Two days ago, a horrified world realised what ordinary Russians had begun to understand a few days earlier: their country is at war. President Vladimir Putin's contribution to the war against terror, prosecuted with wanton violence in Chechnya, has created carnage: in less than two weeks, Chechen terrorists have blown two passenger planes from the sky, bombed a metro station in Moscow and murdered hundreds of men, women and children at a school in southern Russia.
Scenes of devastation in the North Ossetian town of Beslan, where explosions rocked school buildings and running battles spilled on the streets, are a view from a war zone. The images of anguished parents and horribly wounded children have finally forced an
indifferent world to pay attention to a savage conflict which has been concealed from the Russian people.
The little republic of Chechnya, with a mostly Muslim population of 700,000, declared independence in 1991, beginning a struggle in which thousands of Chechens have been raped, beaten and murdered. In May this year the pro-Russian President of Chechnya, Akhmad Kadyrov, was assassinated in a huge blast in a sports stadium in the capital, Grozny - one of many warning signs, in retrospect, of what was to come. Yet when two southbound planes disappeared off radar screens within minutes of each other, shortly after taking off from Moscow 12 days ago, the response of international media organisations was low-key. Ninety people died and traces of explosives were found in the wreckage, yet Western commentators showed little interest in the double atrocity.
Contrast that response with the mass of material published about the four American passenger planes hi-jacked on 11 September 2001, or the people who died in the Madrid railway station bombings in March this year. In the unspoken hierarchy of victims, Russians count for less than West Europeans and Americans - or they did until terrorists decided to target the youngest and most vulnerable.
As the school siege turned into a bloodbath, it was reported in Moscow that the suicide bomber who attacked a metro station on Tuesday, killing 10 people and injuring 51, was a woman, Roza Nagayeva. Her sister, Amnat Nagayeva, has been identified as one of the suicide bombers who destroyed the two passenger planes. Both women were Chechen, as were at least half the terrorists killed in North Ossetia on Friday.
North Ossetia lies to the west of Chechnya, separated from it by the republic of Ingushetia, where terrorists targeted interior ministry officials and prosecutors in June, killing scores of people.
But Friday's dreadful events signal more than a regional problem for Putin, whose popularity rested on his claim, now shown to have been false, to have successfully contained the Chechen problem. As an angry journalist observed in Moscow last week, the Russian people have been told that Chechnya is "a safe haven where peaceful life is being restored". Now they are having to contemplate Russia's own 9/11, a series of murderous attacks that have left well over 300 dead and hundreds more injured.
In a terrifying parallel with post-war Iraq, the presence of at least nine Arabs among the hostage-takers confirms that Putin's savage anti-terror measures have drawn foreign terrorists into the country.
In a country where independent journalists are under threat and media magnates likely to wind up in prison, TV coverage of the end of the school siege was initially muted. But an article posted on the reform-oriented but credible online newspaper Mosnews.com railed against the "lies told to cover up the true state of affairs" in Chechnya, accusing the federal authorities of effectively banning media coverage of the conflict. "The scale of the war unleashed against Russia in the past few days is such that no longer can the country suffer any political games to be played behind the scenes," it declared.
In an echo of the accusations made against the Bush administration after 9/11, the Government has been accused of downplaying an interview on Radio Liberty with one of the few remaining secular leaders among the Chechen rebels, Aslan Maskhadov, in June, when he apparently threatened to spread terror across Russia. "It is time to stop lying," the Mosnews article concluded. "The war cannot be won without telling people the truth."
In an atmosphere of horror and grief, it remains to be seen whether the mass of ordinary Russians are prepared to hear that truth. Since the terrorist attacks on the US in 2001, the international community has allowed Putin a free hand in Chechnya, where he has conducted a ruthless campaign against helpless civilians. It is true that Putin has made some modest overtures, but this has been at a time when the secular opposition has been pretty much wiped out and the rebellion is in the hands of extremists. If film crews had been on hand to record even a small sample of the atrocities perpetrated by Russian forces, we would have been as horrified as we were by Friday's dreadful scenes in Beslan - but of course they were not.
In Moscow, where a few brave individuals have struggled to reveal the extent of human rights abuses in Chechnya, the situation in the republic has been compared to the height of Stalin's purges. "People come in armoured vehicles without licence plates and take people away. Like in Stalin's time," says Oleg Orlov of Memorial, Russia's main human rights organisation.
Memorial estimates that 3,000 people vanished in Chechnya between 1999 and 2003: 43 disappearances for every 10,000 of the population, on a par with the 44 per 10,000 in the USSR in 1938-39.
Rape by Russian forces is widespread but Putin has refused access to human rights monitors. In April, the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture published a report, based on interviews with 35 Chechen asylum-seekers in London. Sixteen of the women and one man reported that they had been raped, most of them by Russian soldiers. A Russian officer, Colonel Yuri Budanov, was convicted of abducting and murdering a Chechen girl in March 2000, but such convictions are rare.
Western leaders, contemplating with horror the spectre of an alliance between Chechen rebels and foreign Islamists, cannot say they were not warned. Earlier this year, four human rights organisations - Memorial, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Medical Foundation - issued a joint statement, pleading with the international community to take immediate action to address "major human rights abuses" in Chechnya.
Their call went unheeded. Indeed, at the beginning of this year, Human Rights Watch described the stance of the international community as "glad to be deceived" and "shameful and short-sighted". The NGO said it should have been recognised a long time ago that "the price of the errors committed by the Russian authorities is growing" - a judgement vindicated by the horrific events of the past 12 days.
There is no doubt that Putin is temperamentally ill-equipped to handle this new episode in a very dirty war, but he has received the backing of the like-minded Bush administration.
European Union foreign ministers have broken ranks, questioning Putin's reliance on severe repression as the only way to deal with separatists in Chechnya. The international community needs to make up for its years of neglect by insisting on an urgent criminal investigation into who financed and planned all four terrorist attacks, a commitment from the President to allow human rights monitors into Chechnya and a UN peace-keeping force to protect the civilian population from reprisals.
This is unlikely to happen to happen unless world leaders put maximum pressure on Russia, which in any case has a veto on Security Council resolutions. But as Oleg Orlov pointed out on Friday, the crisis in the republic has created the conditions in which terrorism can flourish. Chechens have watched for years as Russian forces descended on their cities and villages, raping and murdering with impunity. As the slogans say on the walls of Grozny: Welcome to Hell, part two.Reuse content