Chechnya: The Official Story

Our small group of journalists sat on benches in a huge, empty hangar draped with Russian military banners, listening as two high-ranking officers in green camouflage gave us a situation report on the rebellious republic of Chechnya. We had come to the Chechen capital of Grozny on a special three-day tour staged by the Russian government, and now our hosts were delivering the messages they wanted us to take back home. The situation in Chechnya, they assured us, was characterized by "normalization and stabilization." Most Chechens, they said, approved of Moscow's attempts to restore "law and order" and postwar reconstruction was moving ahead. Most important, the Chechen "bandits and terrorists" who opposed the Russian forces had all but ceased their fight--one or two mine explosions a day, no more. We weren't sure we understood correctly, so we asked straight out. The war in Chechnya is over? Yes, came the official response. "No question about it."

It's one thing to be in Moscow, listening to President Vladimir Putin claim that the "counter terrorist operation" in Chechnya ended in the spring of 2000. But when Russian field officers tell you the same thing as you're walking through the vast ruins of Grozny, surrounded by a squad of heavily armed guards, you've reached an Orwellian scale of denial. We spent two nights in Chechnya and heard shooting on both of them. At the Grozny airport, special trucks filled the sky with warm smoke to confuse the sensors of the heat-seeking missiles that the rebels have used to shoot down dozens of Russian helicopters since this war began in 1999.

Call them lies, or just heavy spin. By any name, it began on the first day of our trip when a cheerful Russian officer described his work overseeing the conscription of young Chechen men into the Russian Army. "It's purely voluntary," he assured us. Then we were ushered into a gymnasium for a photo session with the latest levee of young conscripts. Stepping away from our ever-present guards, I introduced myself to one young Chechen and asked whether he was here voluntarily. "They force us," he said, explaining that he lives in an area where Russian forces routinely conduct zachistki, literally "cleansing operations." Typically they surround a village or town with armored personnel carriers and heavily armed troops, then go house-to-house searching for suspected rebels. "People are disappearing without a trace," he told me. "They tell you, 'Either join the Army or the same thing will happen to you'."

Nothing the Russians planned for us seemed to go quite as intended. When they wanted to demonstrate how they were restoring much-needed social services, they took us to a half-destroyed hospital--where we found a woman who had miscarried because of a Russian raid on her village. When they brought us to see a Chechen police unit being created to support the Russian counterinsurgency effort, we were treated to countless stories of death threats and assassination attempts directed against the men, who were being targeted by the all-too-active and evidently well-informed rebels. When we visited a local administrator in the northern Chechen town of Znamenskoye, we learned how his predecessor had been assassinated by anti-Russian guerillas a few months earlier. "I'm not afraid," the official assured us. "I don't need any protection." So why the omnipresent guards?

A visit to the state TV and radio station was supposed to show how pro-Moscow Chechens were reviving their local media with Russian help. In a tiny room upstairs I found three young women using a portable cassette recorder and a boom box to edit the news for that day's two-hour broadcast. The head of the radio station told me with great passion how he hated the rebels, whom he also blamed for the endless warfare. "After 12 years people are tired of this chaos," he told me. He supported Moscow, he explained, because he believed that government by the rebels would be far worse. But out of earshot of our minders, his tone changed. "At every checkpoint the [Russian] soldiers take money. People are disappearing. It's like the years of repression," he said, referring to the long history of Russian attempts to subdue the rebellious Chechens: "Every 50 years they try to wipe us out. But we will come back to life. We always do."

And that was someone who was on Moscow's side. We also met people who clearly weren't. At one point our bus was held up by a dozen or so Chechens protesting the disappearance of their relatives. "Those women could be terrorists," one of our handlers said, preventing us from speaking to them. "They could have bombs under their skirts." They crowded around the bus, holding up portraits and carefully printed signs: return our innocent children.

On the last day of our visit to Chechnya our hosts took us to see evidence of the "reconstruction effort"--two carefully restored high-rise apartment buildings standing in the center of the sea of destruction that was downtown Grozny. In an entryway we found a crew of Chechen construction workers. I asked one about the Russian claims that things were changing for the better. "Maybe for them," he answered, referring to the Russians. "Not for us." So much for the official story.