Thousands flee Russian shells

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The Independent Online

By Patrick Cockburn on the Chechen border

By Patrick Cockburn on the Chechen border

07 November 1999

As Russian artillery and aircraft pounded central Chechnya yesterday, a single village in the front line was making a last desperate effort to save itself from destruction.

Villagers say Russian shells started to fall in Zakan, a pretty village set on low hills beside the river Sunzha, on Wednesday, driving its people into their basements. "I was in the courtyard of a house with two other people," says Ruslan Manchigov, now in a hospital in Ingushetia just across the Chechen border. "The bombardment started at 2pm. A shell landed very close, killed one of my friends and totally smashed my left leg. Another eight people died in the village at the same time." The shelling has gone on ever since, while the villagers tried to persuade the Russians to stop.

Zakan is not a militant place. It played little part in the last Chechen-Russian war three years ago, and went unscathed. "There are no fighters from the Chechen side in the village," said Abuezit Dushaev, a 44-year-old farmer. "The people won't have them. We have guards on the outskirts of the village to stop strangers coming in."

The village leaders, Mullah Gelani and Saidali Musaev, went to the nearest Russian headquarters to try to invite Russian soldiers to enter Zakan and see for themselves that nobody was resisting. Talks are still going on, but early yesterday shells continued to fall.

Chechen villagers who have fled to the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia say the present Russian onslaught is far worse than in the last war in 1994-96, when many Chechen districts were able to stay out of the fighting. This time Russia is only using its ground troops after prolonged bombardment.

There is also a deepening ferocity in the Russian attack. Zakan is known in Chechnya for its large psychiatric hospital, which was taken over last week by Russian troops. Mr Dushaev said the soldiers "shot dead Dr Abdurashid Dadaev, the head of the hospital, when he drove up in his car. His wife later killed herself".

Mr Manchigov says the number of casualties is rising fast in Zakan, because so many people in the village are refugees from areas already taken by Russia, and are camped in the open. "The refugees from other villages have to go down to the river to collect water and they get hit by shell fire," he said.

Refugees, who now number 190,000 in Ingushetia, all speak of relentless but indiscriminate shelling, and the picture they paint is unintentionally confirmed by Russian television. Night after night the news claims that artillery strikes are of pinpoint accuracy, and all against military targets. But it then shows Grad and Uragan multi-rocket launchers being fired into Chechnya. The Grad fires 40 rockets with a 12-mile range and the Uragan 16 bigger rockets with a 40-mile range. Neither was designed for accuracy, but for destroying whole areas at a time.

There is no doubt that the bombardment has terrified the Chechen population. Again and again refugees crossing the border from Chechnya yesterday complained that the Russians were making no attempt to distinguish between fighters and civilians. Taisa Dikaeva, from the town of Urus-Martan, said: "How can the Russians claim to be carrying out an anti-terrorist operation against a whole nation? Are they really doing all this to destroy 30 to 40 terrorists? Every time they destroy our houses they say they have hit a terrorist base."

Mrs Dikaeva added that Chechnya was not the only part of the former Soviet Union with a reputation for being a stronghold for criminals and bandits. Referring to a series of political murders in St Petersburg, she said: "There are as many criminals there as here. Why don't they go and bomb St Petersburg?"

The Chechens are eager to show a common front. But under the surface there are divisions between those who blame the Islamic militants, known as the Wahhabis, as well as the Russians for the tragedy which has overwhelmed Chechnya in the past six weeks. One woman in a crowd of refugees who had just crossed the border yesterday, suddenly said: "They [the Wahhabis] are all criminals." But other bystanders told her: "You should not say things like that in public."

The problem for President Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen leader, said a member of the local parliament in Ingushetia, is "the division between the Wahhabis and his own fighters. Relations are very bad". Many Chechens blame Shamil Basayev, a militant leader, for launching a raid into Dagestan in the name of Islam in August. This gave Russia its pretext for invading Chechnya.

But President Maskhadov is not strong enough to denounce Mr Basayev or do without his forces. In fighting along the Terek river last month, according to Chechen sources, Mr Maskhadov's men ran short of ammunition and asked Mr Basayev's soldiers, fighting close by, for some supplies. They were told: "We have nothing for you, our weapons are for us alone."

It would be easy enough for Russia to exploit these divisions, but it shows no sign of wanting to do so. Its public strategy has been to demand that President Maskhadov hand over Wahhabi leaders, blamed for bomb attacks in Russia which killed 300 people, but also to refuse to negotiate with him on the grounds that he is too weak.

This leaves Chechens, even those regarded as bandits by both sides, with little option but to fight. So far the Russian strategy of advancing slowly and depending on superior firepower seems to have paid off, at least in military terms. The Russian army may be understating its casualties, but the true figure is likely to be low.

The problem for the Russians is that Chechen military losses are also small. They can still retreat into the mountains as winter approaches. Russia is trying to seal off Chechnya by getting Georgia to close the 50-mile border to the south, but military experts doubt if this is feasible. The Russians have not suffered any of the disasters of the last war, but they are still far from delivering a knock-out blow.