Moscow battles for cold hearts and minds

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The Independent Online
"Welcome to my home," says Vera Naumkina, standing in the snow with two pale-faced children clinging to her skirt. She gestures to the dark entrance of an underground bunker in Grozny's Tolstoy Park.

The scene around them is one of desolation. Ruined apartment blocks tilt dangerously on one side, piles of rubble and rafters stretch down the road on the other. This is all that remains of the once-charming Leninsky district in the centre of the Chechen capital.

Explosions echoing across the snow-muffled city explain why Mrs Naumkina, 50, her two daughers and two grandchildren still live in the bunker. "The war has not stopped," said her neighbour, Tamara Husseinova. "At night we hear Grad missiles being fired," added her husband, Ilias Bitayev.

One year ago today, the Kremlin's tanks rolled into this tiny but ferociously independent republic in the Caucasus mountains on Russia's southern rim. It was the start of a brutal war that killed an estimated 25,000 civilians and razed Grozny. The 16 people living in the bunker are just a few of the tens of thousands of homeless.

The city is a bomb site. Russian tanks manoeuvre round the craters while grimy soldiers guard the check points. "It's all right, we have a stove," said one in an attempt at cheefulness. How long would he be here? He shrugged and turned away. "Who knows?''

Moscow anticipated a quick victory when it intervened but its army encountered astonishing resistance from the Muslim Chechens. It took the mighty Russian army five months to push the lightly-armed Chechens out of their capital and up into the mountains, where several of their village strongholds remain unconquered.

A Russian military commission said last week a total of 3,015 soldiers had been lost but observers put the real figure higher. Peace talks have foundered. A ceasefire agreed in the summer has been broken many times by both sides.

The Kremlin's decision to hold elections for a Chechen leader at the same time as the Russian parliamentary poll is for many in the region the last straw. "What do they mean by holding elections now?" demanded Abu Aslanzekov, a retired driver. "I will only vote when they have rebuilt everything.''

Younger Chechens who fought the Russians still insist that nothing less than full independence will satisfy them. "Independence is still our first demand," said Apti Shakhgiriyev, a guerrilla fighter who has resumed his studies at an oil institute. "After all that has happened this year, we can never be part of Russia.''