the electricity and the central heating. You no longer jump at loud noises. You start to live. At first because that's how it's worked out and you have stayed alive, you do it without gaining much joy from life; you look at everything as a windfall that came your way through some whim of fate. You lived your life from cover to cover in those 180 days you were there, and the remaining 50-odd years can't add anything to that time, or detract from it. But then you start to get drawn into life. You get interested in this game, which isn't for real. You pass yourself off as a fully fledged member of society, and the mask of a normal person grows on to you, no longer rejected by your body. And those around you think you are just the same as everyone else. But no one knows your real face, and no one knows that you are no longer a person. Happy, laughing people walk around you, accepting you as one of their own, and no one knows where you have been.
But that doesn't bother you any more. You now remember the war as some cartoon horror movie you once saw, but you no longer recognise yourself as one of its characters. You don't tell anyone the truth any more. You can't explain what war really is to someone who has never been there, just as you can't explain green to a blind person, or a man can't know what it's like to give birth. They simply don't have the necessary sensory organs. You can't explain or understand war – all you can do is experience it.
This extract is taken from 'One Soldier's War in Chechnya' by Arkady Babchenko, published by Portobello Books, £15.99. To purchase a copy at a special price (including free p&p) call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897
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