Russians sit tight in Grozny's sandbag forts

Carlotta Gall talks to the troops at the front line of Chechenya's uneasy ceasefire
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The Independent Online
The Russian position on the bridge near the city's conserve factory is an ugly jumble of grey cement blocks and sandbags.

The snout of an automatic rifle poked out of a tiny lookout hole in the cement tower, trained on cars approaching the post yesterday.

Two Russian soldiers sat hunched on piles of sandbags by the doorway of their post, sunning themselves. A deep trench, protected by a bank of earth, surrounded the position.

Andrei, a senior sergeant from an Interior Ministry police unit from Orenburg, in the Urals, came over to talk. Dressed in light-green camouflage overalls, he jumped over the trench, unarmed.

His trousers thrust into his boots, the laces loose, he stood chatting, apparently relaxed.

"Yes, we took losses; we had six wounded and one killed," he said. "But now they are not shooting," he said.

Grozny, the capital of the breakaway Chechen republic, has enjoyed a real ceasefire for the past two days.

Barely a shot was fired yesterday morning and the big Russian artillery pieces on the hills around the city were quiet. A few cars drove past the post now that word had passed around the city that both sides were holding fire.

The Russian post survived repeated firefights over the past two weeks when the Chechen fighters seized the town, but was still holding out and had refused to surrender.

But the Russian soldiers remained trapped, unable to leave, and cut off from their command headquarters only 500m away.

"There are fighters on both sides of us," Andrei said, gesturing up the road and across the river.

"The fighters are not scared to move around and we are, that's the difference," he said.

The Russians had sent their wounded out in an armoured vehicle after heavy fighting 10 days ago. But Chechen fighters attacked it on the way.

The Russian soldiers had radio contact with their headquarters but had no news of the latest peace agreement, they said. Now they were sitting tight. "We hang out, we do guard duty," Andrei said, his blue eyes squinting against the bright sun.

Asked if they could not escape under cover of darkness, he said: "The fighters are out there. They are the bosses around here."

"They sent a representative to suggest we surrender but we refused; it would be stupid. We can continue. We have enough weapons and food. We have enough to live with."

But only the day before, the soldiers had asked this journalist to fetch them water. They could scramble down to the river but the water was murky, they explained. Just then three Russian babushkas carrying shopping bags came by.

"Andrei, Andrei, come over here," shouted one. Another soldier walked over to one of the the old women on the road, taking a bag from her and a plastic container of water.

Lidia Grigorievna, a pensioner, said that she had brought them food even before the latest fighting began. "My sons are in Krasnodar and they are like my boys. I am old; it doesn't matter about me. But they are young, and we must preserve the young," she said.

The soldiers in fact had virtually nothing to eat or drink, she said, despite what they said. She was taking a risk for them. Only minutes before, two carloads of Chechen fighters screeched to a halt by the post to investigate what the crowd of people around were doing. The Russian soldiers quickly walked back to their sandbag fortress while the Chechens, automatic rifles raised aloft, shouted for the Russian commander to explain what they were doing.

"These are our soldiers, do not make them angry," Dzhandar Israilov, the Chechen fighter who appeared to be in command of the unruly gang told journalists.

Bristling with weapons, wearing green headbands and sporting daggers at their waists, the Chechens quickly drove off, their point made.

Asked if they could work together and man the post jointly as the latest peace deal has ordered, Israilov said over his shoulder: "It is already under joint control. We have both agreed not to shoot."

So far neither group has received orders to start up a joint operation, however. Andrei, a veteran who has served in Chechnya for a total of 10 months, remained sceptical about the joint operation working. "We do not want to sit in the same post together with them. We could not make friend; they have killed our guys and we have killed theirs."

How long he and his unit, who should have left for home a week ago, would be stuck there he did not know. "Only the ones at the top know," he said. But he still held out hope someone was thinking of them. "Maybe they will pay us a bit more for going through this."

Meanwhile, the Russian security chief, Alexander Lebed was able to press on with his plan to bring lasting peace to Chechnya, armed at last with the public blessing of President Boris Yeltsin and his permission to seek a political solution.