'Every Tree Is A Fortress'

IN THE HIGH CAUCASUS, TEAMS OF AGILE Chechens scale the sheer cliff faces. They are practicing for a war that is just around the next peak. Already, they see Russian Sukhoi-24 jet bombers swooping up their valleys, bombing hamlets and bridges and rocketing cars on the roads. Preliminary skirmishes are underway: in the Caucasian foothills, bear hunters from the village of Goy-chu tracked down a company of elite Russian paratroopers, beat them into submission and turned the survivors over to the Chechen leaders in Grozny. And on the agricultural plain around Grozny, Chechen fighters are preparing for a long resistance. They have laid "dragon's teeth" -- crossed iron girders designed to trap Russian armor -- in the river fords. They have mined the highway bridges on the edges of the capital, with lookouts ready to blow them. They have set up self-defense plans in every village and established an intelligence network. Even as the Chechen capital seems about to fall to the Russians, the guerrilla war has begun.

Last Thursday the Russians had their first real victory since sending troops to Chechnya in mid-December. Russian warplanes struck the presidential palace with two penetration bombs that burrowed into bunkers 25 feet underground, killing 58 people. The blast drove out Chechnya's diehard presidential guard, 500 fighters in all. Russian troops hoisted their flag atop the palace, and in Moscow, Boris Yeltsin declared the war all but over. Helicopters buzzed overhead the next day, loudspeakers blaring: "Resistance is senseless. Surrender or we will destroy you mercilessly."

The boast was mostly bluster. Grozny's defenders will never give up, though they may stage a tactical withdrawal. Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev emerged from his hiding place in Grozny and vowed to fight "block by block, house by house" for the rest of the city. That won't be enough against overwhelming Russian artillery backed by jet bombers and helicopter gunships; the bombardment has become so intense that few fighters can even venture from their basements. But the Chechens seem determined to carry on a partisan war in the countryside. Like many fighters, Vakhid Abuyev, 32, has been commuting to Grozny from his village of Rosni-cbu. Now he will go home and keep his gun hidden until the order comes to fight. "Every house, every tree is like a fortress for us," he says. "We'll fight in the villages, and when they take the villages, we'll go to the hills. When they take the hills, we'll go to the mountains where they'll never follow us."

The Chechen war has already spread well beyond Grozny. Last week in Samashki, near the Ingushetia border, a Russian crew got drunk in their armored personnel carrier; Chechens crept up and rocketed them, killing one and taking the others prisoner. The week before, in Chervlyonava, a railway village behind Russian lines in northern Chechnya, Checben commandos hijacked a locomotive and drove it through town, machine-gunning Russian soldiers along the way.

In Alkhan-Yurt, just southwest of Grozny, villagers outlined their plans for resistance-drafted by a council of Russian Army veterans. An engineer built tank traps on ravines on the outskirts; a demolitions expert set charges under the bridges; an electronics expert set tip a secret field-telephone line for lookouts to use. "If they come, we'll be ready," said Sayid, who had served in the army as a forward air controller. Two weeks ago Alkhan-Yurt held a dress rehearsal. A Russian APC and two trucks of Russian troops, who apparently took a wrong turn while fleeing the city with a load of looted goods, drove right into the village along the highway. Caught surprise, the villagers still reacted swiftly. They opened fire from both sides of the highway with automatic weapons, shouting 'Allahu akbar!" ("God is great!"). Eighteen Russians were captured.

Above the foothills, the Caucasus mountains rise to 5,500 meters (18,000 feet); this is what the natives call Greater Chechnya. Already, the Chechens have organized secret training camps there; jeep roads leading up to them are blocked by Chechens who politely but insistently turn visitors back. The Russians are clearly aware of the threat of a guerrilla war in difficult terrain. For two weeks now, mountain bridges and hamlets have been bombed and rocketed on a daily basis. Most of the targets have no apparent military significance, and nearly all of the victims in area infirmaries last week were civilians; several die each day.

More than 70 years ago, in a neighboring valley, a Chechen partisan band surrounded a much larger regiment of Red Army troops after the Russian civil war. After executing the officers, the Chechens stripped the soldiers naked and told them to march back where they came from; most died of exposure in the December cold. The Russians eventually subdued the Chechens, of course; no doubt their counterparts today can, too. But there are bound to be plenty of humiliations along the way.