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DATE=10/17/1999 TYPE=BACKGROUND REPORT TITLE=REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: CHECHYNA SNAPSHOTS NUMBER=5-44533 BYLINE=PETER HEINLEIN DATELINE=GROZNY INTERNET=YES CONTENT= VOICED AT: INTRO: War has again broken out in Chechnya. Three years after Russian troops were forced out of the region, they are back. They have already captured more than one-third of Chechen territory and are advancing on the capital, Grozny, vowing to re-establish Moscow's control over the entire breakaway region. But Chechen fighters are dug in, expecting a long war. They appear confident they can fend off another invasion. V-O-A correspondent Peter Heinlein has just returned from the war zone. He came away with these impressions of a battle-scarred land and a traumatized people. TEXT: /// SOUND OF ARTILLERY FIRE, IN AND UNDER/// The rumble of artillery fire is a constant reminder to Chechens that their brief period of relative independence from Russia is in jeopardy -- Not that they need any reminder. Many of them -- maybe as much as 25 percent of the population -- have already fled. They remember that most of the 80 thousand people who died in the previous conflict in the mid-nineties, were civilians. // OPT // War is nothing new in the northern Caucasus. Historians trace the conflict back to the 16th Century, when the mountain people of Chechnya converted to Islam. The region was finally incorporated into Russia in 1859, after nearly half a century of fighting. But the relationship between Grozny and Moscow was always one of mutual suspicion, bordering on hostility. In 1944, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin deported the entire Chechen people to the barren deserts of central Asia, accusing them of aiding the German invaders. Many thousands died. // OPT // When the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, Chechnya tried to assert its independence. President Boris Yeltsin ordered troops into the region in December, 1994, to crush the rebellion, but they were forced to withdraw in defeat 21 months later. ///OPT/// It has been almost three years since I last visited Grozny. The striking thing is how little has changed // OPT // Mile after mile of bombed out buildings destroyed during the last war still stand, as if frozen in time. They are mute testimony not just to the fury of war, but to the inability of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov's impoverished government to clear the debris, much less to rebuild the republic. ///END OPT/// Journalists swarmed into Chechnya to cover the earlier conflict. Even at the height of battle, Russian and foreign reporters roamed the countryside freely, bringing the world vivid coverage, eventually turning even Russian public opinion against the war. Since then, however, few foreigners have visited Chechnya -- and with good reason. After the war, the region descended into anarchy. Kidnapping for ransom became a profitable business for heavily-armed gangs - - some of them Chechens, others from Russia. ///OPT/// Outsiders were easy and lucrative targets. In some cases, hostages were killed when ransom demands were not met. // OPT // To make matters worse, six International Red Cross workers at a hospital for war victims were slaughtered one night in their beds. Other agencies quickly pulled out their foreign staff. ///END OPT/// So, when war broke out again last month, there was no rush of reporters back to the scene. Instead, most news agencies chose to cover the fighting from the safety of their Moscow offices, depending mostly on the highly-partisan and still largely state-run media for information. ///OPT/// Then, when the air strikes began, Chechnya's telephone system was among the first targets. Soon after, the electricity supply was cut. In addition to its other, more-serious consequences, the loss of electricity further crippled the Chechen administration's ability to compete in the information war. ///END OPT/// In an effort to counter the information offensive, President Maskhadov has agreed to provide security for a few journalists interested in seeing the other side of the story. So I am traveling in a group of 10 reporters. There is safety in numbers. But -- although we are safe -- we are virtual prisoners of President Maskhadov's bodyguards. They have arranged a media tour, the main objective of which is to showcase Russian atrocities. First stop is Elistanzhi -- a tiny farming village carpet bombed two days earlier by Russian warplanes. ///ACTUALITY OF WOMAN SOBBING/// It is a ghastly scene. We arrive as mourners are returning from funeral services for 34 people killed in the raids. // END ACTUALITY // ///OPT///Russia has portrayed the bombing campaign as similar to NATO air strikes on Kosovo. But Elistanzhi clearly shows the difference. NATO jets struck from altitudes of several thousand meters, using precision bombs. Witnesses here say two Russian warplanes zoomed in at treetop level, peppering the village with shrapnel bombs and machine-gun fire. ///END OPT/// ///PETIROVA ACT IN RUSSIAN, THEN FADE./// Fifty-year-old Yakha Petirova cries "How can they be such barbarians? We are not fighting. We were gathering potatoes, and all of a sudden bombs were poured on us like apples." ///OPT/// But the villagers' anger is not limited to the Russians who bombed them. They also blame Chechen leaders and the fighters. At one point, we saw villagers shake their fists at the heavily-armed guards accompanying us. //END OPT/// The next stop is a nearby hospital where survivors of the attack are being treated. There, Doctor Magomed Berikhanov says the difference between this war and the last one is that now, after all the killings and kidnappings of foreigners, aid groups that previously gave medicine to the hospital have left. ///BERIKHANOV RUSSIAN ACTUALITY, IN AND UNDER/// He says, "We always managed to find a way to get medical supplies before, either from the local population or from Medicins sans Frontieres, or from journalists who provided humanitarian aid. Now, they don't operate here". President Maskhadov expressed a similar lament. In an hour-long question-and-answer session with visiting reporters, the Chechen leader worried aloud that -- with no international presence in Chechnya -- Russian forces will be free to do as they please. ///opt/// The Chechen leader -- in a grim assessment -- says the recent apartment building bombings in Moscow and other cities, which were blamed on Chechens, have whipped up anti-Chechen sentiment, provided a convenient excuse for a punitive military campaign and neutralized former anti-war groups in Russia. ///MASKHADOV ACTUALITY IN RUSSIAN, THEN FADE/// He says "Immediately the Chechen issue is raised. Chechen aggression. Chechen terrorism. Where else could they think up an excuse to call us aggressors and terrorists? There is no proof, no facts, no evidence. They did not catch a single Chechen." Last stop on the tour is a 45-minute drive north from Grozny to the front. There we find Chechen fighters with rifles crouching in trenches while Russian artillery pound them from positions across the river, more than a kilometer away. These are Islamic suicide fighters. Twenty-four-year- old Ibrahim Abdulkadirov of Grozny says he would prefer to die than live under Russian rule. ///ABDULKADIROV ACTUALITY, IN AND UNDER // ` // OPT // He says "When injustice is being done, I find it difficult to accept it. I'd rather die, have my parents die, rather than live as slaves. God is the purpose of our lives." ///END OPT/// Afterward, as we packed up and headed back to Moscow, I kept asking myself why. Why has war returned to Chechnya? Did the Chechens bring it on themselves with the kidnappings, the killings and finally the apartment building bombings? Did they go a step too far in August, when a Chechen warlord led hundreds of fighters into battle against Russian troops in neighboring Dagestan? Or -- as President Maskhadov and other Chechen leaders imply -- is this all part of a larger plan hatched in Moscow? Is this simply the revenge of the Russian generals for the humiliating defeat inflicted on them by Chechen fighters in the previous war? (Signed) NEB / ph / wd 17-Oct-1999 11:49 AM EDT (17-Oct-1999 1549 UTC) NNNN Source: Voice of America .





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