Welcome to Mr Putin's Grozny

It is the first large city to be destroyed by military action in Europe since 1945. Two months after the Russian army captured Grozny, the capital of Chechnya and once home to 400,000 people, its ruins look like pictures of Stalingrad or Dresden immediately after the Second World War. Russian shells and bombs have turned apartment blocks into grey concrete sandwiches, one floor collapsed on top of another. The bombardment blew apart even the smallest shed, leaving only a few tattered pieces of corrugated iron hanging from charred beams.

It is the first large city to be destroyed by military action in Europe since 1945. Two months after the Russian army captured Grozny, the capital of Chechnya and once home to 400,000 people, its ruins look like pictures of Stalingrad or Dresden immediately after the Second World War. Russian shells and bombs have turned apartment blocks into grey concrete sandwiches, one floor collapsed on top of another. The bombardment blew apart even the smallest shed, leaving only a few tattered pieces of corrugated iron hanging from charred beams.

I drove back into Grozny last week sitting on top of a Russian armoured personnel carrier. Its driver manoeuvred agilely between the heaps of rubble and the deep bomb craters which punctured the road every few hundred yards. For mile after mile not a single building was intact. The only place where I have ever seen this level of destruction was the front-line in Beirut during the war in Lebanon, where for years the divide between the Christian and Muslim sides of the city was a no man's land of blackened ruins, guarded by snipers and mines.

Grozny is much worse. It is not just the front-line but the whole city that has been torn apart. I was last here in October, when it was still held by the Chechens. Then, the city centre had already been badly damaged by Russian artillery and air attack during the last Chechen war in 1994-96, but saplings and grass sprouted out of the tops of the walls of wrecked buildings. Now the foliage that colonised the wreckage is shrivelled and burned. The devastation even extends below ground: deep penetration bombs have torn up water pipes once buried six feet deep, which now stick out at crazy angles into the air, like the guts spilling out of a corpse. On the streets of Grozny, Russian soldiers outnumber the civilians, though by how many it is impossible to say. Fortified concrete-block checkpoints, usually supported by a light tank, guard every crossroads.

The few Chechens I could see on the streets were women, children or old men, with shocked, blank expressions on their faces, wearily picking their way through the rubble. Many were clutching empty plastic bags, and I thought they must be on their way to buy bread or water at one of the little street stalls that used to spring up in Chechnya during any lull in the fighting. But even these had been destroyed in the siege. We could see their scorched and twisted metal frames beside the road.

The survivors of the four-month-long bombardment turned out to be making for a Russian soup kitchen where several hundred people were jostling to receive a small ration of food. "It is a total disaster," said Zura Tukaeva, who is 59 but looks older, and who was clutching five small loaves of bread. "I have no money, no job, no gas and little food." Glancing around at the crowd, she added: "You only see women and old people here. The day before yesterday some young men came here to get food and the Russians immediately arrested them and beat them just because they were young and male and might be rebels."

Russian soldiers were standing close to where the Chechens were queuing for their rations, but this did not stop one old woman explaining what she thought should happen. "The Russian army must go home," she said. "We support the rebels. We just want to live peacefully." Other Chechens spoke bitterly about their own leaders. A woman who gave her name as Kulsum said: "Both sides are responsible." Asked if she expected anything from Aslan Maskhadov, the elected Chechen president, now hunted by the Russians in the mountains, she said: "No, he is a dead loss. We will have to start our fight for independence again."

Nothing angers the Chechens so much as to hear that Vladimir Putin, the Russian president-elect, who yesterday met Tony Blair and the Queen in London, claim that the war, of which he is the architect and beneficiary, is directed against "terrorists" and not the Chechen people as a whole. From the moment the Russian army invaded Chechnya at the beginning of last October, it relied on the firepower of its artillery, rocket launchers and aircraft to devastate towns and villages. When several long-range, ground-to-ground missiles plummeted into a Grozny marketplace last October, killing some 200 people, Mr Putin simply denied that it had happened. He showed no signs of embarrassment when the official Russian military spokesman blithely confirmed the attack a few hours later.

The small efforts at reconstruction in Grozny only emphasise the utter devastation. As our APC drove down a broad avenue, with shell-blasted trees in the middle and ruined offices on either side, a party of workers was clearing rubble from a walkway - as if the first priority for the shell-shocked inhabitants of the city would be to enjoy an evening promenade. Some workers were burning blackened branches, lopped off the trees by shrapnel, on a bonfire. A group of women were sweeping the road with broomsticks in an effort to clear away lumps of concrete that would take a dozen bulldozers a week to shift.

A little further on we met Leila Khamidovaya, a burly Chechen woman who once worked on the railways, who is trying to rebuild Grozny railway station. Almost all her workers were women, four of whom were mixing plaster in an old white bathtub on the station platform. Others sat on scaffolding to apply the plaster to the front of the once-pretty 19th-century station building. Fifty yards away were the incinerated remains of carriages and freight cars. One track of the railway is working, but is used exclusively by the Russian army. "We are rebuilding so people can come back to the city," said Mrs Khamidovaya. "I know they want to come." She added that neither she nor the other workers were being paid, but they hoped to get money from the local Russian administration.

It may be a long wait. Outside one of the few office buildings still habitable - though its walls are pockmarked with bullet holes - stood Ramzan Shapukayev, the Russian-appointed deputy mayor of the city, wearing green military fatigues. He denied reports that the city was to be abandoned and the capital moved to the neighbouring town of Gudermes, and added confidently: "We will rebuild Grozny. It took them nine years [since the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991] to destroy it. We will rebuild it in a shorter time." He seemed unconscious of the grotesque hypocrisy of blaming the Chechens for the destruction of the city pounded into ruins by unrelenting Russian artillery fire and air attack in Moscow's two wars in Chechnya.

"We estimate that there are 80,000 Chechens back in Grozny," said Mr Shapukayev, in what sounded like a gross exaggeration. He claimed buoyantly that electricity would be restored by mid-May, but admitted that he had no budget. He added vaguely that the administration would provide building materials free of charge to anybody who wanted to rebuild their house. It is doubtful if Grozny (its name means "terrible", or "menacing"), founded as a military outpost in 1818-19 during the first Russian conquest of Chechnya, will ever be rebuilt. Russian resources are too limited and what there are of them go to support the army. Soldiers say that for every three pieces of heavy equipment they send out of Chechnya for repair, they get one back in working order. The number of checkpoints in Grozny itself must mean that the Russian high command fears the guerrillas might successfully counter-attack into the city, as they did in 1996.

Ironically, Grozny was never wholly or even largely a Chechen city. In the last years of the Soviet Union, almost two-thirds of its population were Russians, while Chechens working in Grozny were often bussed in from nearby villages. Many non-Chechens left after 1991, but some stayed. Among the most pathetic and defenceless of those who crouched in their basements during the siege that has just ended were Russian pensioners who had nowhere else to flee.

There are few signs that Russians feel any remorse at the systematic destruction of one of their own cities. At the sprawling military base at Khankala, just west of Grozny, an army press officer showed us a gruesome video of masked Chechen kidnappers cutting the throats of their victims, or ritually beheading them with an axe (the kidnappers shot these horrific films to extract higher ransoms for the captives they still held). "Why don't you show this on Western television?" the officer asked assertively.

The video helps explain why so many Russians - soldiers and civilians alike - feel that the only good Chechen is a dead one. But Moscow did not destroy Grozny because Chechnya had become a bandit stronghold, as Mr Putin now claims. The invasion last year was rather the outcome of the fierce struggle waged by the Kremlin to elect its own man as successor to Boris Yeltsin. It finally chose Mr Putin as the prime minister who would guarantee that Mr Yeltsin's family and associates did not end up in jail for looting state property during their years in power. As a political gambit, the war succeeded brilliantly in making Mr Putin a nationalist hero and winning him the presidency.

Critics of Mr Putin during his visit to Britain have focused on killings and torture by Russian forces in Chechnya. This tends to obscure the fact that for the first time in 55 years, a whole European city has been destroyed -deliberately, by its own government. At the end of 1998, I was in Iraq watching US and British missiles and bombs fall on Baghdad. Then, Tony Blair and Robin Cook justified the air attacks as a response to the danger that Saddam Hussein might build weapons powerful enough to threaten his neighbours. Yet, only 15 months later, after Mr Putin has fired hundreds of thousands of shells and missiles into Grozny, a city he claims as his own, he is welcomed as a guest to Downing Street and Buckingham Palace.

But when he returns home, Mr Putin may find that Chechnya is a conflict which was easier to begin than it is to end. Many of the elderly Chechens I met queuing for rations in central Grozny last week blamed their own leaders as much as they blamed the Russians for starting the war. But they also felt that if Moscow was going to treat them all as Wahhabites (Islamic militants) they might as well support the rebels. "It is ordinary Chechens like us who are the targets," explained an old man called Issa, as he waited to collect some bread. " We are the ones who suffer. Russian shells didn't kill any of the Wahhabites - so this war will go on a long time."

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