Dispatches from Chechnya No. 16

The War in Chechnya is not Over

GROZNY, September 17, 2001 – Despite repeated assurances by the Russian government that the situation in Chechnya is improving, in fact it has worsened and become much more unstable in recent months. Guerrilla fighters are attacking federal troops at checkpoints more frequently, the mine war has intensified, and a number of attacks were carried out in the cities of Gudermes, Grozny and Argun, killing  both Russian soldiers and innocent civilians. A vicious battle between  guerrilla fighters and the Russian army has begun in the mountainous regions of eastern Chechnya (Nozhy-Yurt and Vedeno). Local villages have been subjected to artillery fire and bombardment from helicopters.

The Russian army’s actions against civilians have increased in scope and cruelty. In August, Russian forces conducted a number of so-called “mop-up operations” in the villages of the Vedeno region, in which dozens of villagers with no ties to the guerrillas were arrested. In July, gross human rights violations were committed in “mop-up operations” conducted in the western regions of Chechnya (Sernovodsk, Assinov and Samashki). More than 700 people were led into a field, forced to lie face down on the ground, and many were severely beaten and tortured. In August, large scale “mop-up operations” were conducted in the villages of Argun, Starye Atagi and Aldy, and in the Leninsky, Oktyabrsky and Chernoreche neighborhoods of Grozny. Innocent people were arrested and Russian soldiers roamed the streets terrorizing residents. Soldiers often entered homes looking for money and valuables to steal and threatening to arrest family members if they resisted. Hundreds of people have disappeared without a trace, and the Russian army has increased its artillery attacks on civilian transportation, particularly busses and private cars.

Despite the fact that pensions and welfare benefits are now being paid out in Chechnya and state employees are receiving their salaries, the humanitarian situation remains very disturbing.

Chechnya is completely unprepared for the coming winter. Many towns that were destroyed during the war remain in ruins. Buildings destroyed during the war are not being rebuilt; most of the money and construction materials provided for restoration work are stolen by officials of the Russian-backed Chechen government.  Even the glass, brick, and roofing materials donated by international humanitarian organizations are received by the government and then sold to people at market prices.

Most working-age people in Chechnya are unemployed and have no means to provide for themselves.  People live on whatever they can grow in their small gardens during the short growing season. Few have the ability to leave Chechnya in search of work, since they have no money for travel nor the residence permits required work in Russian cities. A Chechen can obtain a residence permit only by paying enormous bribes. Even Chechens who legally reside in Russian cities are subject to illegal arrests, groundless searches and general harassment from law enforcement officials.

The humanitarian situation is grave even in the northern regions of Chechnya (Naur, Shelkov and Nadterech) despite the fact there has been no fighting there. Residents complain that nearly all humanitarian assistance, as well as supplies from the Russian government, including agricultural equipment, are stolen by the Russian-backed government.

 Travel within Chechnya is limited. Grozny, Argun, Urus-Martan and other cities are periodically closed off. The number of checkpoints throughout the Republic has increased, and Russian soldiers demand bribes from anyone passing through.

There is essentially no health care available in Chechnya. The conditions of war have made medical and psychiatric assistance particularly necessary, but it is almost impossible for residents to receive either.

The terrible situation in Grozny has worsened. During the day, the city is full of the sounds of landmines exploding and residents live in fear of the regular “mop-up operations.” At night, the shooting and shelling begins. It is unclear who is shooting at whom and why – it could be Chechen guerrillas, or it could be drunken Russian soldiers shooting into the air. Frequently, Russian soldiers shell residential areas of Grozny from their nearby base at Khankala.
In early September, there was an attempt to assassinate members of the Russian-backed Chechen government. A bomb went off in the government headquarters, killing a cleaning woman, the mother of two children.  Another bomb was set off in the broadcast center of Chechen State Television. Between September 2 and 5 there was a shoot-out between guerrilla groups and federal troops. From September 5, Grozny was blockaded for four days in connection with Chechenya’s independence day because Russian forces feared the guerrillas were likely to be more active then. On September 6, there was another shoot-out between the army and the guerrillas and a Russian militia post was burnt down in Grozny’s Zavodsky neighborhood, wounding several police officers.

Despite the presence of a huge number of Russian soldiers and police officers, crime is on the rise in Grozny. Nearly every night, residents are murdered or robbed, homes are burglarized, and gangs roam the streets selling drugs. Approximately half the crime in Grozny is committed by Russian soldiers.

The city to this day remains in ruins. There has been no attempt at restoration work, although nearly 80 percent of residential buildings have been destroyed in the second war. Most of Grozny’s residents have fled Chechnya, and even if the war were to end they would have no where to return to.
According to official statistics, about 200,000 people currently live in Grozny. Most live in half-destroyed buildings with bombed-out windows, leaky roofs, and no electricity, running water or heat. Many of these buildings are not structurally sound and residents are in danger of being buried underneath them if they collapse.

The Russian media regularly reports that large scale restoration efforts are underway in Grozny and throughout Chechnya. In reality, not a single residential building has been repaired or rebuilt in the city. Buildings which could easily have been repaired are instead being razed and their bricks sold.

There is essentially no health care available in the city, at least according to residents. There are several hospitals and clinics open, but their buildings are in need of repair and they lack even the most basic equipment. Doctors have not been paid in months, they have no medicines, no equipment, not even things as basic as latex gloves. Medicines are sent to Chechnya and Ingushetia in large quantities but are sold at markets and in private pharmacies at commercial prices.

Education in Grozny is in no better shape. Most school and university buildings have been destroyed. Children study in ruins, without even a roof over their heads. There are not enough teachers, textbooks, or equipment.  Teachers are paid once every two or three months.

Most residents of Grozny have no source of income and yet receive no humanitarian assistance. International humanitarian organizations working in the city provide aid primarily to the elderly and to disabled people. In August, state employees began receiving salaries, but they constitute less than 15 percent of the population.

Ecological conditions in Grozny are worsening due to both the continuing military campaign and the spread of illicit oil drilling and refining. This illegal industry has brought irreparable harm to both the natural environment and to  people’s health. Streets, parks, and courtyards are strewn with the holes from which Chechnya’s most fatal natural resource – crude oil – is drilled. According to expert observers, even if the war is to end soon, it will take a tremendous amount of resources and decades of work to bring the republic’s ecology back to normal.

The propaganda war continues in the Russian media, directed not so much against President Maskhadov and his supporters as against the entire Chechen nation. Newspapers and television show things that incite the Russian public to hate all Chechens. This is the official policy of the Russian government, which strives to find moral justification for the genocide in Chechnya.