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EDITIONS
Monday, 20 March, 2000, 15:38 GMT
Eyewitness: Chechnya's war goes on
soldiers and map
Russian soldiers are hunting Chechen fighters
By John Sweeney

The night before we went to the most dangerous place on Earth, we had a party in the hotel corridor.

Going into Chechnya is a little bit scary. You can get arrested and beaten up by the Russian troops. Or worse, you can get kidnapped by Chechens working for the Russians or for themselves, and chained to a radiator for five years. Or you can get your head cut off. I've seen a video and it's not very nice.

So we had a corridor party on the third floor of the Hotel Assa, in Nazran, Ingushetia.

It's hard to do justice to the Hotel Assa. Imagine the Dorchester Hotel in London, with its polite doormen, plush furniture, and calm, business-like air.

Well, the Hotel Assa isn't anything like that. The lobby is chock-a-block with dodgy looking blokes hugging Kalashnikovs. You get the idea that they would feel undressed without a gun. Suspicion hangs in the air as thick and noxious as the blue smoke from a hundred 98% tar cigarettes.

Smugglers and secret police

Smugglers offer trips into Chechnya for thousands of dollars. Secret policemen from the FSB, the fancy new name for the old KGB, hang around, clocking the western journalists as they clump in from a day on the road. And then the smugglers swap places with the secret policemen, and you wonder who can be trusted and who not.

The night before, someone had broken into the room of a colleague, stolen some money and left his shower on. And this is the scary bit - switched on his satellite phone and left it at the bottom of his shower.

Stealing it would have been fine, but wrecking it and letting my friend and the rest of us know that that was the intention was chilling.

No-man's-land

The party was necessary. Vodka, beer, whisky, chocolate, and so much bitching about colleagues and friends, you would not believe it. Best of all, someone complained about the noise and we all had to go to bed, feeling like a bunch of daft teenagers.
rows of cars and lorries
The Ingush-Chechen border: difficult to cross
Come the morning, I realised I had had enough to drink to kill a small horse. The drive to the Ingush/Chechen border was tense. The first smuggler was on edge.

We drove through a wasteland and came to a stop at a muddy ditch. Then, a long walk through no-man's-land. He ordered us not to speak in English, and he told me to take off my specs, which are similar to those sported by the late Eric Morecambe.

The result was that, while the others were a little nervous about Russian Special Forces finding us out, I was as cool as a cucumber. That's because I couldn't make out a damn thing.

Half a mile through mud, vaulting across ditches, to meet up with the second smuggler. Money changed hands, and then we were inside Chechnya.

The war waged by ex-KGB man and new acting President Vladimir Putin is over, the battle lost and won. But no one has told the losers.

Every now and then, the Chechen fighters emerge from the mists that cling to Chechnya and ambush another score of Russian soldiers. The result is that the whole place oozes with menace.

A white flag convoy

Our destination was a village, Katyr Yurt, which had been hit by the Russians. Back across the border in Russian-controlled Ingushetia, we had heard that the Russians had been hunting Chechen fighters who had passed through Katyr Yurt.
chechen fighters
Chechen fighters rest in the mists that cling to Chechnya
They had bombed the village, then given safe passage to a white flag convoy - then bombed that.

Of course, the story could be Chechen propaganda. But I had the grim feeling that our first eyewitness was telling the truth.

Taisa was eight years old, and was the only survivor from a car carrying her mother, father, brothers and sister when the bombs hit. Her face and hands were cruelly burnt, her legs broken. She told us in a child's whisper that, yes, they had been flying a white flag from the car.

Our second eyewitness, Rumissa, confirmed Taisa's account, and added a telling detail, a joke. When the Russians had announced that they would allow a white flag convoy to leave the village, everyone raced round to find white things to tie to their cars: sheets, blankets, anything.

Rumissa said: "I saw a cow with white horns and I joked that we should take that. Everyone laughed."

She told the story, and smiled to herself. And then her eyes flickered with remorse. Rumissa's husband had been killed when they bombed the white flag convoy.

So much destruction

We needed to see the village with our own eyes. We switched up and down muddy lanes, dodging the Russian army. We drove down one road, and 20 tanks came towards us, the racket from the tank tracks monstrously loud, but they passed us by and we moved on, deafened but untouched.
woman near ruins
Another village annihilated
Eventually, we arrived in Katyr Yurt. I have been to Vukovar, Sarajevo and Mostar in the bad times, but I have never seen so much destruction in such a small area: homes smashed into matchwood, whole streets demolished. The village had been annihilated.

An old lady emerged from a cellar and started to sob her story. As she was talking, the Russians bombed again.

The Kremlin says the war is over. But no one has told the Chechens.


Key stories

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See also:

10 Feb 00 | Europe
08 Feb 00 | Europe
05 Feb 00 | Europe
17 Jan 00 | Europe
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