Inside Grozny: Dodging Bullets With King Kong

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Russian special riot policemen take cover while they patrol the Chechen capital

I've done a lot of stupid things in my time, I scribbled neurotically in my notebook. But sitting in a car in the market of Mikrorayon at 5:20 in the evening is up there with the best of them. It was wet and cold, and the ratio of menacing-looking characters to law-abiding citizens (a vague concept in a town where there is no real law) was the highest I had encountered in years. On top of this, we had many miles to drive before the onset of the 6 p.m. shoot-on-sight curfew.

Mikrorayon, like the rest of Grozny, is devastated. Five-story apartment blocks, once white, are charred and shattered, like row upon row of foul, rotten teeth. Amid the ruins, young men gazed down the street with the thousand-yard stare of the Khmer Rouge. In this case, though, they were probably watching for something more tangible, serving as lookouts for drug dealers, perhaps, or guerrillas.

A single, spotless Mercedes 600 — the only one in town, perhaps in the whole republic — slid through the market mud. It belongs to a gentleman whom I will call Abdulla, as I have some doubts about his sense of humor. He says he is a captain in the FSB, the Russian security service. This is intriguing, because his language is sprinkled with the slang of the zona, Russian prison camps. A former Chechen prosecutor, asked about Abdullah's affiliation, paused. "If he has FSB I.D.," he says slowly, "he bought it." I asked another acquaintance about Abdulla's background. "I think he did time," he said casually.

Abdulla is now doing something — no one seemed sure what — in the Moscow-appointed city administration. As we sat it the market, five young men walked, purposefully, toward our car. Alesha, my guide on such trips, is usually calm about such incidents — he looks and sounds like Hunter S. Thompson, but gets high on risk rather than amphetamines. But Mikrorayon was getting to him, as well. "Start the car and put it in gear," he brusquely instructed our driver, Beslan. "They're only harmless drug addicts, " Beslan protested. Only here, I think to myself, could that combination of words be considered reassuring.

This is supposedly the heart of pacified Chechnya, the once and future capital of the republic. Military operations are going well, the Russians say, the first troops were pulled out earlier this week, and the few remaining guerrillas are drug-crazed mercenaries repudiated by the people. In fact Grozny has quietly reverted to its a status as a front-line war zone. Russian positions are attacked daily and Russian abuses make new enemies daily — guerrillas move through areas like this with comfort, if not impunity. Far from drug-crazed, they seem disciplined, determined and ruthless. While I was in Grozny, a Russian soldier chose, insanely, to shop at the Mikrorayon market. Guerrillas took him away and shot him. The next day, traders could remember nothing about the incident. In fact the only reason I say Grozny's slide back into war is quiet is because Moscow discourages journalists from visiting — and because most Western media could not care less.

Working in Grozny the way we did means constantly dodging the couple of dozen checkpoints around the city. Russian officials do not take kindly to our sort of reporting, and we risked arrest and expulsion. For us the checkpoints were an inconvenience. For the couple of hundred thousand Chechens who live in the ruins of the city, they mean certain humiliation and possibly worse — people are known to have disappeared after being stopped at such places. Then, one morning during my week there, the guerrillas unwittingly provided us a transport upgrade.

A well-fortified checkpoint was hit by a mortar as we passed by and we took refuge with a senior Chechen security official, an aide to the mayor. The Russians tend to open fire at anything that moves after such incidents, and we decided to wait till they calmed down.

In the half-light of the official's house (electricity is rare) we chatted. Our host seemed stoned, but perhaps it was a combination of the early hour and the fact he was listening to Russian troops on his scanner. An aide meanwhile made jokes about taking us hostage and showed off the standard array of heavy weaponry tucked in corners of the room. The security official occasionally chimed in with oracular phrases about the annihilation of the Chechen people, leaving me wondering which side he was really on. Then, tiring of us, he summoned another aide to take us around town.

King Kong, alias Bandit Number 1, heavy on aftershave and hints about his expectation of a big tip, would be our guide. King Kong took us for a drive in the armored Uazik — Russian jeep — that once belonged to the commander of the Russian troops here. In those days it probably did not have to be jump-started. The Uazik's main sign of status was a formica-top foldout table. And the rest of the accessories were even less impressive, like gun ports so low that you'd have to rest your head on your knees to fire.

What I really hated, though, was that the doors did not open from the inside. I could just imagine this thing stalling somewhere in one of the less friendly districts of the city and being used for guerrilla target practice. I did not have to worry for long. Sensing that we were not going to front his Caribbean vacation, King Kong peeled off at our first stop. Beslan picked us up, and we resumed our checkpoint dodging.