A War Russia Loses by Winning



GROZNY, Russia  To hear Russian officials, what's

happening in Chechnya is not a war: it is a phase in

an antiterrorism operation that has reached such a

point of "normalization" that control was switched

last week from the Federal Security Bureau, which

handles war operations, to the Interior Ministry.

After all, the Russians say, the Chechen people

rebuffed the Islamic separatists by voting

overwhelmingly in March to remain part of Russia, and

they will vote again in October, this time for a

Chechen president.

Chechens agree  but in their own way. "What's

happening in this country is not a war," they say. "It

is much worse than a war, with many more civilian

casualties." I hear this repeatedly on buses, in

markets and during conversations wherever I travel in

this tiny, battered republic. For them, the switch to

the Interior Ministry is merely cosmetic  the

soldiers and checkpoints remain  and the coming

election won't be a fair one.

But these voices are not being heard in the rest of

Russia: the Kremlin has so restricted news coverage of

Chechnya that outsiders have little idea what is

happening here. (To get into Chechnya, I had to

disguise myself as a Chechen woman, wearing a scarf

and long skirt, and pray that I wouldn't be questioned

closely at checkpoints.) Chechyna intrudes upon

Russians' minds only when rebels attack outside the

republic  as they did on Friday, when a truck bomb

exploded in Mozdok, 35 miles across the border from

Chechnya, killing at least 41.

Grozny, the Chechen capital, has been a ruin since the

Russians invaded the first time, in 1994; the only

repaired buildings are the ones housing government

offices. Suicide bombings are frequent. Shootings

occur nightly, and raids for rebels take place daily.

Soldiers are everywhere, and so are members of a

militia belonging to the Moscow-appointed head of the

local government, Akhmad Kadyrov, who isn't popular

but hopes to win the presidential election.

Electricity and water services are sporadic; schools

aren't in session because there are no teachers. The

few jobs available involve working for the Russians,

and most Chechens won't take them for fear of being

considered collaborators. There is an atmosphere of

stalemate: the Russians and the rebels can't

negotiate, and neither side can win.

For their part, the rebels say the fighting will not

end soon. "And we are ready for it," said an aide to a

rebel field commander I met in a village in

neighboring Ingushetia, used by the rebels as a rear

base. "Since we have split up into mini-groups of

five, our units are very flexible. We need less than

three days to reunite with our commander. So far, the

Russians have been very good at pretending things are

going well for them. We will do our best to destroy

that claim."

Among the Russian troops, low morale is rampant. About

100 Russian soldiers die here every month, the

government says. "We are here only for the big money

they are paying us," Pvt. Andrei Kosnikov, 23,

muttered as he examined my car at a checkpoint near

Grozny. Near the entrance of his base someone has

written: "We are tired of killing the Chechen people

for nothing. Our pay is blood money!"

The soldiers have also been forced to contend with a

new trend, suicide bombings and other attacks

committed by young Chechen women. Nineteen women were

among the separatists who took 700 people hostage at a

Moscow theater in October.

"My sister went for her own jihad," explained a

19-year-old girl, conservatively dressed in a

headscarf and cloak, whose sibling was a perpetrator

of the theater attack. We spoke in the kitchen of a

relative's house in the countryside, as her family has

lived as nomads since their house in a village

southwest of Grozny was dynamited by the Russians in

revenge for her sister's actions. "She sought revenge

by escaping to paradise," the girl told me. "And I am

willing to do the same if nothing changes."

Her friend, 21-year-old Tamara, added: "We women are

now acting because nobody else is reacting and no one

cares about Chechnya."

Terrorist acts are signs of desperation, and as the

situation in Chechnya stagnates, suicide attacks by

young Chechen women, and others, will continue. Lyoma

Sharmurzayev, director of Lamaz, a nongovernmental

group based in Ingushetia, told me he believed that

the only solution was to build up some sort of civic

forum, a non-state organization that would seek a way

of mediating this conflict that would involve a broad

representation of the civil society. So far, he has

been unable to convince either the Russian authorities

or the rebels to consider it.

The Chechens I've talked with are longing for an end

to the war, but their sympathies are clearly with the

separatists. Although at the start of the fighting in

the early 1990's there were Russian supporters here,

that support was driven out by hatred as the war

dragged on. It seems as if there is not a single

family who has not lost someone in the conflict. The

Chechens now consider the Russians invaders who are

incapable of following the rules of war by making

efforts to spare civilians.

Is there hope for peace anytime soon in Chechnya? On

this trip, at least, I haven't seen any  and for the

Chechens, the Russians' claim that a presidential

election will put an end to the fighting is as dubious

as the war itself.

Anne Nivat is author of "Chienne de Guerre: A Woman

Reporter Behind the Lines of the War in Chechnya."


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