The Ins and Outs of the War in Chechnya

For MTDe Waal making a call from his desk at Ulitsa Pravdy in September 1993. Nanette van der Laan, another reporter, sits nearby.
In January 1994, four months after I joined The Moscow Times, I asked Meg Bortin and Marc Champion whether I could take a trip to Chechnya. I wanted to write a Weekend feature on the 50th anniversary of the Chechen deportations on Feb. 23 that year. It was typical of the spirit of the paper that they just asked me a few questions and sent me off.

It was an extraordinary trip. I was stunned by the story of the Stalinist deportations and also by how no Russian papers thought it an interesting topic -- and yet surely here was the historical key to the incipient conflict. At the same time, I was introduced to Chechnya in all its crazy variety. The would-be separatist republic was also Russia's biggest black market haven. The sleek black cars, many without number plates, bumping over potholes, were a memorable sight. It was obvious that a lot of money was being made in Chechnya -- though no one would tell me by whom. Ever since then, I have thought of Chechnya not so much as a separate state, but as Russia's subconscious, the place where the kind of activities were taking place in the open that were driven underground in the rest of the country.

In August, the Chechen opposition Provisional Council abruptly announced it was taking power. Marc told me to get on the next plane. I actually waited 24 hours, but I gladly went back to Grozny. Of course, the Provisional Council was not taking power at all. It was the first of many clumsy failed attempts by Moscow to install a loyal regime in Grozny. Dzhokhar Dudayev loved it and told me with gleaming mad eyes that the opposition were a bunch of madmen.

My major achievement this time was that, with the help of a local taxi driver, I managed to see two opposition warlords in one day by simply driving around Chechnya. In Argun I went to see the young bandit-king Ruslan Labazanov. I was ushered into his bedroom where he was lying sprawled out on his bed, with a pistol between his toes. When I adjusted the stool I was sitting on it bumped into a heap of bullet-cases that slithered noisily onto the ground. Then another bandit came into the room and whispered something into the ear of Labazanov, who pulled out a huge wad of 100-dollar bills, unpeeled 15 of them and gave them to the supplicant. You couldn't have made it up.

Up in Znamenskoye the interview with Umar Avturkhanov of the Provisional Council was less colorful but more revealing. It was obvious he could count on at best a few dozen armed men.

I filed a story by phone that night in great excitement. Imagine my huge disappointment back in Moscow when I saw it had been pushed onto page 4 -- or "Siberia" as I used to call it -- by a NATO bombardment in Bosnia.

Chechnya became less farcical and more tragic. I went back to Grozny in the first week of December 1994 just before the invasion. I don't think Marc, who was now editor, ever identified the moment when he was sending The Moscow Times to war, but this, I suppose, was the moment. The presumption was that, small paper though we were, we had a duty to carry on covering the big stories, and that included war.

Money as ever was very tight, and remember this was before the era of cheap laptops, cheap satellite phones or e-mail. Filing meant writing out a story long-hand and then calling some poor sub in Moscow from the Chechen press office in the presidential palace or the post office and shouting it out down the phone. I soon learned to avoid having too many people with difficult spellings.

As the first Russian jets zoomed over and excitable Chechen men fired automatic rounds into the air, I was firmly convinced that Boris Yeltsin would never send the army into a place like this and that all his saber rattling must be just psychological pressure. It was obvious that an invasion was the one thing that would save Dudayev and rally Chechens around him. Whereas with a few more months' patience Dudayev's regime would surely collapse anyway under the weight of unfulfilled promises it had heaped up for itself.

I had underestimated of course what Valery Tishkov calls "the factor of stupidity." And when the army did roll in it was Carlotta Gall, who had replaced me, who was our woman on the spot.

The war has left its mark on anyone who saw it. Coming back from Chechnya, I often felt dumb to explain to many Russians how horrible the thing that was going on in their country really was. No matter how hard you try to tune out the reassuring platitudes and propaganda on Russian television about "federal forces" engaged in an "anti-terrorist campaign," they do seep into you after a while.

I went back there several times, but only once as a Moscow Times reporter, in February 1995, for a particularly harrowing visit, when I was one of the first journalists into the newly "liberated" Grozny on the Russian side and saw the drunken "liberators" running amok through the streets. This was the very darkest side of the new Russia.

When I moved to the Times of London that summer Carlotta took over Chechnya full-time. It was hugely to the credit of the paper that her reports kept on coming, forming a long detailed indictment of the folly of the first Chechen war.

At The Moscow Times, Marc made an impressive commitment to Chechnya. The paper was very lucky that Carlotta was a born war correspondent: very hard, very tenacious and very brave.

In the spring of 1996, when most Russian journalists stopped covering Chechnya in an act of foolish self-censorship in order to support Yeltsin's re-election campaign, Carlotta kept on going. At one point she spent a whole month there. She was virtually the only person to record the second bloody zachistka of Samashki that year.

The result, eventually, was Carlotta's and my book on Chechnya -- the first Moscow Times book. At some point we worked out that between us we had witnessed every major event in Chechnya between 1994 and 1996 and knew all the major players.

Both of us, I'm sure, feel guilt and some depression (mixed perhaps with some relief) that we have not been able to cover the second Chechen war, with all its appalling repetitions. When they came into Samashki for the third and fourth time, there was simply no one there to record it.

I still follow Chechnya as closely as I can. I talk to my Chechen friends and acquaintances, read what I can, write about it. In many ways I am wiser than before. I am much more critical of Aslan Maskhadov and his regime than I was a few years ago. But the problem is now simply getting hold of enough facts and being able to form an opinion you can be confident of. So I was glad to see Yevgenia Borisova's recent excellent reports from Chechnya. Unfortunately the number of reporters who are managing to cover the horrors can be counted on the fingers of one hand. There is still no substitute for good on-the-spot reporting, and this time around we have all suffered for the lack of it.

Thomas de Waal was a reporter at The Moscow Times from 1993 to 1995. He is now the Caucasus project manager at the Institute of War and Peace Reporting based in London.