Chechens View Themselves as Hostages of War. Few Condemn Moscow Theater Siege
By Sharon LaFraniere
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 10, 2002; Page A24
GROZNY, Russia -- It was 20 seconds past 7:30 p.m. last Sunday, by the stopped clock on the wall, when a twirling mortar shell lobbed from the Russian military's main base plunged through the roof of a one-room red-brick house, leaving a melon-size hole, and struck Mariat Nasarkhoeva. The woman, 23 and two months pregnant, died instantly. The explosion scorched the white blanket that swaddled her 5-month-old.
On Wednesday her sister-in-law, Dasha Nasarkhoeva, held the boy aloft in the room where Mariat died. The family's women gathered behind her, she cursed the Russian artillerymen behind barbed wire barriers a few hundred yards away.
"They exterminate us like sheep," she said, while other scarf-shrouded heads nodded in agreement. "We are ready to die like those terrorists. I say it from the depths of my soul. All of us say the same."
Lest anyone misunderstand, Dasha Nasarkhoeva would never say she admires the approximately 50 Chechen terrorists whose seizure of a packed Moscow theater last month led to the deaths of 128 hostages when Russian commandos launched an assault. "Was it right? Of course not," she said.
But she does sympathize with them. To Nasarkhoeva, the Russian soldiers who killed her sister-in-law are no less terrorists than the Chechen hostage-takers who threatened to blow up 763 innocents if Russia did not end its war in the republic. Her view is an article of faith to many Chechens, prisoners of a conflict that has raged in two phases since 1994, reducing their city to ruins and their lives to nightmares.
Practically every one of three dozen Chechens interviewed this week in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, equated themselves with the Moscow hostages who sweated out the terror of the theater for 58 hours, with but one difference: In Chechnya, they said, people have suffered far longer.
"We meet the same situation every day," said Malika Mitaeva, a journalism student at Grozny University. "And they? Once in a long time. So we have the same attitude toward them as they have toward us."
After years amid Grozny's endless heaps of rubble, open fires and charred, windowless apartment houses, many Chechens say they consider desperate acts to end the war not just understandable, but inevitable. A half-dozen women volunteered in interviews to participate in a mass suicide if it would force Russia to withdraw its 80,000 Russian troops from their republic.
Sultan Nasarkhoev, Mariat's 63-year-old father, suggested that Russia simply deport the entire Chechen population, as Joseph Stalin did in 1944, because at least they would be left alive.
"Either [make] most of the soldiers leave, or let them get their cars and transport us out. Or let them just push us into the sea, so we will all drown," he said. "Because it is impossible, impossible, to live like this."
In Moscow, some Russians have said the hostage-taking caused them to take a more critical look at the war, which has killed about 4,500 Russian soldiers and tens of thousands of Chechens since its latest iteration began in 1999. But in Grozny, where daily life is punctured by gunfire, terrifying passages through checkpoints and a gnawing fear that loved ones will fail to return from even routine errands, despair over the war has simply deepened since the hostage crisis and Russia's announcement last Sunday that it has canceled its on-again, off-again plans to withdraw troops.
Unlike the first war between Chechen separatists and Russian soldiers, from 1994 to 1996, the separatist guerrillas do not enjoy strong civilian support in this conflict. In the first war, Chechens fed, financed and sheltered the militants in the hope that Chechnya could win its independence. The combat ended with de facto autonomy, which was followed by a wave of kidnappings for ransom, a takeover by warlords and a near-total breakdown of civil order.
This time, the rebels are more isolated, partly because many Chechens distrusted some of their leaders who preached a brand of radical Islam and linked arms with a small contingent of Arab fighters. Beyond that, the bulk of the population was simply sick of war by the time a guerrilla incursion into neighboring Dagestan and still-unexplained apartment bombings that killed hundreds of Russian civilians brought Russian troops back with a vengeance.
Relentless Russian military pressure and civilian disenchantment has forced the guerrillas underground, where rival rebel commanders have united. While Chechens say the militants still gain recruits from families whose relatives died at the hands of Russian soldiers, the ancient Chechen tradition of blood revenge for a killing is now their only strong argument for support.
Older Chechens interviewed this week almost unanimously said they believe that militant leaders should lay down their arms. Younger Chechens were more divided, with some arguing that the rebels should surrender only if the bulk of Russian troops simultaneously pulled out of Chechnya.
"Otherwise, they will just go on killing us," said Elmira Alieva, 33, who grew up in Grozny and traveled there for a visit this week.
"The younger generation are mostly on the side of the rebels. Maybe the young ones have more pride in their blood. Maybe only the older people can understand that nothing will come of this," she said.
Behind sandbagged barriers in downtown Grozny, Chechen leaders appointed by the Russian government argue that Russia needs to show that its rule will yield jobs, education and order -- not just the dreaded military sweeps that human rights groups say have left hundreds of Chechens dead or missing.
But in Chechnya, the situation remains grim: near-total unemployment, growing illiteracy, the spread of diseases, and rampant killings by Russian soldiers and the rebels, who systematically assassinate Chechens who work for the Russian government.
Government salaries and pensions generally are paid on time. But Grozny itself remains virtually unchanged from three years ago, when waves of Russian bombers reduced an 11-mile-wide city of 500,000 people to a wasteland of weed-infested rubble. At the current pace, officials estimate, it will take 25 years to rebuild it.
In a three-story building riddled with bullet holes, hundreds of students at Grozny University attempt to study math and science without heat, electricity, light or equipment. Eighty percent of the structure was destroyed in the latest conflict, and $400,000 of work has barely made a dent in the list of repairs.
A handful of students and teachers who gathered on the crumbling concrete steps Tuesday voiced little support for the rebel cause. Still, they refused to condemn the terrorists, nearly half of them women, who infiltrated the theater in Moscow, saying their purpose was to save lives, not sow death.
Zura Bisultanova, a 35-year-old genetics professor, said she thought the Russian special services had organized the hostage-taking, a popular theory among Chechens. Zelimkhan Bachingov, a 21-year-old chemistry student who said he was beaten by Russian soldiers and is now searching for his missing uncle, said: "From our side, it was an act of despair."
Last Sunday brought fresh signs that not only is the combat nowhere near over, but the next phase could be even more brutal. A Russian helicopter was shot down over the main Russian military base at Khankala, just outside Grozny, killing nine soldiers. It was the sixth downing of a Russian military helicopter in just over 10 weeks. Russian forces responded with artillery volleys at nearby civilian neighborhoods, arguing that guerrillas had downed the copter with a missile fired from a five-story apartment building.
Regardless, it was civilians who suffered the greatest impact. The fusillade blasted School No. 23, destroyed in earlier bombings and only recently rebuilt by parents of its 780 students. That was followed by the eviction of 60 to 90 families from six nearby apartment houses. Over the objections of Akhmad Kadryov, Moscow's appointed head of the Chechen government, Russian forces then blew up the buildings.
Evicted residents said the destruction of housing and the conduct of the soldiers made a mockery of the government's claim that Chechnya is again a livable place.
Asya Resvanova, 40, said a soldier gave her to the count of three to get out of the apartment where she lived with her five children and an unemployed husband. She managed to haul out some bedclothes and a small, black-and-white television set that her father gave her children two months earlier.
But once outside, she said, a soldier wrested the TV from her, striking her repeatedly with the butt of his automatic rifle when she resisted.
Mezhidova Petimat, 50, said she appealed to the soldiers as a mother and grandmother to show some compassion. "Don't you have anything human in your hearts?" she asked.
"Half the terrorists in Moscow were women," she said one answered.
"You are all terrorists," another told her, she recalled.
In Chechnya, many people say there is little difference between what followed the hostage crisis and what preceded it.
Long before terrorists took over the Moscow theater, Shuvad Israilov said he warned his son Magomed to stop in his tracks and raise his hands should Russian soldiers ever approach him, saying a show of humility could save his life.
But 14-year-old Magomed forgot the lecture when he and two friends spotted a Russian armored personnel carrier on Oct. 11 speeding by the school athletic field, where they were trying to drum up a soccer game. In a panic, they jumped in a 1963 jeep and headed for Magomed's house.
The three boys managed to go a quarter of a block down a rutted dirt road before the soldiers opened fire, eyewitnesses later told Israilov. Eleven bullets pierced the jeep's tan canvas flap and shattered the windshield. Magomed, hit in the head and heart, died almost immediately.
Magomed's father said the other two boys' parents knew better than to seek hospital care for their injured children, because witnesses to military crimes sometimes disappear from their hospital beds. Israilov said he fears that he will be hunted down if he pursues a criminal inquiry.
In any case, he has no hope of justice, he said: The prosecutor told him that military officials would not even allow investigators inside the command post to search for the vehicle witnesses described.
"I know there are terrorists among the Chechens," Israilov said, fingering snapshots of his son in his calloused hands. "But their soldiers are terrorists as well. They kill without any justification and without any punishment.
"Probably they will kill us all, one by one, and we will just bury each other."