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Bridget Kendall in Moscow
"For me this was part of the job"
 real 28k

Sunday, 30 January, 2000, 16:40 GMT
The shifting sands of war

The Russian campaign plods on


By Bridget Kendall

I was cutting salami on my friend Ira's kitchen table when the Chechen rebel spokesman rang in on my London mobile - which works clear as a bell in Moscow.

Ira was making tea. Her ancient mother was sitting on a stool to catch her breath, her old coat buttoned up over her apron as usual. A moment of domestic calm about to be shattered.

Battle for the Caucasus
The caller was Movladi Udugov. On the echoey satellite line he said he was high in the Caucasus mountains in southern Chechnya, a secret communications headquarters set up after the high command pulled out of Grozny ahead of the Russian advance on the city.

Movladi has taken to ringing me regularly. He says he remembers me from when I first went to Chechnya nine years ago.

"How fierce is the fighting in Grozny today then," I ask. "How many dead and wounded?"

I push the food aside and scrawl notes on a sheet of paper. Ira's mother's eyes, watery and huge through the thick glass of her reading spectacles, fasten on me in fascinated horror.


Military protection - or invasion?
I jot down the details - the Russian general they say they've captured alive, the night-time ambushes that allow Chechen snipers to recoup daytime losses. It could all be lies of course, much of it probably is, but how are we to know?

What the Russian military tell us is also impossible to check out. At least this is a relatively senior Chechen source, for propaganda balance.

I asked Movladi about the prospect of more terrorist acts in Russia. Vladimir Putin, the acting president, has just issued a warning to the population from the Kremlin.

Moscow in fear too

And then I looked up and saw Ira and her mother's appalled faces. For me this was part of the job - a slightly detached putting together of information from various sources to try to make sense of it.

For these Russians though this telephone call out of the blue was a glimpse into the terrifying brutal world of war and high politics.

They don't know too much about the battle for Chechnya. They wish it wasn't happening, but what they constantly worry about is bombs going off in their apartment block or nearly street and someone they know being killed or maimed.

It doesn't matter if it's Chechen warriors responsible or a pre-election plot by their own KGB-trained prospective president. Actually, cynical Russians are more inclined to believe the lattter.

But the overall lesson they draw from this is that the only world they know is slipping into anarchy and violence again and they are trapped in it.

Popular war no longer

It's interesting how attitudes to the war in Chechnya have soured since I was last in Russia a month ago.

When troops and tanks were sweeping through the Chechen lowlands last autumn, taking few casualties and triumphantly liberating villages from what they called Islamic terrorists, the scheme worked brilliantly.

No matter that a quarter of a million Chechen refugees had fled to Ingushetia; as a symbol the early military campaign sent a message to Russians that Vladimir Putin was the man to vote for - a leader capable of bringing order to their shambolic country.

But, as all the wise experts predicted, it's going wrong.

The assault on Grozny has not been swift and painless. The rebels can't be dislodged. Russian troops are dying in undisclosed numbers.

Cameras aren't allowed into military hospitals, but the Russian TV pictures of the trenches round Grozny this past week have clearly shown the inexperienced, scared teenage conscripts turned into battle fodder.


And the casualty lists keep mounting
It's all depressingly like the last Chechen war, except, say the refugees I came across in the camps in neighbouring Ingushetia this week, it's much much worse than last time.

One family who left the cellar they'd been sheltering in last week said the destruction of their district in Grozny was almost total.

They'd decided the Russian bombs were too dangerous and they must make a run for it. Chechen fighters had helped them slip out of the destroyed city at night. And then they'd simply walked from checkpoint to checkpoint.

The Russian boys on patrol, said one Chechen woman, were simply pitiful. One had slipped her his telephone number and begged her to ring his parents in the Urals to tell them where he was and that he was alive.

Not winning hearts or minds

"He's just as much a prisoner of this war as we are," the Chechen woman observed thoughtfully.


Chechen refugees find warmth any way they can
Boiling anger is the only way to describe the mood of the Chechens who fled to Ingushetia.

Many I spoke to have seen their homes destroyed for the second time by the Russian military.

If at the start of this campaign four months ago there were quite a few who didn't mind the thought of a bit of law and order being imposed and the lawlessness and kidnapping stopped, now few Chechens have a good word to say about the Russian Government.

They dismiss Moscow's claim that it's pounding Grozny to flush out the last remaining terrorists. I didn't meet one refugee from Grozny who didn't now believe the Russians were now deliberately and ruthlessly targeting civilians.

That's what it felt like, sitting terrified in their basements.

As for what happens next in this campaign, it's difficult to guess. Few here expect the war to end before March and Russia's presidential elections.

Between now and then there's plenty of time for new disasters.

Russia's crazy logic

Take what's happening to our local bodyguards, two Ingush brothers in their early twenties, Jumbulat and Ibragim, members of the special forces in the Interior Ministry and assigned to the BBC by the Ingush Government to protect us from kidnappers and generally to keep an eye on us.

Two days ago they came with long faces to say they'd been called up and told to get ready to be sent to fight in Chechnya.

It's hard to comprehend such an order. The Ingush are blood brothers of the Chechens. They share a more or less common language, customs, often the same families.

Who in their right mind would send them into Chechnya to fight alongside the Russians and open fire on their cousins?

But this is Russia, where it never does to rely on reason. The crazy option is almost always the most likely one to happen.

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See also:
27 Jan 00 |  Europe
Refugees battle Caucasus winter
28 Jan 00 |  Europe
Chechen warlord threatens Russia
29 Jan 00 |  Europe
Putin defends Chechen campaign
27 Jan 00 |  Europe
Analysis: Russia's unconvincing arguments
26 Jan 00 |  Media reports
Russian troops' tales of war
29 Jan 00 |  Europe
Russia claims Grozny gains

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