Landscape of Horror

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Grozny has ceased to exist. in their enthusiasm to "liberate"--Moscow's politically correct term for what happened here--the Chechen capital, the Russian army and air force have flattened what was once a city of 500,000. The war of 1994-96 left Grozny badly scarred but still alive, with even a comfortable middle-class area near the center of town. Now all that is left is a horrible dreamscape of destroyed houses, mangled, mud-filled streets and the occasional dazed civilian wandering through the city in search of firewood or other basics. Even the trees have been shattered, beheaded by artillery blasts and scarred by small arms. And though the city is officially free of anti-Russian guerrillas, the sound of heavy artillery--pinpoint strikes, we are assured--and gunfire becomes increasingly frequent as twilight falls.

Our guide through the dead city was Colonel Vladimir Klimashin, a wiry, business-like combat officer. Klimashin has no love for his enemy, but is deeply impressed by its expertise. "In reality we are facing a professional army," he said. The intricacy of the Chechen defenses clearly fascinates Russian soldiers--deep passages zigzagging through the yards of houses, under walls, far out into the street, ending in "wolf holes," shelters dug inside the trenches that can be destroyed only by a direct hit from a heavy shell. The guerrillas turned everything to their advantage. Pillboxes were built behind concrete light poles to make it harder for tanks to score a direct hit. One firing position, in a formerly upmarket residential street, was so well hidden that Klimashin's men passed it twice before they noticed it. When they left, the fighters planted powerful booby traps that were primed by the snipers who stayed behind. A group of Russian troops combing the streets came under fire on one street, took refuge in a damaged brick house and was blown to pieces by a radio-controlled booby trap.

Perhaps to justify the time they took to capture the city--they had, after all, promised to wrap up military operations by the New Year--or to explain the extent of the destruction, Russian officers now say they were facing up to 10,000 well-armed defenders. Unofficial sources question these figures, however. There were about 1,400 fighters in Grozny when the secessionists withdrew two weeks ago, says a Russian military observer who does not want to be identified. About 350 of them were killed in the breakout, he says.

No one has an estimate of the civilian casualties. The survivors, however, are bitter and outspoken. In the courtyard of a five-floor apartment block where about 30 people lived out the latest offensive in dank cellars, a group of elderly women vented their feelings, brushing aside the faint protests of Russian escorts. Granny Nina was the first to speak. She was followed by 74-year-old Mariya Idrisova. Each told the same story: first the Russians bombed us, then they looted us. "They did not even leave a cushion behind," said Idrisova. "They are animals, bastards."

Grozny was only the most striking stop on a week's trip by road and helicopter from the far north deep into the south of Chechnya. It started in Znamenskoye, theoretically the most pacified and pro-Russian part of the country. It continued in Gudermes, the railway town that will probably be Chechnya's new capital, and ended in Avturi, 15 miles south of Grozny, where 300-to-400 yds. separate Russian and Chechen troops. Security, even in the most firmly controlled areas, is something that remains confined to daylight hours. The Chechen fighters have been bruised, but they are far from finished.