In the struggle to contain international terrorism, Russian leaders have sought to link Afghanistan with Chechnya. Although Moscow portrays the war in Chechnya as a counter-terrorist operation, this image does not accurately reflect the reality on the ground. As this eyewitness account of an identity-check in Grozny makes abundantly clear, the main targets for the Russian armed forces are ordinary people trapped in harrowing circumstances.
August 15, 2001, is a fairly typical day in Grozny, Chechnya's largest city. City life is concentrated in the neighborhoods that are less ruined than other parts of the city: Poselok Kalinina, micro-rayons 3, 4, 5, 6 and parts of Minutka, Zavodsky rayon and Poselok Chernorechye. In general, the existence of even a small market in any part of the city testifies that there is life nearby.
Machine gun fire and explosions can be heard all day long. However, the locals have grown accustomed it and don't react. They only begin to worry when the firing starts up someplace very close then, the venders manage to wrap up their wares in seconds and quickly leave the danger zone. The rarest occurrence in the city is a smile. Gloomy and exhausted people look natural against this landscape.
Soldiers at the many checkpoints throughout the city are concerned mainly with their own security. This is particularly evident in the evenings, when the soldiers take aim at any approaching car or person, perceiving everything as a serious threat.
In Grozny incompatible realities exist side by side doom and fear, the utter absence of opportunity; and at the same time, the basic elements of a functioning city: markets, cafes, barber shops and beauty salons. Buses are running, although most of the traffic is still comprised of military vehicles.
The only form of production in the city is homemade piroshki, or fried dough stuffed with meat or vegetables. These are sold all over the city. "This business isn't much, but it's also low risk; during raids the soldiers prefer other goods," says Khava, the owner of a little stall in the central market.
On one of the walls of her stall someone wrote in chalk, "Support domestic industry," and drew a falling bomb next to it. Khava doesn't know who wrote it, but she likes it and lets it remain.
The markets are piled full of low quality Turkish and Chinese goods. But there is also an elite market where one can buy quality items and brand names. According to one vendor, there are few takers for "Hugo Boss" or "GFF" but he earns more on each sale.
Then there is the jewelry market. According to the vendors, the main customers for gold are Russian military personnel. After a participating in a "cleansing" operation in a Grozny neighborhood, some troops are at the market: some to purchase jewelry, others look to realize the gain from what they have looted, or stolen.
Grozny University is the only place in the city where one sees a crowd of young people. Almost all its departments are housed in two buildings, three stories each. The University is an indicator of the level of tension in the city. If the university is in session, then things are relatively calm. And the converse, if students stop attending, it means that things have gotten worse.
During the last academic year, the university was supposed to be in session five days a week from 9 to 5. In reality, students gather at the university at 11 and leave by 2. The same situation exists at the Oil Institute and Pedagogical Institute. More than half of the students travel from other cities and villages, crossing dozens of checkpoints en route.
"For every week of classes there is a week free: in some places there are cleansings, or some anniversary or another arouses the fears of the authorities, and as a result the traffic in the city is halted and with it the academic calendar," says an education specialist at the university. She says that the shooting at the university, which last winter left 12 students dead and 20 wounded, shut the university down for a month.
The neighborhoods in the northeast of the city are in the best condition. The majority of high-rises survived and there is a large market.
"Cleansings are a frequent occurrence, and they are carried out by whoever feels like it: FSB, MVD, MOD, and etc." says Marina Antonovna, an elderly Russian woman. Marina was a music teacher, but now she sells sweets directly across the street from her building on Tukhachevskaya Street.
While she and I talk, we hear machine gun rounds. The people around us begin to scurry, and in a minute the armed forces arrive. Judging from appearances this is OMON, or special police troops.
Marina, who has gathered up her wares, invites me to wait out the passport check with her. Twenty steps and we're in her apartment on the third floor from which I can see just about everything happening below.
Military vehicles have surrounded the market. OMON troops are checking the documents of the males in the area. Even by Chechnya's standards, it's not easy to understand what precisely is going on: noise and screams are interrupted by automatic fire.
Masked OMON troops detain several young men, who try to explain something by pointing at the next building, where it would seem they live. But the OMON get hold of them, bind them, and under gunpoint load them into an armored vehicle.
A crowd of women surrounds the OMON and demands they let the young men go. One of the OMON troops shoots into the air, apparently trying to calm the outraged women. Instead, the women literally rip two guys from the grip of the soldiers. The others have already been loaded into the armored vehicle.
Another incident is unfolding next to a kiosk, a young man is being led away. A young woman lunges to him but the OMON won't let her through. She's panicking, screaming something inaudible, and grabbing at the OMON uniforms. One of the OMON hits her on the head with the butt of his machine gun. The woman loses consciousness and falls down.
Again, other women seize the initiative. They've organized something like a mini-protest to demand the man's release. This is not effective. But they do hamper the OMON from reaching their military car. Then, a young woman approaches an OMON soldier, who had been standing apart from the others. She tries to talk to him, and, at first, he ignores her. But then they discuss something and he goes to a nearby military jeep.
In all likelihood the men inside the jeep are the officers. The soldier talks to those in the car and returns to the woman. They talk again. She takes out some bills and hands them to the OMON soldier. He says something over his radio. The detained man is soon released.
Some of the OMON troops are rounding up men from the courtyards of buildings. As they are led away, they tell their names to the women so that relatives can be notified quickly. As they comb the courtyards, OMON fire into open basements and half-destroyed buildings.
The entire "passport check operation" lasts about an hour. Twenty minutes later the market revives, albeit with fewer people. Marina Antonovna has carried her goods back out to the street and resumed her work. "That was just a passport check," she tells me, "A real cleansing is much more frightening."
It's obvious that people have learned to live under the conditions of total terror from the Russian military and from the local extremists. Grozny residents have learned to live side by side with death: they don't fear it but they know it's inevitable.
The night in the city is no less troubled than the day. Shooting intensifies and there are more explosions. The fear is multiplied many times over. Any movement during the night is rare. Grozny residents stop walking around long before it gets dark. Russian troops barricade themselves in their dugouts even earlier.
One can only guess as to who moves about Grozny during the night. Actually, ordinary soldiers of the Russian army don't hesitate to answer: during the night, the city belongs to the Chechen fighters.
In any Grozny apartment one member of the family is on the lookout during the night. People sleep in their clothes to be ready for any eventuality. "At any moment we may have to flee" say the city-dwellers. But no one seems know where to run.
After 2 a.m. the shooting stops. All I can hear is infrequent automatic gunfire. But by 5 am in the morning, the shooting picks back up. The city lights up with tracer bullets and flares. It's not clear who's shooting at whom.
Residents say that the shooting is not so much exchanges with fighters, but more often random shooting -- a "preventative" measure that testifies to the fears of the Russian armed forces in the occupied, but uncontrolled city. Right before sunrise everything quiets down again.
And the new day immediately begins to resemble the previous day.
Roustam Kaliyev (Chiharro) has traveled repeatedly in Chechnya during the present war, and has contributed articles to Moskovskiye Novosti and Obschaya Gazeta. Miriam Lanskoy translated this article from Russian into English.