It's a strange sensation when a book written in French and translated into English resonates with the Russian literary tradition. In Chienne De Guerre, as in some of the best Russian literature from Akhmatova to Solzhenitsyn, the writer exposes the nation's suffering. Anne Nivat, a French journalist for the newspaper Liberation, covered the present war in Chechnya by living among Chechen civilians from the start of hostilities in September 1999, until she was evicted from Russia by the Security Services (FSB) in February 2000. This is the first book about the present conflict and, more importantly, one of barely a handful of accounts from behind Chechen lines, which very few journalists dare to cross.
"I tried to meet as many people as possible," Anne Nivat says, "women and children whose lives had been destroyed by the war, rebel fighters with nothing left to lose, cynical Russian soldiers mired in an 'anti-terrorist operation' whose success they doubted. What kept me going? The will to do my job, to never stop writing." She pulled the "legal sized sheets of paper from the cheap plastic boots [purchased] at a Chechen market, smoothed them out with the flat of my hand and began to write ..."
What Nivat sees and the stories she hears break your heart and teach it again to pity. A little boy, Iussup, was wounded in an artillery bombardment. "We could no doubt have saved his legs, if only the border had been open, " the doctor explains, "Gangrene set in during the delay and we had to think about the boy's life rather than about his legs."
"'The doctors cried more than I did,' the boy's mother says. Flies are buzzing around Iussup's stumps. No one bothers to swat them away," Nivat writes.
Nivat visits hospitals that have long since run out of aspirin, operating rooms where amputations are performed without anesthesia. Later, she sees a pharmacy in Grozny that by some miracle remained unscathed. Neighboring Ingushetia accepted over 200,000 refugees from Chechnya who barely manage to survive in appalling conditions. The region's president, Ruslan Aushev, says: "Every day I receive offers of aid from abroad, but I cannot accept them" due to restrictions from Moscow which insists that "nothing unusual is going on in Ingushetia."
In Ingushetia a teenage girl, Larrisa, was murdered by a drunken soldier. Nivat attends her wake where Umar, the father, reads aloud a note from the Russian Defense Minister offering financial aid and official apologies for this "deplorable error." Umar remains stoic: "Our elders taught us to forgive." In the presence of Nivat, a stranger, even the women hold their tears.
The tragedies and mundane humiliations become entangled like a ball of thorns. Nivat tells the story of a scene at a border crossing, which closes at 1 p.m. in the afternoon and won't reopen until the following morning. Hundreds of angry men and women remain at the checkpoint. "Not a single vehicle turns around. No one is willing to lose his place in line," Nivat writes. In the morning the soldiers demand a higher bribe. At another checkpoint, "a functionary from the MVD" forces a woman to tear up a photo of her husband.
Then there are the bombardments: "Burning bits of steel tear through the air. The walls tremble. The doors fly open. During the bombardment Iakha goes imperturbably about her household tasks, sweeping up the splintered window glass, putting a kettle on for tea." During another artillery attack, Animat couldn't check the stove, so the meat burned and the family went hungry.
Chienne de Guerre is rich in detail and observation. However, as an analyst, Nivat remains in the background. Still, those seeking to interpret events will find enough material to make their own conclusions. Patterns emerge naturally from Nivat's material. To give just two examples: Many Chechens view the wahabis with deep suspicion, and there are repeated instances when the Russian military avoids confronting the Chechen resistance fighters.
While the federal forces inflict all sorts of violence on civilians, and bomb the Chechen fighters from the air, they seem far less eager to engage the militants on the ground. In a wahabi camp, "apart from praying, the fighters don't do much. They wait. For what? 'For the war to begin,'" one such fighter suggests provocatively. All swagger aside, there is much more sound evidence on hand. "In two weeks I've seen one gunshot wound," a doctor in Urus Martan tells Nivat," 'which goes to show that in this war there is almost no direct contact with the Russian troops'."
Nivat becomes a witness to a critical turning point of the war: the withdrawal from Grozny. The Chechen command had decided to concentrate their forces in Grozny and hold the city for as long as possible to prove a political point: that they are a regular army defending the capital of
a state. Finally on January 31, 2000, the siege and the bombardment forced them to abandon the city. Nivat was trying to find her way into the besieged city, as it fell to the Russians. She happened to be in Alkhan Kala, the village to which the Chechen fighters flee.
According to Nivat's estimates, close to 4,000 Chechen fighters fled Grozny over a period of two days through a corridor that they had purchased from the Russian military. This is the version Nivat hears from the escaped fighters in Alkhan Kala. The same story is repeated by Russian General Viktor Shamanov, who calls it a brilliant operation: The corridor took the fighters into a minefield where many perished and many others were wounded. The wounded were taken to a hospital in Akhan Kala, an outlying village under Russian occupation.
On February 1, 2000 Anne Nivat sees Shamil Basaev, presumably Russia's most serious enemy, have his foot amputated by the Chechen physician Hasan Baiyev in the hospital at Alkhan Kala. Russian tanks and armored cars drive around the village market, a few hundred meters from the
hospital. The bombardment doesn't start until the second day. By the time the soldiers get around to "cleansing," (zachistka) the fighters are long gone. Still, they kill more than fifty villagers.
This begs some obvious questions: If Gen. Shamanov knew the route that the Chechen fighters would take, how could he allow them to get away? Why not snatch Shamil Basaev from the operating table? This is a critical failure for the Russian side. The fighters had been concentrated in Grozny. After its fall they dispersed throughout the republic, commencing the guerrilla war.
Returning to Chechnya in September 2000, Nivat interviews Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. They sit down in a "safe house" in a Chechen village. "As soon as the military learns that [Chechen fighters] are in a certain area, they cease firing. They're scared to death."
Maskhadov tells her, "The next stage will be negotiations, no doubt about it."
Miriam Lanskoy is the Program Manager
for the Institute for the Study of Conflict Ideology and Policy
at Boston University, and a regular contributor to the ISCIPs
on-line journal. NIS Observed. The website can be found at: