Faces of war in a Russian winter

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The Independent Online
The fear and confusion of a refugee family, an old woman's mask of bereavement, a prisoner's distant haunted stare: characters in a ruined frozen landscape. These photographs show the bitter face of Boris Yeltsin's campaign to crush the breakaway Chechenstate in southern Russia. Not since the battles of the eastern front in 1943 have photographers captured such stark images of a winter war on Russian soil.

Tolstoy had seen the 19th century version of war in the Caucasus and the Crimea. He later became a pacifist but he admitted - in War and Peace - that an unfolding battle had a ghastly, bizarre visual impact. Today, 140 years later, the Caucasus is in flames again.

To the leaders of the West, the battle for the Chechen capital, Grozny, may only be an internal Russian problem. But in its horror and its futility, together with the scale and sophistication of the weaponry, it surpasses the experience of the former Yugoslavia.

In the last few days, since these pictures were taken, the front line has moved right into Grozny. The Russian forces advancing through the city have shown little concern for the Russian people who lived side by side with their Muslim neighbours.

On Monday , at a village very close to Starye Atagi, the people buried a Muslim fighter, Khamzat Agayev, just 18 years old. The Muslim funeral was quick and quiet, with no women present - they mourn at home - and a seven-foot pointed stone bearing a crescent moon and star was seated in the grave.

The following day, in Chernorechye, the southernmost suburb of Grozny, there was a Christian funeral as Russian shells rained in, sweeping towards the southern city limits.

By this time, the inhabitants of the suburb were packing up to leave. A few possessions were piled into cars or trucks, but these people had lost almost everything.

The Chechens are holding many Russian prisoners. This has led to allegations that the Russians are taking civilian hostages to exchange for them. It would be a ruthless move in keeping with the nature of this war.

In the basement of a building on the Minutka roundabout, a mile south of the presidential palace, the Chechens were holding 17 Russian prisoners. They were all conscripts, most of them 18 years old, although their sergeant was a little older. One of the young men had been in an armoured personnel carrier right in front of the presidential palace when it was knocked out.

The Chechens seemed to treat the conscripts well - there were even a few beer cans about and the conscripts joked with each other, nervously. But even so, their position was unenviable. Yesterday Russian forces based in the eastern Khankala suburb subjected the Minutka district to constant shelling. The Chechens, armed with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic rifles, said they were sitting out the bombardments, waiting for Russian ground troops to move in.