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|Rustic charm of a bitter war waits to explode|
|05/11/01 at 11:54:13|
|Rustic charm of a bitter war waits to explode |
By Patrick Cockburn
08 May 2001
From a distance, the village of Yandi on the green plain below the mountains of southern Chechnya looks like a rustic Constable landscape. Wild flowers bloom in the hedgerows. White blossom covers the apple trees in an orchard on the outskirts of the village. Friendly brown and black cows wander everywhere.
Sadly, the rural charm of Yandi is a symptom of war, not peace. The village is so verdant because wild flowers plants have colonised the ruins of houses destroyed in the first Chechen war in 1994-96.
A closer look at the orchard shows it has been abandoned, probably because it was sown with mines. The cattle roam untended because most of Yandi's 2,800 population fled long ago. We were looking at the ruins of a large Chechen farmhouse, pulverised by Russian shells and bombs and sprouting green shrubs, when an elderly man appeared. "My name is Magomed and I live here," he said. "This is my home. I will do anything rather than become a refugee. I won't rebuild because the war is going to get worse.
"I am like a soldier who is grateful if he can say at night, 'A day has gone by and I am still alive'.''
The only new building in Yandi is the mosque. We were standing outside when an anxious-looking man stepped up and told us his name was Ahmed Batalov and his 22-year-old nephew Ruslan had been picked up at a Russian checkpoint.
"He is mentally retarded and has trouble hearing," Ahmed said.
"They are accusing him of being a fighter. A mediator has told us that they want weapons if they are going to release him."
The Russian army appears to have an unofficial policy of arresting all Chechen males between 15 and 55. They are taken to the dreaded "filtration" camps where torture is routine. Release comes after a large bribe. In many respects, the Russian army in Chechnya has turned into a money-making machine. Even the demand for guns has a financial purpose. They do not come from guerrilla arsenals but are bought in the market. Chechens say soldiers show the guns to their commanders to claim a special combat allowance then sell them again.
Every Chechen we met was frightened of Russian checkpoints which surround their villages. At best they act as unofficial toll booths, extracting small bribes from passers-by. Most of the numerous Chechens who have disappeared were last seen at checkpoints.
The Russian army is trigger-happy. Our entry into Chechnya was delayed for hours because the road across the border from the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia was closed. Soldiers at a checkpoint had detained a young man who pulled a knife. They shot him dead, but some of their bullets struck another Russian position which returned fire. By the time the Russian troops realised they were shooting at each other they had killed a civilian and wounded six policemen.
The atmosphere in Chechnya today is very different from the first months of the war. Then, many Chechens were wholly disillusioned with their three years of de facto independence. Their political leadership was openly criminalised.
But the cruelty and corruption of the Russian occupation has given them little choice but to fight. Possibly the Kremlin miscalculated the extent of its initial victory or finds it convenient to keep the war going so it can appeal to Russian patriotism.
Whatever the reason, the war in Chechnya is going to intensify sharply in the next year. Chechens will not defeat the Russian army, but, as with the Tet offensive in Vietnam, they want to show they have not lost. People in Yandi are wise not to rebuild their village just yet.
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