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Monday, 20 September, 1999, 13:33 GMT 14:33 UK
Fear and hatred in Moscow
A woman leaves some flowers at the ruins of the bombed building
A woman leaves some flowers at the ruins of the bombed building
By Moscow Correspondent Robert Parsons

They have never had much in the grimy, run-down housing estates of south-east Moscow - a forest of crumbling high-rises that stretches in mind-numbing uniformity for as far as the eye can see.

But in common with the rest of us they did at least have the gift of sleep - hours of oblivion that temporarily erased the memory of crime, disease and destitution.

Now even that has been snatched away - snatched by the bombers who come in the twilight hours between night and dawn.

Muscovites are vulnerable and scared
Muscovites are vulnerable and scared
They struck twice in the space of five days - the first attack, a blast that punched a massive hole in the side of a block of flats.

Ninety four people died as they slept in their beds.

The second, a pulverising explosion that brought an entire block crashing down on itself - hundreds of tons of concrete and metal cascading in an ever accelerating mass through eight floors of apartments.

One hundred and eighteen people were crushed; two - miraculously - were brought out alive.

Nightly vigil

The trauma has left the people of the estates feeling vulnerable and scared. Sleep is not a release anymore. Some cannot rest at all.

They prowl the spaces between the blocks of flats or stare from their balconies through the advancing autumn mist - on the lookout for anything unusual in the flat contours of the night.

Most have taken security precautions
Most have taken security precautions
In the Lylublino district there's one group of men and women that has taken to circling the estate bearing religious icons and chanting prayers.

The more practical are forming neighbourhood watch committees - self-help schemes that reflect both their insecurity and distrust of the regular police.

"We have to protect ourselves, our children, our parents and our grandparents," one young woman told me. "We don't want to die in our sleep."

They gather in the chill of evening - the pasty-pale faces of the Moscow working class grim with worry.

A drunk tries to break up the meeting but is ushered into a corner by his friends. Irina, a young accountant, has organised a 24-hour rota.

Police are on the lookout for anything suspicious
Police are on the lookout for anything suspicious
Nearly everyone is sharing the burden - they take it in turns to patrol the entrances and corridors of the 11-storey building.

They check the dustbins and cellars and report to the police when they see anyone or anything they think suspicious.

The police in turn offer their professional advice. Watch out for water-melons, they suggest - particularly if you see someone with as many as five. They could be injected with liquid explosive.

Racial hatred

But there's an ugly side to the new-found community spirit - a creeping xenophobia, a powerless rage that finds expression in the victimisation of scapegoats and a return to the culture of snooping and informing that was the backbone of Stalinism.

I witnessed the process in action - a member of the duty patrol had spotted a woman carrying two bags the day before.

Policeman checking permit
Checking for a resident's permit
She'd refused to show her the contents. More to the point, she was also a Muslim from the newly independent state of Azerbaijan in the southern Caucasus. What the Russians call a black.

After a ride in the urine-saturated lift we found her and her family down the end of a dingy corridor - a hammering of fists on the door and she answered, wide-eyed with fear.

A young man did the questioning, an empty beer glass dangling from his hand. It turned out she'd lived there for 10 years.

This is no minority fringe phenomenon. It is instigated and stoked by the country's leaders and opinion-formers.

Vulnerable minorities

The first reaction of the mayor of Moscow to the bombings was to promise tough measures against what he calls the city's guests - ethnic minorities from the Caucasus - blacks.

He was the first to lay the blame squarely on what he calls Chechen bandits - but he's been joined by the Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, who says the Chechens responsible should be squashed like vermin.

Vladimir Putin holds the Chechens squarely responsible
Vladimir Putin holds the Chechens squarely responsible
Chechens may indeed be responsible but we have yet to see a shred of evidence.

Chechens, Azeris, Armenians, Georgians, Central Asians - even dark-skinned Slavs - are vulnerable now to the wrath of the people.

Take Sergei Parkhomenko, the editor of Russia's top current affairs magazine, Itogi. Maybe he should shave his beard.

When he rushed to the site of the first Moscow bomb, he was kicked and spat at. His crime - to have been born without the fair-skinned features of most of his compatriots.

The popular late night Sevodnyashko current affairs programme has made a particularly bilious contribution to the debate about the bombings.

What should the Moscow authorities do, it asked its viewers - expel all Chechens, expel all people from the Caucasus or just expel bandits?

The vast majority was in no doubt - Moscow should expel all people from the Caucasus.

Viewers phoned in with their comments. Some of them were printed in a ticker tape that ran across the screen. One suggested that all Chechens should be exterminated in their mothers' wombs.

The notion of the collective responsibility of the peoples of the Caucasus for all that is wrong in Russia is deeply engrained in the popular psyche - and finds particularly unpleasant expression in the police force.

In contravention of the Russian constitution, anyone visiting Moscow who is not a permanent resident of the city must get a permit, a requirement that the police are now using to crack down on Chechens and others.

Hundreds of arrests are being made and many more being deported from Moscow. Beatings are commonplace.

It is a symptom of so much else that is wrong in Russia. The concept of civil liberties is barely understood - let alone defended by the courts or the law enforcement bodies.

Whatever the motives of the bombers - and as yet we have no idea - their campaign of terror threatens to sweep away whatever progress has been made.

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See also:

17 Sep 99 | Europe
The blasts which shook Russia
15 Sep 99 | Europe
Security clampdown in Russia
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