Fear and Loathing

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Reports of atrocities in Chechnya confirm the truth behind Russia's latest attempt to control the North Caucasus: what Moscow calls a limited anti-terrorist operation is really total war, fought by two ruthless armies that have scant regard for international law and even less for human rights. The savagery of the conflict will leave scars on both sides, deepening Chechen hatred for Russia, and create in Russia itself a generation of psychically damaged veterans.

The latest massacre to be documented was in early February in Aldi, a southern district of the Chechen capital, Grozny. According to Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based organization with researchers who work permanently in and around Chechnya, at least 62 civilian men and women, some in their 70s, were killed by Russian soldiers during a drunken rampage. The killings were not an isolated event. "We are uncovering a pattern of summary executions throughout Grozny," said Holly Cartner, the Human Rights Watch executive director in Europe and Central Asia.

Last week also brought another vivid illustration of the ruthlessness of the war. Western and Russian television broadcasts showed harrowing pictures of mass graves south of Grozny. The footage, shot a few days earlier by a German reporter, Frank Höfling, showed the bodies of young Chechen men with gunshot wounds. Some were tied with barbed wire, others had ears cut off. One body was also shown being dragged by its feet behind a truck. The chief spokesman for the Federal Security Service, Alexander Zdanovich, described the footage as a "falsification," while other officials hinted darkly that the footage was produced "on order" by unnamed enemies of Russia who want to embarrass the country's leaders. The Russian government has, however, promised an investigation.

Abuse, massacre and counter-massacre are an intrinsic part of the war in Chechnya. Neither side takes many prisoners, and the few Russian pows who have been released describe nightmarish conditions during detention. On the other side, Russian authorities are accused of widespread torture and abuse of suspected Chechen fighters held in so-called "filtration camps," where suspected rebels are taken for investigation. At least two have been identified. One, in Chernokozovo, a village not far from Grozny, has 78 detainees by the Russian government's count, 700 according to Amnesty International. Another camp is in Mozdok, the sprawling military base in the neighboring republic of North Ossetia. The base is the nerve center of the Russian operation in Chechnya, as it has been for every campaign since 1762, when Czarist authorities created it with the aim of ensuring the speedy pacification of the North Caucasus.

Non-combatants--journalists and even medical personnel--have been caught in the crossfire. For weeks Kremlin officials issued confusing and contradictory statements about the whereabouts and condition of Andrei Babitsky, a Radio Liberty reporter allegedly exchanged by Russian officials for captured soldiers in early February. He surfaced under mysterious circumstances in Russian detention last weekend in the Russian republic of Dagestan. Even altruism offers no protection. Hasan Baiyev, one of the few Chechen surgeons to remain, fled when he heard the Russians were looking for him. Baiyev could not hope for protection from his own side: Arbi Barayev, a Chechen field commander with a long history of kidnaping and psychopathic behavior, had threatened him with execution. Baiyev's crime was to treat the injured of both sides. Another Chechen surgeon, Omar Khambiev, along with about 24 doctors and nurses, has been detained in the Mozdok filtration camp since early February, according to Amnesty. Khambiev was Health Minister in Chechnya's breakaway government, and his brother is reportedly a Chechen rebel field commander.

The main victims, though, are civilians. By the latest Russian estimate, some 14,400 residents, mainly elderly along with a few children, remained in Grozny throughout the four months of siege, bombardment and house-to-house fighting that reduced to rubble what was once a city of 500,000. Massacres have been reported in at least three districts of Grozny, and survivors of the campaign recently described to Time the terror campaign waged by Russian troops after Chechen fighters were forced out. One 9-year-old named Islam described in a blank voice how Russian soldiers threw a hand grenade into the cellar where he, his mother and several others sheltered. Islam said two women were injured and were taken away by the soldiers.

Russian troops, however, are also scarred by fear. The day after Islam told his story, a Russian officer commanding a forward position in the foothills of southern Chechnya--a major who refused to give his name--described how he and his men sometimes watch a video that shows, he says, the torture and slow dismemberment of a Russian officer by Chechen fighters.

Such alleged atrocities confirm the soldiers' belief that their enemies are savages--and perhaps lead them to behave accordingly when they capture a fighter. The most recent issue of Kommersant-Vlast, a Moscow weekly, described what Russian troops did to a woman sniper captured in the battle for Grozny. They tied her legs to a pair of light armored cars and tore her in half, a soldier told the magazine. Perhaps the only thing more horrific than such a story is that it provoked no comment from either Kremlin officials or the magazine's Russian readers.