Dispatches from Chechnya No. 17

Russia’s Ultimatum and its Consequences for Chechnya

GROZNY, October 10, 2001 – On September 24, Russian president Vladimir Putin issued an ultimatum, giving Chechen rebels 72 hours to begin disarmament talks. This ultimatum caused tremendous concern for the Chechen people. Many people were reminded of the situation in Grozny in August of 1996, when thousands of bombs and shells were dropped on the city by the Russian army without regard for the safety of innocent civilians or even for the safety of its own troops still trapped there.

In addition, many Chechens were appalled by the Russian government’s cynical attempt to use the tragedies that occurred in New York and Washington to further its own political goals. Russian leaders compared the terrorist acts in the United States with the explosions of two apartment buildings in Moscow, although it is unlikely that the perpetrators of the Moscow explosions will ever be found.

Whatever their political convictions, all Chechens condemn the attacks on the United States. The fact that Russian government representatives are attempting to draw parallels between international terrorist activities and events in the Chechen Republic is seen as an attempt by the Russians to justify intensifying a military campaign in Chechnya that already qualifies as genocide.

Immediately after the ultimatum was issued, many Grozny residents attempted to leave the city, but all roads were blockaded. Once the ultimatum had expired, a few families were able to get out of Grozny, but only by bribing to the soldiers manning checkpoints. According to one resident, Ms. Khasuyeva, “Once the ultimatum expired, we left Grozny and traveled to Karabulak refugee camp, where we are now. The problem is that the situation could change drastically at any moment. The soldiers are unpredictable. There were no fighters in our family, we didn’t even have anyone who could have been a fighter. We are both nearly 60, but that doesn’t make it easier for us. During the “mop-up operations” all kinds of things have happened – robbery, the killing of old people. As we were leaving Grozny, we were detained. The soldiers never explain why they are detaining you. Eventually  they take your money and let you pass.”

“When we lived in the city, we had no electricity, no gas, and we had to buy water. We spent 300 rubles a month on water. We got our pensions regularly, and once a month we got humanitarian aid from the Danish Refugee Council, mostly flour and vegetable oil. There was enough flour, but it would be nice to have something else.”
Although the Russian army put a moratorium on troop movements, “mop-up operations” continued in the villages of Starie Atagi and Novie Atagi, during which children as young as 13 were arrested. Grozny was shelled during the night, and the outskirts of a number of mountain villages were also shelled.

According to Ms. Gutsayeva, another Grozny resident, “When they issued the ultimatum, everyone was scared that the war would start up full strength again, with more bombing and shelling. Many people left to get as far away from the war as possible. Everyone who could leave left. It was difficult to leave because the roads were closed, although officially they were supposed to be open.”

“At 4:00 AM on the day the ultimatum was issued, Russian soldiers broke in to a house across the street from us and stole everything valuable. They beat up a woman and an old man. The victims went to the command post, but no one did anything. Once the 72 hours ended, noting happened. They didn’t open the roads, people didn’t come back, the harassment didn’t stop. A few days ago my neighbor tried to leave for Atagi and they sent her back. A friend wanted to go to Khasav-yurt, but they wouldn’t let him.”

In Grozny and it other cities throughout the Republic, life came to a complete halt. Schools and universities were closed and people were nervously waiting for something terrible to happen. Many years of experience have taught Chechens not to expect anything good, especially from the Russian government. No one believed that the guerillas would take the government at its word and give up their arms, for the government has already proven its willingness to go back on its word. Early in the war, hundreds of people, trusting Russia’s offer of amnesty, laid down their weapons and were executed without trial, tortured in filtration camps, or disappeared without a trace. No one could trust Russia’s promises a second time because most Chechens saw the ultimatum as just one more act of propaganda to please the international community.

According to a professor at one of Grozny’s universities, “It was a very tense situation. As soon as the ultimatum was issued, the city was essentially put under a blockade. Travel was impossible. There were no students in school, and classes kept being postponed. Basically the entire month of September was lost to us.

“The periodic announcements of this ultimatum just don’t make any sense. I can’t understand what’s going on in Moscow. I don’t think these decisions are well thought out. Maybe it’s some sort of political game, but at the local level, it’s inappropriate. It affects peaceful civilians – women, children, old people – much more than it affects any of the warring sides. The people who live here understand best what really happens in response to these announcements. Whatever result it was that they expected – and not being a politician, I cannot say what result they were expecting – simply has not materialized. It’s not that the ultimatum has had no effect, but the effects have been only to harm the civilian population. The entire Republic has been very tense. Even now, it is not clear what is going to happen in an hour, much less in 72 hours. As soon as you start to think what a quiet evening it is, suddenly the shooting starts. For some reason, they like to start shooting at 10:00 PM. They don’t seem to care that there are women, children, old people, disabled and mentally ill people living in this city.

“It’s hard to say anything concrete about this. So far, there is no light at the end of the tunnel. It seems like things are starting to quiet down, and then suddenly things get worse. The announcement that negotiations might soon start reminds me of 1996. I don’t see anything new. What could these negotiations accomplish? If it’s an ultimatum that the guerillas immediately lay down their arms, we already know that there will be no such thing.”

More than anything else, people wanted to know what would happen when the 72 hours were up. Would all-out war begin once again in Chechnya, with massive bombardments and shelling, or would the Russian army use weapons of mass destruction? Even more troubling, this all happened with the official support of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.  This same question occupied many journalists, who tried to learn from officers and civil servants what exactly would happen when the ultimatum expired. What steps would Russia’s leaders take, now that Europe had given them permission to commit genocide in Chechnya?

It turned out, however, that the Russian army did not come up with anything new. As soon as the ultimatum expired, “mop-up operations” were conducted all over the Republic. In the villages of Starie Atagi and Novie Atagi the “mop-up operations” began even before the ultimatum expired.  According to residents, Russian troops illegally arrest men from 16 to 45 years old, sometimes even taking children as young as 13. The victims often disappear without a trace, and those who survive return home beaten and maimed. On October 4th, “mop-up operations” began in Staraya Sunzha, a suburb of Grozny. Russian troops surrounded the village and prevented people from entering and exiting.

Despite assurances to the contrary by the Council of Europe, Russian policy in Chechnya has in no way become more humane. With the support of the international community it has become even more cruel and inhuman. Despite their cruelty, the Russian troops are incapable of neutralizing the armed opposition, as demonstrated by numerous successful guerilla raids deep into Russian-held territory.

Amidst all these political and military developments, the people of Chechnya suffer terribly. Grozny and most other cities and towns in Chechnya lie in ruins.

Most towns have no access to potable water and no electricity or heat. Nearly 60 percent of housing in the Republic has been destroyed or seriously damaged, and 60 percent of the population have lost their belongings. Every third person in Chechnya has relatives who died or were injured in the war. Most Chechens, having spent the past eight years in a nearly-continuous state of war, are in need of psychological assistance. Most people who die from illness do so at home and in great pain because they have no access to medical care or even to the most basic pain medications. People cannot even bury their dead because funeral processions are often fired upon by federal troops.

Today more than 300,000 people live in Grozny. Most of them live in damaged buildings unsuitable for habitation. Not a single apartment building has been repaired or rebuilt in the city in the past two years, and no funding has been made available for the repair of private homes. But during these past two years, Russian bombs have destroyed a number of large apartment buildings in downtown Grozny, including some beautiful historical buildings that gave the city much of its character. Today one can say with certainty that Russia has condemned the city to death, and that only the tenacity of some of its residents, and their love for their city, is keeping Grozny alive for the time being.

The world has closed its eyes and ears to the tragedy of the Chechen people, who are being systematically destroyed as the civilized world watches with approval.