Chechnya Diary: Into the Inferno

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TIME Moscow bureau chief Paul Quinn-Judge spent five days in and around Chechnya's war zones. This is the first entry in his diary.

After weeks of lobbying and protests by foreign journalists at official obstructionism, a revamped government press operation announced it was taking a first group of correspondents to Grozny. I was on the trip, along with colleagues from the U.S., Canada, Japan, Italy and France. We were to travel with Nikolai Koshman, the Russian government's plenipotentiary representative for Chechnya. On Monday, several hours late, we left from Vnukovo Airport on a government flight.

Day One, Vnukovo to Mozdok
The flight was crammed, mostly with heavily armed men. We sat with bags on our knees and tried to eat the kerosene-scented meal. Toward the end I realized that the white stuff on my plate was fish. The bone was a giveaway. As the plane entered the last 45 minutes or so of its flight, some of the men in uniform began to sprout earphones and mikes in their cuffs, Secret Service-style. By the time we had landed, several not very military-looking young men — one dressed like a student, one in a cheap jacket and tie — were also strapping on large side arms and testing their mikes. Presumably some sort of covert backup. The soldiers behind them were standing, guns at the ready, in full Spetsnaz battle dress, as if they were somehow expecting us to be attacked on the tarmac of the largest Russian base in the North Caucasus. Koshman clearly takes no chances. We landed between a line of helicopter gunships to our left and fighter bombers to our right. Koshman — who, we had been told, was our guide for the week — said hello and left. We never saw him again. We were escorted to a bus and headed for town. Security around the base itself seemed strangely lackadaisical — bored, sulky-looking guards who could have probably been ambushed by a couple of sprightly babushki.

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Day Two
Welcome to Hell: Quinn-Judge visits Znamenskoye in northern Chechnya

Day Three
Dirty Secrets: Quinn-Judge travels to Gudermes, east of Grozny

Day Four
Mud and Madness: Onward to the Russian base at Khankala and into Grozny

Day Five
Home to Home Base: Quinn-Judge meets Russian soldiers stationed near the Vedeno Gorge