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Monday, 15 November, 1999, 00:02 GMT
A return to Chechnya
Ben Brown wonders if Chechen soldiers are plucky or vicious

By Ben Brown on the Chechen border

The Russians won't allow foreign journalists into Chechnya at the moment to report on the war raging there - the second in five years.

Battle for the Caucasus
So reporters are clustered on the border with Ingushetia watching the refugees flooding across and listening to their stories.

I suppose you could say it's been the year of the refugees - certainly for me it has.

I've watched them spill out of Kosovo, then East Timor, and now Chechnya.

A Chechen refugee fetches water
Different war zones, but somehow the same faces - the same looks of bewilderment, of dazed despair.

Human beings who suddenly realise that almost overnight they have lost their homes and everything they ever worked for.

And here on the Chechen border as I watch the dispossessed trundling along yet another road towards yet another refugee camp, I have little choice but to conclude that on the eve of the new millennium, for all we have achieved, man's inhumanity to man is still going strong.

Whether they be Serb soldiers, Indonesians or Russians, all seem to masters of the art of inflicting wanton cruelty on innocent men, women and children.

And so our weary world tries to stir itself once more to care.

Second time round

This time, though, there is a difference.

While the international community bombed Belgrade and poured peacekeepers into Dili, there is surely no question of taking on the Russians - not with their nuclear weapons.

Even if we disapprove of their campaign in Chechnya - and the Americans have said it is in breach of the Geneva Convention - there is precious little we can do about it.

We couldn't stop the last Chechen war, and we can't stop this one.

It is five years since I was last here and not much has changed.

It was New Year 1995. The Russians had just launched their first campaign against the Chechen rebels.

It turned out, of course, to be a catastrophe.

Thousands of Russian soldiers died in the 1995 war
Thousands of young Russian soldiers were sent into the battle of Grozny, sent to be slaughtered.

Just how an army of that size and strength could be so utterly outfought and humiliated, I never really understood.

To this day, many war reporters will tell you they have not experienced such terror as they did back then in Grozny.

The ferocity of the fighting felt like we'd been taken back in time to the Battle of Stalingrad.

For me, one moment will live forever.

There had been a lull in the Russian bombardment and naively we assumed there was some sort of ceasefire.

We drove right up to the presidential palace. It was where the rebels had their headquarters and therefore it was the prime target for Russia's artillery gunners.

Just as we arrived, the shells started dropping all around us just yards away.

I had never felt fear like it. The sort of fear that turns your legs to jelly and your guts to acid.

I beat a rapid retreat, the kind we journalists specialise in. Thinking of my wife and children, telling God I'd never do this sort of thing again if only he'd get me out alive.

Free for all

So half a decade later it is perhaps with some secret relief that I find that the Russians have sealed off Chechnya. They simply won't let journalists in.

I never understood quite why they gave us the unfettered access they did in the first Chechen war. Then it was a free for all.

The only constraints on what you could report and film were your own levels of bravery. The result was that we showed anything and everything - an international propaganda disaster for the Kremlin.

That lesson, at least, the Russians have learnt. The borders are firmly shut to our prying eyes now.

Victims or vicious?

Something else has changed from the last time round.

In 1994 and 1995, I suppose we saw the Chechens as rather heroic figures, people Moscow could not ultimately suppress. Not the Czars, not Stalin, not Yeltsin.

The plucky little Chechens we used to call them - the ultimate underdogs whose ridiculous courage helped them see off what was supposed to be a superpower army.

Moscow claims Chechen terrorists are responsible for this bomb attack
Now though, when Moscow calls the Chechens bandits and terrorists, one has to agree that some of them at least certainly fit that bill.

We have no proof they really were behind the spate of apartment block bombs that left some 300 people dead.

But what we do know for sure is that the Chechens have been kidnapping almost any Westerner foolish enough to venture into their republic, demanding ransom money for them, occasionally executing them.

A particularly gruesome video is doing the rounds in Moscow at the moment.

It shows one kidnap victim having his finger shot off, another being beheaded. A snuff movie, the way only the Chechens can make them.

So now I wonder - plucky little Chechens or vicious little gangsters?

Perhaps the truth is a bit of both, which is maybe why the international community is having such a tricky time trying to decide what to do and what to say about the world's latest crisis.

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See also:
14 Nov 99 |  Europe
Ground assault on Grozny expected
10 Nov 99 |  Europe
Analysis: West critical but cautious on Chechnya

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