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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 December, 2004, 18:27 GMT
Chechnya: 10 years of conflict
Russian troops stormed into the breakaway North Caucasus republic of Chechnya 10 years ago to crush a separatist revolt.

As part of an in-depth series on the continuing conflict, bbcrussian.com editor James Rodgers describes the bombing of Grozny and its aftermath.


Chechen woman grieving
The horrors of Chechnya are not front-page news any more
"It's worse than Beirut," said the American photographer.

He was standing in a doorway, his neck weighed down by cameras, looking skywards, expecting the Russian air force jets to strike at any moment.

They soon did. My BBC colleagues and I ran for cover. The explosion was so loud and so close that I had difficulty hearing for the next two days.

A group of Chechen fighters had been standing a few metres away. Two of them now lay dead.

It was January 1995, and the first Chechen war had begun only the month before. The Russian defence minister at the time, Pavel Grachev, had suggested that Grozny could be captured by a regiment of paratroops in a couple of hours.

QUICK GUIDE

That was 10 years ago. While the nature of the conflict has perhaps changed, and there are many opinions on how it could or should be stopped, it continues.

The Kremlin and the generals have assured us countless times that the "military phase of the operation is coming to an end", but that end has yet to come.

War slips from news

Nobody knows how many people have been killed. Grozny, once a thriving, living city, has been largely destroyed and no one can say how many bodies may still lie beneath the ruins.

Those journalists who have covered the fighting, many of them seasoned war correspondents, usually say this is the worst place they have been.

Woman with a child and Chechen policemen
Security checks are part of daily life in Chechnya
This is a conflict which has never been easy to report. In the first war, you could go almost wherever you wanted. That made it easier to get into danger, as I found out that Saturday morning in January 1995 on Minutka Square.

By the time the second war started, following the bombings of apartment blocks in Moscow and elsewhere in the early autumn of 1999, the republic had become so lawless that kidnapping was the major threat.

As the conflict continued, the Russian federal authorities put strict limitations on the activities of reporters.

Chechnya seemed to slip from the world news agenda. Even if there was international concern about what was happening there, no one was willing to pick a fight with Russia.

It became more difficult and dangerous for news organisations to send correspondents there, so fewer reports came out.

In September 2000, the second Palestinian intifada - or uprising - against Israel began. In September 2001, the attacks on New York and Washington led the United States to declare its war on terror. Both of these events dominated international news coverage. Chechnya seemed all but forgotten outside the ruined republic's borders.

Overspill

Then the conflict spread beyond those borders. It had done so before, in the shape of the hospital siege in Budyonnovsk in the summer of 1995.

TV picture of hostages in Beslan school
The Beslan siege was a grim reminder that the war rages on
This time it came to Moscow itself. Most of the hostage-takers and some 120 of their captives were killed when federal forces stormed a theatre where they were being held.

The conflict outside Chechnya reached new levels of savagery in September this year, with the slaughter at the school in Beslan.

Why has nobody been able to bring the fighting to an end?

Some observers suggest that the federal forces are simply unable to do so. Others suggest more cynically that some of the protagonists have an interest in the conflict continuing. The Chechen fighters themselves appear divided, and lacking a clear direction.

Neither General Pavel Grachev nor the American photographer who compared Grozny to Beirut would have imagined then that 10 years on we would still be discussing how to end the fighting. Chechen civilians and conscript soldiers alike must have been hoping the war would be long since finished.

It isn't. The two eternal questions which Russians have always asked themselves: "Who is to blame?" and "What is to be done?" seem more salient than ever.


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