Stories by Eve Conant

  • Looking For Answers

    The staff of the weekly Versiya had a scoop. They'd spent 10 days frantically reporting one of the biggest stories any of them could remember--the siege of the Moscow theater that ended in a dramatic assault by Russian Special Forces and the use of a knockout gas that killed more than 100 civilians. What they were publishing amounted to a sum of damning allegations: eyewitness accounts of dead and half-dead hostages piled on top of one another, charges that none of the victims received timely medical help, a report that the gas used was not civilian but military. Finally and most explosively, Versiya would disclose that unnamed sources in the Ministry of Health and the Interior Ministry had told it that the death toll in the crisis was two to three times higher than officially reported--as many as 300, rather than 119, the numbers swelled by hostages who remained unaccounted for.Moscow is swirling with such rumors, but Versiya has been delayed from publishing its version of what...
  • Show Of Nerve

    Anatoly Beloyusov had never seen anything quite like what he found in the ruined auditorium. The professional rescue worker was right behind the Special Forces who stormed Moscow's Melnikova Street theater in a predawn raid, ending a 58-hour standoff in which nearly 850 performers and theatergoers, dozens of them children, were held hostage by a suicide squad of Chechen terrorists. Here and there, among mounds of candy wrappers and empty bottles from the snack bar, lay the corpses of 50 hostage takers. The men wore camouflage uniforms; the women were head to toe in black, with thick belts evidently containing explosive charges strapped to their waists. Some were slumped in the seats where the military's knockout gas had toppled them. By one account, commandos finished off the unconscious female terrorists one by one, with a single bullet each. All around were the hostages, in the aisles, the seats, even the balconies, many in shock, others unconscious--and more than 90 of them dead...
  • On Second Thought

    Sandra Liedskalna, a fruit seller in Latvia's capital of Riga, is getting evil looks these days. As an early snow falls on the marketplace, Liedskalna is offering steep discounts on her imperfect yet fresh, honey-scented apples. Her arrival has spelled bad news for nearby fruit stands. Their produce bears the telltale blue and yellow stickers of the European Union, and the EU-imported lemons, bananas and apples are large and perfectly shaped. But they also cost a lot more. Liedskalna prices her homegrown apples however she pleases. The neighboring fruit stand, she says, is run by "a pair of hired hands"--a city dweller "who probably thinks that apples are made on an assembly line."Such sniping may seem far removed from the high politics of Brussels and EU expansion. But these subtle tensions in Riga's public squares and markets represent the front lines in the battle for the hearts and minds of the Baltic people--many of whom are asking just why they should drop their hard-earned...
  • Hostage Crisis

    Anna Politkovskaya was in Los Angeles yesterday, waiting to attend a dinner honoring her for her courage in covering the war in Chechnya. She didn't make it to the dinner. Instead, the award-winning reporter flew back to Russia for talks with the heavily armed Chechen guerrillas holding hundreds of hostages in a Moscow theater."I have always believed that Russian journalism, first and foremost, is the journalism of action. The journalism of taking the step that you simply must take," Politkovskaya said in a brief message before leaving California.Politkovskaya, winner of a Courage in Journalism award from the International Women's Media Foundation, spent about two hours inside the theater today as police and anxious relatives of as many as 700 remaining hostages kept up their vigil in the cold rain outside. While details of her talks with the guerrillas have not yet emerged, one immediate benefit was that fresh water was delivered into the building. The rebels had previously refused...
  • Deciphering The Bones

    The skeletons were twisted around each other, many frozen in a fetal position as if they were trying to stay warm. There were skulls and tibias, femurs and ribs, all piling up in the claw of the tractor breaking ground for an elite Vilnius housing complex. "The bones wouldn't stop coming out of the ground," recalls one worker. The horrified crew feared they had uncovered a mass grave of either Jewish Holocaust victims or those murdered by the notorious Soviet secret services. But this find turned out to be far older. When investigators dug up numerous brass buttons inscribed with a three-digit number, they knew that only one group had worn such items: Napoleon Bonaparte's Grande Armee.Now scientists are beginning a fresh investigation into what is believed to be the biggest mass grave of Napoleonic soldiers ever found in Europe. Their findings are expected to provide fascinating answers into life on the Continent almost 200 years ago. Who joined the Imperial Army and why were there...
  • Back To The Future

    Sept. 12 started out like any other day for Sergey Kukura, the finance director of one of Russia's largest oil firms, LUKOil: he plunked down onto a soft leather seat in the back of his chauffeured automobile. But as his black Mercedes S600 headed toward his office and neared a railway crossing, two cars pulled alongside and forced it off the road. At least four men in camouflage jumped out wielding Kalashnikovs, handcuffed Kukura's driver and bodyguard, put sacks over their heads, then plunged needles of heroin into their arms. When the men regained consciousness hours later their mobile phones, car keys and the bodyguard's pistol was gone. So was their boss. He'd been hustled into a Volga with police license plates.Late last week, exactly two weeks after the crime, somebody dumped Kukura near his home in broad daylight. The oil tycoon was so disoriented sources suggest somebody may have pumped him full of heroin as well. LUKOil denies that any ransom was paid for his release. As...
  • Radicals In Retreat

    Sheraly Akbotoev received the summons in Kabul last November. An Uzbek religious instructor and avowed jihadist, Akbotoev was a member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a hard-line group with ties to Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. "Come to Logar province" in northern Afghanistan, his superiors told him by phone. "Something has happened." U.S. fighter planes had attacked a convoy of IMU fighters fleeing Konduz, where some 300 of them had been helping the Taliban resist the U.S.-backed forces of the Northern Alliance. A top IMU aide, Akbotoev was being ordered to the soldiers' funeral. The bodies, wrapped in blankets, were virtually unrecognizable. One in particular, he says, "was just meat. There wasn't much left." But he knew who it was because the dead man's name had just been mentioned in the farewell prayer: Juma Namangani, a former Soviet paratrooper and leader of the IMU. A mysterious and supposedly pious man, Namangani's name had symbolized the lingering Islamist...
  • Reading The Bones

    The skeletons were twisted around each other, many frozen in a fetal position as if they were trying to stay warm. There were skulls and tibias, femurs and ribs, all piling up in the claw of the tractor breaking ground for an elite Vilnius housing complex. "The bones wouldn't stop coming out of the ground," recalls one worker at the construction site in the Lithuanian capital last winter.The horrified work crew feared they had uncovered a mass grave of either Jewish Holocaust victims or those murdered by the notorious Soviet secret services. After all, eight years earlier and just a few hundred yards away, Rimantas Jankauskas, an anthropologist at Vilnius University, had uncovered 700 skeletons of residents executed by the KGB near the end of World War II. But this find turned out to be larger--and far older. When investigators found numerous brass buttons inscribed with a three-digit number, they knew that only one group had worn such items: Napoleon Bonaparte's Grande Armee.Now...
  • A Sea Of Misery

    Once upon a time, the town of Muynak was a bustling port along the Aral Sea. City workers still paint the street signs with images of seagulls and ocean waves, and here and there the masts of ships poke up between the buildings. The coast, though, is nowhere to be found. "I've never seen the sea," says Mural Najimov, a 25-year-old local who's filling six jugs with salty water from a public well. Sergey Lipatovich, 67, former port captain, walks among the rusted hulls of ships, anchors dug into sand that used to be sea bottom. Thirty years ago, he says, the water level reached more than two meters. Now the shore is 200 kilometers away. "There have been so many projects to save this water," he says. "And not a single one worked."Once the world's fourth largest inland sea, the Aral has shrunk to less than a third of its original size, leaving behind a string of port towns to fight off the encroaching desert on their own. The 35 million people in the region--a tenth of whom live in a...
  • War Of The Faiths

    Father Krzysztof Kempa has a congregation but no church. As he reads mass for 15 Roman Catholics in a dark, cramped apartment in the southern Russian city of Belgorod, he struggles to make himself heard over a curbside car alarm, the hum of an old Soviet refrigerator and a boiling tea kettle. The altar is a desk adorned with a candle and wooden cross. A bedroom doubles as a confessional. The faithful sing hymns to the accompaniment of a Yamaha synthesizer teetering precariously on an old washing machine. "We must keep up the fight," Father Krzysztof admonishes his flock. "Otherwise we will drown."But he and his congregation are already drowning--in bureaucracy. That's the weapon of choice in what has become a bitter religious turf war. The Catholics in this gritty industrial city, hard by the Ukraine border, have been denied the right to register as a religious group. They say it's because local authorities, in cahoots with the Russian Orthodox Church, do not want to them to reclaim...
  • The Heart Of The Matter

    It's not often that billboards urge you not to buy or sell something. But the Moldovan capital of Chisinau is an exception. Its streets are filled with admonitions: TU NU ESTI MARFA (YOU ARE NOT FOR SALE).The dawn of market economics in Moldova has had an infamous side effect--a fire sale of its women. Desperate to escape the poverty and joblessness of home, they've taken flight en masse--many ending up in streets and brothels around the world. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Geneva puts it bluntly: "Moldova is the main country of origin for the trafficking of women and children for the purpose of forced prostitution in Western Europe, Balkans and the Middle East." By some estimates, nearly two thirds of the prostitutes in southeast Europe come from Moldova, compared with about 15 percent from Romania, 9 percent from Ukraine and 1 percent from Russia. Europe's poorest country is also the most fertile hunting ground for its flesh trade.Could that soon change?...
  • Chilling In The Gulag

    Anyone can spend a holiday at the beach. But what about at a teeming slum, a nuclear-meltdown site or a former concentration camp? A growing number of vacationers are looking for just such hardship holidays. Travelers are increasingly flocking to Sniper's Alley in Sarajevo and the Viet Cong tunnels in Vietnam; they are taking Belfast's Tour of the Troubles, visiting sweatshops in Nicaragua and El Salvador, touring Rio's shantytowns and staying overnight in Russian Gulag country. "The darker side of human nature has a huge hold over us--death, the black arts, mass murder, all of it," says John Lennon, coauthor of the book "Dark Tourism."Is this a good thing? Visitors to such places insist they are gaining insight and valuable historical knowledge. But critics worry that packaging horror distorts such events. "Auschwitz has been altered so that tours end up at a crematorium that was actually located in a completely different place," notes Lennon. "Viet Cong tunnels in Vietnam have...
  • Saying Nyet To Russian

    Hardly anyone these days has a good word for the language of the former Soviet Union. Teenagers in Central Asia say they hate it; thousands have taken to the streets of Moldova and Belarus to protest it; former Soviet governments have deleted it from their mandatory-education programs, and some countries, like Latvia, have passed discriminatory laws against those who speak it. A Russian visitor to rural Moldova or Uzbekistan might have a fine conversation with a person over 35--but a 20-year-old will greet him with blank stares. "If before more than 90 percent of the people in the Soviet territories spoke Russian, now less than half do," says Vladimir Neroznyak, a Moscow linguist who helps advise the Russian government on language policy. Within the decade, he predicts, that figure will have fallen to one in 10.What a change. Not long ago the language rivaled English as a lingua franca of empire. Then came the revolutions of the early 1990s, when the former republics began promoting...
  • Russia: Putin's Priority List

    Russian president Vladimir Putin has long been suspected of trying to rekindle the glory of the former Soviet Union. But last week he more than hinted at just the opposite, coming down hard on Belarus's President Aleksandr Lukashenko two days after the two met in St. Petersburg. "No one will be permitted to restore the Soviet Union at the expense of Russia's economic interests," Putin declared.What does that mean? Putin doesn't want Russian growth to be held back by commitments to former Soviet states like Belarus, with its dire economic troubles. Moreover, Putin has tilted his policy westward--and if he wants to build maximum trust with Western Europe and the United States, talk of old empires won't do. In the new era, U.S. bases are sprinkled across Russia's Central Asian backyard, and Russia was recently granted a junior role in NATO.Lukashenko no longer belongs in the picture. In the previous Kremlin regime, the Belarus boss helped Boris Yeltsin appeal to those Russians still...
  • Periscope

    Pope John Paul II is finally getting involved in one of the biggest scandals in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. Last week he called for an emergency meeting (to be held this week), directing a dozen American cardinals and the top two officers of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to convene with Vatican officials in Rome to discuss the recent U.S. sexual-abuse scandals. Although this announcement raised more hopes for answers to that crisis than a two-day meeting can possibly satisfy, the session is at least proof that the Vatican is willing to act on what has become a global dilemma. "This is not just a problem in the American church," said the Rev. Thomas Reese of America, the U.S. Jesuit magazine. But it will likely be the Americans who press the Vatican hardest for change.At a minimum, the Americans want a papal mandate requiring all U.S. bishops to implement tough, uniform standards for dealing with clergy accused of child molestation. They also want a clear word...
  • NOWHERE TO TURN FOR HELP

    "Marziya," 36, is hiding at Samarkand's only women's shelter, a private home tucked behind an unmarked iron gate. Her husband began beating her in 1992, at the height of Uzbekistan's economic turmoil. Although the Qur'an prohibits alcohol, "he would come home after drinking and beat me very hard," Marziya says. "One time he crushed my ovary." She ran to her brother's house, "but he also drank and got violent," she says. So she and her 5-year-old son fled in search of safety.The shelter is as hidden as Uzbekistan's domestic-violence problem. There are only a handful of women there now, but over the past year more than 100 have passed through. Since Uzbekistan gained independence more than 10 years ago, what locals call "traditionalism"--a moral code based on Islam--has flourished. And for many Uzbek women, that code makes the few social guarantees of the Soviet regime look good. The Soviets not only banned traditions like forced marriage and wearing veils but also extended education...
  • Remaking The Army

    Sinking submarines, desertions within the ranks, suicides, corruption, decay and dissolution. Russia's generals are no longer running a superpower's military, but they still think Army life is fine--and are fighting fiercely to stave off anything that smacks of change. ...
  • Repairing A Broken Culture

    In the basement of Afghanistan's culture ministry, a statue's broken foot and part of a skirt lie discarded in the corner. A lion's paw peeks out of a pile of rubble; a small rock turns out to be part of an elephant head. They are all that's left of the thousands of sculptures smashed to bits by the Taliban. And as workers frantically sort and label the surviving fragments, they inadvertently crunch more shattered remains underfoot. Wearing thick eyeglasses and sporting a dusty, gray turban, 63-year-old Mirgolam Nabi, a museum archivist, works at breakneck speed, cataloging the relics. "When the Taliban came here they had guns; how could we stop them?" he asks. "I suffered through this as if I were watching my father be killed. This was our history." ...
  • First Person Global

    While driving through Kabul in November, I saw two women leaning against a stone wall, chatting with each other. They were both enveloped head to toe in light blue burqas, but that didn't seem to get in the way of their conversation, as they touched each other on the shoulder. One leaned back, it seemed, to laugh. I wasn't expecting to be able to notice so much humanity hidden under so much cloth. But again and again I was surprised by how much character these women could convey despite what seemed like a disguise. Her voice may be muffled, but if you stand close to an Afghan woman as she talks, you can see her eyes through the netting. You can tell whether she is smiling, crying or angry. Once, as I left an interview in Kabul, two teenage girls (I've gotten better at judging age) hovered near my car and giggled nervously as I turned to look at them. I waved. Keeping her hand underneath her blue burqa, one of the girls waved back. The women of Afghanistan have learned to do much...
  • Why Afghans Don't Know Their Ages

    Ask Afghans how old they are, and most will scratch their heads and look to their friends for guidance. NEWSWEEK’s house here in Kabul is something of an anomaly, because most of our staff here say they do know their ages.Or do they? Take our driver, Akhbar. Akhbar, who wears dark, round sunglasses even at night, was born in 1969 and is 30 years old. But how does that explain that one of our stringers in Kabul was born in 1971—and is also 30 years old. “Things are different here,” says Akhbar, twisting around from his driver’s seat.That’s for sure. When I interview local residents, I’ve learned to ask them how old they think they are. A lot of time also is taken up with simply trying to agree on when certain events took place. The reason: most Afghans think in terms of the Islamic solar calendar, which puts this as the year 1380. But when the Taliban took over five years ago, they imposed the Islamic lunar calendar—which says its now 1422, and will be under March 15, 2002.There are...
  • Art In Exile

    On the wall of the Nukus Museum, a crazed-looking bull with pointed horns stares out at visitors. The picture was painted by a man named Lysenko. Art historians don't know his first name, or much else about him--except that he was forced to enter a Soviet mental institution for his depiction of that bull. After all, it doesn't conform to the Soviet straitjacket style of "socialist realism"; the bull is light blue. Hanging nearby is a masterful, gentle painting by Mikhail Kurzin simply entitled "Dumplings." But that work isn't as innocuous as it first appears, either. When Kurzin painted his mouthwatering rendition of the traditional Russian dish pelmeni, he had just been released from prison and was in exile, suffering from malnutrition. He painted each dumpling with loving care, using hard brushes and low-quality paints, because he was desperate to eat them.Nearly all the gulag-era works in the museum share a similarly wrenching story. And there are more than 30,000 of them,...
  • Exploiting A Jihad?

    A group of about 100 armed Islamic guerrillas, some wearing balaclavas, gather in a circle in an unidentified forest in Chechnya. In a grainy scene from a videotape found by Russian intelligence agents, they are shown in the middle of a meeting led by Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev, some time after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington. A black-bearded Basayev tells his soldiers, "We are under pressure to finish the jihad. We must be more organized, more disciplined." The men nod in agreement.In fact, the Chechen fighters--or terrorists, as the Russians call them--are already well organized. What began as an anti-Russian movement for self-determination mutated over the course of the 1990s into a jihad with the aim to Islamicize and liberate the Caucasus from Russian rule. Although that goal has not been met just yet--Russian troops have once again occupied Chechnya and small-scale battles are a daily occurrence--the organization and support from Islamic regimes...
  • His Big Gamble

    Vladimir Putin has been enjoying the limelight. He's been lionized by NATO and feted by Tony Blair. His speech to the German Parliament got raves. Even President George W. Bush seems to be taking a softer line on Moscow's military campaign in Chechnya. But outsiders don't always understand a blunt fact of Russian political life: popularity abroad can be dangerous at home.Like Blair, Putin sees his world at a turning point. The international war against terror offered a choice: traditional go-it-alone Russian isolation, or fully embracing the West. He chose the latter, to the cheers of the United States and its allies--and the consternation of both allies and enemies at home. Putin's new thinking is far ahead of the average Russian's. (Polls show nearly half think the attacks "served the Americans right.") And it's light-years beyond the military and intelligence circles that he depends on for power. A backlash could compromise his leadership--and prompt him to pull back from the new...
  • A Social 'Neutron Bomb'

    Elena Yaskevich hunches over her desk and lights up another cigarette. Her office phone, one of Moscow's few drug-addiction hot lines, rings once again. She begins yet another round of questions, the same as the last. "How old is your daughter?" Pause. "I see, 17. Vich?" the Russian word for HIV. Solemnly, she nods as she gets the mother's expected reply.Even pros like Yaskevich have been blind-sided by the tidal wave of HIV that's hit Russia over the past two years. "This is a serious threat," she says, likening it to a "neutron bomb." That bomb has already exploded among intravenous drug users. The question is when it will go off in the general population. Officially, Russia has diagnosed 129,261 new cases of HIV over the past year and a half, including this July. That's the highest rate of infection in Europe, making Russians seven times more likely than their Western counterparts to contract the virus. And the real number of new cases could be anywhere from five to 10 times...
  • In Search Of The Gods

    Azov is hardly the kind of place where most people would look for adventure. Life is slow in this postcard-pretty Russian town on the delta of the muddy river Don. No one has bothered to tear down the statue of Lenin in the main square. Azov used to be a busy port. But that was before the river's channel shifted, leaving the town in sleepy solitude.Until Thor Heyerdahl showed up. Half a world and more than half a century away from the route of his famous Kon-Tiki expedition, the Norwegian explorer is pursuing the most wildly ambitious quest of his life. Conquering the Pacific on a balsa raft was kid stuff. This time his goal is nothing less than to find Asgard, the fabled home of the Vikings' gods. Its remains, he believes, are here in Azov, buried eight meters or more underground. Most experts on Norse history stop just short of calling the whole idea insane. But Heyerdahl, 86, is so confident, he has put up $100,000 of his own money in search of Asgard.His dream began when he was...
  • The Dinosaur Fish

    The dinosaurs may all be dead, but at least we still have the sturgeon. When it appeared during the age of the big dinosaurs 200 million years ago, it was covered with an armor of shiny interlocking scales. These are now gone, but in every other respect the fish is downright Jurassic. A bony plate covers its skull, and spikes run stegosaurus-like down its back. Instead of a spine, it has a flexible rod of cartilage. Its size--some species reach 2,500 pounds and 15 feet--makes it robust but also requires constant and efficient feeding. Four long whiskers--more like taste buds--probe the bottom muck for snails, crawfish, insect larvae and other morsels, and a snorkel-shaped mouth sucks them up. Evolution created 27 species of sturgeon, but none differs much from this basic model, exquisitely engineered for survival.One evolutionary adaptation is looking unfortunate these days. Sturgeons are efficient procreators. A female can carry 5 million eggs, up to 20 percent of her body weight....
  • Scarred For Life

    Nina Ungureanu is tired of having visitors come to her gate. "They all want the same thing," says the Moldovan housewife, 40. That is, to join the ranks of the other seemingly lucky villagers, like Ungureanu, who have mortgaged their bodies to buy a roof over their heads. Recently a shepherd stopped by, demanding information on how to sell a kidney. Before him came a man asking how to sell one of his eyes. He had heard someone in Europe was looking for a blue one.Many of the impoverished citizens of the former Soviet republic are looking to score a windfall by selling an organ to a wealthy recipient, often relying on criminal middle-men to secure the deal. "At first I didn't agree," says Ungureanu, recalling her trip to Istanbul in December 1998 to sell a kidney, "but then my relative told me I'd get $3,000 if I did the operation." Thus began a complicated odyssey that would take her twice to Turkey, once to the Ukrainian port city of Odessa, and once to a hospital in Tbilisi,...
  • Heading For An Early Grave

    White males may be king in most places, but not in Russia. In addition to rampant alcoholism, men there face rising AIDS and tuberculosis rates, as well as the stresses of unemployment and the military draft. The average life expectancy for Russian men is now 59.8 years, down from 64 just before the fall of the Soviet Union. (For women it's 72.2.)"The main problem is what we call 'unnatural causes'," says demographer Sergey Yermakov. "That includes murder, suicide and, of course, alcohol." Suicide rates among Russian men are 2.5 times higher than in Europe. The average Russian citizen drinks more than four gallons of alcohol per year, compared with two gallons a year in Britain. And 70 percent of adult Russian males smoke.Birthrates are falling nearly as fast as male mortality. That means Russia's population is expected to shrink from 146 million today to 115 million in 50 years. Dead white males may be an issue of curricular debate for Western universities, but in Russia keeping...
  • Moldova's Red Revival

    This is a revolution!" exclaims Ivan Ursu, a lifelong communist, surveying the banquet tables at the Inauguration of Moldova's new communist president. "And there wasn't even any shooting!" ...
  • In The Name Of War

    With his close-shaven head and his small, feral eyes, Yuri Budanov, 37, is not the kind of man to inspire affection. Yet he's got plenty of fans. Outside the courthouse in southern Russia, where Budanov's case is being tried, demonstrators hold up placards proclaiming his innocence and calling for his release. When the trial started, supporters brought flowers--and chased away a man who held up a banner proclaiming death to criminals. ...