Dozens of dead Russian soldiers lay heaped behind the pockmarked presidential palace. Occasionally a stray dog slippedup, worried at a body and made off with an entrail. Many of the dead had been wounded and left to die by a demoralized and confused army -- four Russian divisions that seemed incapable of subduing a republic the size of Connecticut. The job of removing the Russian dead fell to the Chechen fighters who had held the nerve center of their resistance despite a four-week Russian offensive. "In the days of the Soviet Union, Russia was a great power and all its nations were subjugated without any problem," said Askambek Chatuyev, a Chechen lieutenant. "Now it's nothing."
Chatuyev and his comrades have an aura of confidence that seems impenetrable. After pouring in reinforcements, Russia launched a fierce artillery and air bombardment Saturday that set the palace's upper stories ablaze. It had little effect on the Chechens' morale. "Allah akbar," the fighters shouted when groups set off for the front lines, running along boulevards where burst gas mains spewed flames, building after building lay in ruins and power lines flopped on the street. On one street corner, members of the elite Abkhazian Battalion, many of them trained in Afghanistan during their republic's three years of self-proclaimed independence, huddled in groups and warmed themselves by a burning gas line as the bodies ofsome of their fallen comrades were unloaded from a truck. Here and there the wrecks of Russian tanks were piled up; the charred remains of one soldier protruded from a turret.
At the street level, the Chechens are in charge. "If a tank came up here right now, we wouldn't destroy it, we'd take it," said Ayub Dinayev, 25, without any special bravado. He should know; he's knocked out four of them, his comrades said. All it takes is a properly aimed rocket-propelled grenade at the base of the turret, he explained. The Chechens team up and target one tank at a time; the technique is deadly inside 100 yards. Heavy grenades lobbed from close range also work, said Dinayev. "That's no problem, we have boys 12 or 13 years old who would be glad to do it," he said. "Me, I'm a little older and I get frightened." During the tense period that led up to Russia's crackdown, Chechen television broadcast a program on "How to use your rocket-propelled grenade launcher."
Can Russia crush the Chechens from the air? It's trying, despite repeated promises from Boris Yeltsin to stop the bombing. Shali, a village about 15 miles southeast of Grozny, was especially hard hit. For nearly three hours Tuesday, Sukhoi Su-27 jets dive-bombed and strafed the village, firing rockets and dropping bombs. At an outdoor car-parts market on the edge of town at least 13 vehicles, including two passing buses, were rocketed repeatedly. Witnesses said the buses, which seated 25 each, were full of passengers. Even after rescue workers arrived, the jets returned and rocketed the market again. "Today I buried my brother without one arm and without his head," said Borsali Mukushav, 37, a mechanic who was on his way to the market when the jets struck. "Only his wife was able to identify the body." The next day, Mukushav was rooting in the mud and cinders among the twisted hulks of cars, and finally found an arm that he thought was his brother's. "I'll bury this with him too," he said, wrapping it in his coat.
Bombs leveled the main hospital in Grozny. And Shali Regional Hospital, a 200-bed complex that was the last remaining hospital in Chechnya, was targeted "because they bring the wounded from Grozny here, that's the only reason," said Zaur Musluyev, the hospital medical director. He said that a long convoy of cars carrying wounded Chechens had arrived there from Grozny that morning, an hour before the air raids began. The Shali hospital itself also was bombed and strafed, with several wounded among staff and patients. The next day, puddles of blood lay in the mud outside the hospital buildings, which were riddled with shrapnel holes. Lyingin the courtyard were several tennis-ball-size "baby bombs," which were released from cluster bombs that had failed to explode.
But the Chechen fighters' will to resist seems limitless. Witnesses said hundreds of Russian soldiers have been killed in ambushes along highways north of Grozny. In the lull before the weekend assault, the mood in the palace bunker was not just defiant but casual and relaxed. The basement had been turned into a barracks housing the Chechen military command, hundreds of armed defenders and several dozen Russian prisoners, many of them wounded and tended to by Chechen doctors. When rockets hit the top floors of the building Thursday, the Chechens just laughed. They whiled away the time telling war stories that would sound wildly improbable were it not for the corpses and burned-out tanks outside.
Chechen officers concede that their early successes were due as much to Russian mistakes as to Chechen prowess. During the invasion of Hungary, Russia's tanks were badly mauled at first, these realists say. "But even if they take the city," said Askambek Chatuyev, "it won't be the end of the war." That's a safe prediction. "These people can never be pacified," said Gen. Aleksei Yermolov, who fought the Chechens in the 19th century. "They can onlybe annihilated." The czar's armies needed 50 years to subdue the Chechens, and succeeded only by killing half the population. Stalin simply deported them en masse. Yeltsin has no such option. What he has instead is a Caucasian quagmire.