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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 September 2005, 17:47 GMT 18:47 UK
Eyewitness: I served in Chechnya
Omon troopers examine a tree damaged in fighting in Chechnya (photo from Valeri Gorban's archive)
Chechnya was still a war zone when Russian police arrived in 1995
Valery Gorban commanded a unit of Omon paramilitary police in Grozny in April 1995 after the bloody recapture of the Chechen capital by Russian forces.

The retired Russian colonel told the BBC News website about his experiences.

Omon units were sent into Chechnya by order of the interior minister, like the army units. There were quite a lot of cases of police refusing to go on these postings. Three men in my unit also refused to go to Chechnya. All of them were sacked.

There was a lot about the war I didn't like and didn't understand, but I did not consider it possible to abandon my comrades at a difficult time and I personally led our first Omon group into Chechnya.

In the first campaign "combat allowances" were not paid. We were basically working for our normal pay plus the normal travelling allowances. In the spring of 1995 they introduced small "field" bonuses - about 15% of my pay, for instance. We called them "coffin allowances" and spent them getting fresh food at the markets.

The chief crime and violation of human rights is the starting of a war in the first place

As a deputy district commander in Grozny, I met hundreds of people from all the ethnic groups. Most of the Chechens were unhappy with the separatism of [Chechen rebel leader Dzhokhar] Dudayev's team and the rampant crime.

According to dozens of Chechens who spoke to me frankly, the start of the war only strengthened Dudayev's regime, which was on the point of collapse.

The unfolding of the military operations, they said, had achieved precisely what the separatists had been pushing for: most of the population of Chechnya were gradually drawn into the war, mutual hatred flared up and an essentially economic and political war became an inter-ethnic conflict.

Our unit worked alongside guys from Tatarstan and Bashkiria - mixed-religion units where comradeship outweighs all other qualities. Most Russian Muslims hate the fighters, especially the foreign ones, because they blow people up without discriminating between the victims' religious beliefs and they give a bad name to Islam, an ancient and wise religion.

The overwhelming majority of Russians understand this is a war between terrorists and decent people though there are exceptions - there are outbursts of nationalism which our state simply cannot flirt with. Such things have to be nipped in the bud.

'Hard to restrain'

I tried very hard to restrain my subordinates from committing acts of revenge. I was continually explaining to them what was really going on. It is very hard to keep your cool after hearing hundreds of cases of monstrous acts of cruelty by Dudayev's followers.

Omon troopers take cover in Grozny (photo from Valeri Gorban's archive)
Russian forces remained under attack until the withdrawal in 1996

All wars entail massive human rights violations. How do you like the "precision strikes" by the US and its allies in Iraq? Do Iraqi mothers weep different tears?

Soldiers act the same in battle the world over. When a soldier of any nation is on a mopping-up operation, he only goes into a cellar after a grenade and a burst of fire into the dark.

Civilians suffer in the same way and the degree of bitterness grows in proportion to the stiffening of resistance. That does not mean that war crimes must not be stopped. I just want to stress that the chief crime and violation of human rights is the starting of a war in the first place.

If I could give President Putin some advice, I would tell him to overhaul the security forces and put people with a mind for peacemaking, not fighting, in charge. The Russian army and police have hundreds of officers with experience of international peacekeeping operations. They should be leading the way in Chechnya now.

Interview taken by Patrick Jackson, BBC News website


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