A Deluge of Russian Troops in Grozny as the Humanitarian Disaster Grows More Dire
The Situation in the Chechen Republic in March-April 2002
GROZNY - The situation in Grozny, the capital of the Chechen Republic, remains dire. The city’s population is uneasy over rumors that the military units of Khattab will attempt to take over part of Grozny in the last weeks of April. The city has been deluged by Russian soldiers and policemen, and the number of temporary block-posts has risen considerably in different regions of Grozny. Document checks and car inspections have also been tightened. Mop-ups are regularly carried out in different areas of the city: in the Lenin, October, and Factory districts, and in the suburbs. During the day, mobile Russian military detachments seal off first one, then another micro-district of Grozny, checking all entering and departing vehicles and checking for Grozny residence permits on every male. In the morning hours, Russian soldiers surround multi-story homes and apartment buildings, performing searches and checking documents. All suspects (primarily men from the ages of 16 to 45) are arrested and taken to the commandant’s headquarters. The soldiers arrest not only those who are unregistered in Grozny, but also those who are not living in the place where they are registered, as if it were possible to speak of some kind of registered residence when three-fourths of the city’s living quarters lie in ruins. The fate of the detainees -- who is freed, who is released, who is cruelly beaten, and who disappears without a trace -- depends on luck. To a large extent, all of this depends not on the affiliation of the detainees with military units, but on pure happenstance. The university district, where a pedagogical institute and two middle schools are located, is regularly subjected to mop-ups and provocations by Russian soldiers. At the beginning of the war, several students and school children were killed here, and tens more were arrested.
The mop-ups are being carried out also in the suburbs and the Grozny village district. Populated areas surrounded by Russian armed vehicles and soldiers have become part of the usual scenery in Chechnya. The roads to the mountainous districts of Nozhaiiurtovskii and Vedenskii are closed.
Officials in the Russian army have long talked of the extremely low effectiveness of such measures, which they dub “passport regime control.” In fact, the “mop-ups” have turned into genuine terror against the civilian population of Chechnya. They are accompanied by theft, marauding, and extortion. More than 90% of those arrested during the mop-ups have no relation whatsoever to the separatist fighters. In the best case scenario, relatives buy them back, barely alive, beaten and crippled. Often, however, relatives find the arrestees’ disfigured bodies, and very often they are forced to buy back even the corpses from Russian soldiers.
Landmines and mortal shells periodically explode in various parts of the city, blowing up Russian soldiers and Chechen policemen. Peaceful civilians-women, children, and the elderly are also often killed during these explosions. These blasts increase the number of crippled war-time children, and according to various data in and outside of Chechnya, the number of invalids already ranges from five to fifteen thousand. The majority of them do not have any kind of support from the government. Their fate and their health are left to themselves and for the most part, to their destitute parents. Many of them are in need of prostheses, operations, and regular medical help. And the healthy children are not in any better of a situation in the city, where the war carries on. The explosions of landmines, periodic exchange of gunfire, and nighttime shooting have a negative effect not only on the physical, but also psychological health of the children. Not to mention the fact that they do not have a normal childhood filled with games and toys.
After each landmine or mortal shell explosion, the district in which it happened is sealed off in preparation for a mop-up, during which innocent people are arrested.
If just in March the city was relatively calm, then already today the situation has become much more tense. For the time being residents are not abandoning the city, but the number of Russian troops has significantly increased, strengthening their activity, and there are mop-ups practically every day.
Although the number of Russian troops in Grozny is continually growing, this in no way influences the criminal situation. Murders on criminal grounds are committed almost every day in the city, as are robberies, thefts, and widespread looting. The drug trade is flourishing.
By day Grozny is fairly quiet-from time to time, shots at the block-posts are heard from soldiers firing into the air, trying to impose order on what they view as undisciplined drivers. By night, particularly after midnight, shooting from all types of weapons begins in the city: everything starts with automatic gunfire, which is then replaced by mortar and artillery shelling. This barrage continues until dawn.
According to various data, there are from 250,000 to 300,000 residents in the city. Almost 80% of the able-bodied city residents (up to 90% throughout the republic) are unemployed and do not have any means of subsistence. Various sources report that the more or less regular humanitarian help reaches only 30-50% of the population of Grozny.
But as before, there has been no progress toward renovation of the city. The city lies in ruins. Over the last two years, dozens of homes that were partially destroyed and awaiting renovation have been dismantled and their bricks sold. Tall buildings were blown up and turned into heaps of rubble in the district of “Minutka” Square. Russian soldiers, who barely even suffered during the combat operations on the homes, explained this barbarous destruction by alleging that the roofs provided convenient positions for Chechen snipers. The majority of these homes belonged to the buildings of the old quarter and constituted the city’s historic look. Homes and apartments remain unheated. Instead of glass in the windows there are polyethylene sheets, which lets light in poorly and does not retain heat. On the inside everything is covered with soot and the walls are dirty, dilapidated, and very often damp, since in the majority of homes the roof leaks.
There is no electricity or water. From time to time the gas is turned off. The city’s residents not only live in cold apartments but also cannot cook. In the words of a representative of the interim administration, very little of the funds to restore Grozny have been handed out and their use depends on Moscow officials and the government of Chechnya. Therefore, the position of the Russian government is very strange: on the one hand, its representatives speak of the need to return refugees to Chechnya, but on the other, it has done practically nothing to restore the Chechens’ living quarters in Grozny. The majority of refugees in the tent camps in Ingushetia are residents of Grozny.
The city is completely unsanitary. The streets of Grozny are piled with building rubble and food waste matter, and all of the streets are flooded with water, including from the city’s sewage system. Road workers who sweep the ruined roads from among the wreckage amaze the residents and passers-by.
It is particularly dirty in the city’s central market, the only place where the residents of Grozny and the surrounding villages can buy food products. The fruit, bread, and meat merchants sell their goods among piles of accumulated trash, which are literally teeming with stray dogs and cats. In the city there is thus a very high danger of an outbreak of dangerous diseases. Sanitation-epidemiological services were established in Grozny long ago, but they have not yet fulfilled their functions. The drinking water poses no less a danger to the health of the residents. In the majority of the city’s districts people carry water from wells that are usually located 500 meters from their homes. Water in such wells often contains large traces of benzene deposits and is often mixed with sewage water. The use of such water in food is very dangerous for people’s health, but in Grozny there has been no talk about a supply of clean and uncontaminated drinking water. In the northern regions of the city water is brought in cisterns and people must buy it after waiting in long lines.
The situation with medical care for Grozny’s population has not improved. The majority of hospitals and clinics lie in shambles or are undergoing repair. Stationary medical care of patients is impossible, there is no basic medicine, and there are not enough syringes and bandages. Patients must pay for everything. In order to receive serious medical care, people must go either to Ingushetia or to other regions of Russia. There are enough qualified doctors even today in Grozny, but they do not have the necessary facilities, equipment, and medicines. The main thing is that the war has rendered stationary medical care impossible.
Moreover, there are many patients with serious chronic illnesses: tuberculosis, tumor-related diseases, asthma, and others. The majority of them live in arduous conditions without crucial medical care and cannot go beyond the city limits for medical help because they have no money. Throughout the republic there are already tens of thousands of people in need of immediate medical help, but only a handful of them have the opportunity to receive it. This is an extremely serious problem for the country, where the war has gone on for several years. And it is not within the power of the individual humanitarian organizations to resolve the problem without the help of the government.
The ecological situation remains dire in Grozny. Soldiers used various types of weapons here during the active combat operations, including multi-tonnage bombs and artillery shells with various explosives. Many homes were previously mined, and embedded in the walls and ceilings of many apartments are unexploded bombs, shells, and missiles. People often live in semi-demolished homes, in the surviving apartments.
There was no expert assessment of the ecological situation after the end of combat operations, and therefore no one knows the real ecological conditions. But there was a significant increase in the number of patients with tumor-related illnesses in Grozny, particularly among the youth. The streets are piled high with building rubble and various kinds of waste matter, all of which gives off poisonous fumes, particularly in warm weather.
The crude extraction and processing of oil deposits causes enormous damage to the environment and people’s health. Russian soldiers periodically set fire to the oil wells under the pretense of fighting the crude production of benzene, and for several days afterward the streets of the city are obscured by acrid, black smoke. In fact, there are no regular protests against the production and selling of crude benzene, and many people who are unaware of what they are doing are slowly killing both themselves and the environment.
There are international humanitarian organizations working in the city:
the International Red Cross, the Danish Refugee Committee, the Polish humanitarian
action, and the Czech organization “People in Need.” The International
Red Cross is helping mainly the elderly and invalids through food, everyday
necessities, and medicine. The Danish Committee is giving out food and
building materials to residents. The rest are handing out food and also
various everyday necessities. However, their help is obviously not enough
in guaranteeing even basic necessities for the city’s residents, who have
been deprived of everything in the course of the war.
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Dispatches from Chechnya are prepared by correspondents in Chechnya and distributed in English by the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe (IDEE), a non-profit organization founded in 1986 that is dedicated to the promotion of democracy and pluralism in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. For more information about IDEE, its programs, and the situation in Chechnya, visit the IDEE webpage at www.idee.org. To receive Dispatches by email, please write to IDEE at: <[email protected]>.
Eric Chenoweth and Irena Lasota, Co-Directors, IDEE