Four Days In Hell

Fatima Umarova was stoking her stove early in the morning on March 5 when she heard the helicopters overhead. Moments later, rockets came smashing into the center of her village of Komsomolskoye, a Chechen hamlet 30 kilometers from the capital of Grozny. Umarova, 40, grabbed her two children and ran for the nearby fields, as did most of her neighbors. Russian troops were lined up, with tanks and artillery. "Krocodil" helicopter gunships fired rockets onto suspected rebel positions, while the artillery and tanks began lobbing shells into the village center. The villagers spent a hellish day trapped in a field between the edge of Komsomolskoye and Russian troop lines.

The war that boosted Vladimir Putin's chances to become Russia's next president continued last week, right up through the first round vote on March 26. Many Russians back Putin's prosecution of the war, but his ruthless resolve also has its costs. In Washington and in Europe, leaders are dismayed by mounting allegations of Russian brutality toward Chechen civilians. Later this week U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson will visit Moscow and the north Caucasus to discuss these allegations with Russian officials. To date, human-rights organizations have compiled credible reports of civilian executions in two districts of Grozny in early February, and in the village of Alkhan Yurt in December. The Russians have denied that any abuses occurred, and are pressuring Western governments to stop short of allowing an independent UNHCR investigation. The United Nations will vote on that question on April 14 in Geneva; what Robinson sees and hears this week will influence the vote.

The brutal Russian assault earlier this month on Komsomolskoye will likely increase the pressure for an independent inquiry. A NEWSWEEK investigation, based on 12 days of reporting in Chechnya, reveals clear evidence that Russian troops have executed prisoners of war, beaten and murdered civilian detainees and blasted the entire village into rubble. Rebel fighters interviewed by NEWSWEEK in Urus Martan's hospital admit that an 800-strong rebel unit headed by a native son of Komsomolskoye had come to the village "to fight." The gunships were back again the next day, and once again the villagers had to flee. For four days--from March 6 through March 9--2,000 men, women and children lived in the open field with no food or shelter as the bombardment roared on.

On the second day, Russian troops said that women and children could leave--but that men between the ages of 10 and 60 had to stay. Chechen troops loyal to Moscow warned the women not to leave. "They were using us as a human shield so that the rebels couldn't shoot them,'' says Umarova.

Moscow's commanders had underestimated the number of rebel fighters. On the second day of fighting, a Russian platoon went into the village to negotiate a rebel surrender. "We walked straight into an ambush," recalls Maj. Vladimir Shcherbak. "Seventeen of our boys were killed. We couldn't even recover our wounded. After that, our commander said, 'Screw it. Now we wipe this place off the face of the earth'."

On March 7, Russian soldiers approached the villagers and ordered the men at gunpoint to go into Komsomolskoye and haul out as many casualties as they could. Adam Ospanov, a village elder, says 20 wounded Chechens were brought out, and at least eight Russians. The Chechens were left in the field to be tended by their countrymen; the Russians were evacuated on helicopters. On the morning of March 9, soldiers ordered the men and boys of Komsomolskoye to line up in six rows. Russian troops walked up and down the lines, selected men whom they didn't like the look of and bundled them into a windowless green van for "questioning." Many were beaten with rifle butts in full view of the villagers. Two of the young men picked out were 18-year-old Said Visayev, a nephew of Fatima Umarova, and his cousin Bislan Umarov, 22. Visayev had lost his passport and had only a flimsy official form as ID. Both men were beaten and thrown into the van with eight others.

The next day, March 10, Umarova led her sister-in-law Zara Visayeva to Urus Martan, site of an orphanage turned detention center where they thought Said was being held. "We tried to borrow some money from relatives--we thought we could buy him out," says Umarova, who now lives in a refugee camp in neighboring Ingushetia. But Said's name was not on the list posted outside the prison. "A woman said the body of a boy had been found in the boiler room of the local hospital," says Umarova. "Zara [felt] at once it was Said."

She was right. Bislan Umarov, Said and the other prisoners had been driven to the Urus Martan center. As the nine prisoners were herded into a cell in the basement of the former orphanage, one of the soldiers shouted, "Welcome to summer camp!" "They took us out one by one to a room where they beat us and questioned us. I was beaten first, then Said," recalls Umarov. "They shouted questions about whether we were rebels, but mostly they just beat us. When Said was brought in his feet were bloody, his face was swollen, his coat and shirt were gone and he was disoriented--like he had a concussion. He kept asking, 'Bislan, where are we? What's happening?' He passed out just before dusk. Every couple of hours during the night soldiers would come in and kick us. They especially kicked the ones who were on the ground, like Said. They were drunk. They shouted, 'You s.o.b.s! You killed 10 of our boys today!' And they kicked Said's head again. We saw he was dying and we called for a doctor. The soldiers said, 'Die, pigs, along with him!' He died at dawn and they opened the door so I could drag him out into the corridor."

A Russian officer, Maj. Igor Ivannikov, concedes his troops were furious during the first days in Komsomolskoye. "At least 50 of us were killed," he says. "There was a lot of anger, a lot of it directed at the prisoners of war." Evidence of that now abounds. Last Saturday a NEWSWEEK correspondent in Komsomolskoye saw the remains of at least 11 dead Chechen fighters; it is clear that many did not die in battle. At least one had his hands bound with heavy cable and his head was split open with a spade; another had his tongue cut out. Three others had their ears cut off--a Russian soldier at the scene joked that they lost their ears "because they'd heard too much."

Ivannikov, for one, understands the consequences of the brutality the Russians are inflicting on Chechnya--consequences that have nothing to do with the possibility of a United Nations reprimand. Told of Said Visayev's death, he shakes his head. "Why did that boy have to die?" he asks quietly. "It'll just make his brothers want to take revenge.''