Sunday, June 10, 2018

Yeltsin's War by Anthony Loyd


There were widespread rumors that the Presidential Palace, so long the symbol of the Chechen’s resistance in the capital, had fallen that day,. David and I left together as the last trace of light dimmed from the sky.

The road was little more than a dark shadow beneath us as we began the journey, headlights off so as to avoid attack from the air. I did not really know what to expect of the fighting, so I was disturbed by what I saw in David. He was hyper-energized, even by his own standards, jumbling his sentences together, his words tumbling into one another in a stream of consciousness as we drew nearer to the growling thunder of artillery from the darkness beyond. ‘You don’t want to stay here any more than three weeks,’ he told me, ‘you gonna get jumpy as hell . . .it’s bad . . .very fuckin’ bad . . . nearly got tanked yesterday . . . gotta watch the planes  . . .the artillery is something else . . .unreal . . .’

The sky ahead became a pulsing orange glow, while the sound of shellfire grew louder and louder. The trees that pressed on either side of us suddenly fell away as we entered Chernoreche, the southern outskirts of the city. Grozny was burning. The fires from the shelled buildings and ruptured gas pipes lifted the darkness from an infernal desolation of abandoned streets and houses, flickering shadows through the menacing emptiness.

Chechen fighters waved us down, telling us that the route ahead was sealed by Russian tank fire. Our drive, Sahid, was an ex-cop familiar with detours and back roads. He tapped  the Kalash across his knees and slipped into a confident U-turn to take an alternative route. There were shells falling everywhere, screaming in like freight trains, exploding in waves among the houses on either side of us or air-bursting overhead, while volleys of Grad rockets streaked fire trails like comets across the sky. Severed tramlines hung across streets devoid of life but for the occasional stray dog or fighter –scuttling. Dantesque figures against the flame and smoke.

The Volga skidded impotently at the base of an exposed hill, its bald tires sliding uselessly on the packed ice. David an I scrambled out and began to push it, sweating and cursing in the cold, our feet skeltering away from under us like those of cartoon characters. It seemed the height of madness, getting out in that maelstrom of bursting shot and whistling steel to push a car further into the epicenter of it all. With a final  OhfuckChristJesusmoveyoufuckingbitch the tires regained their grip and we leapt in and spun onwards.

From the top of the hill we could see the city center below us. Para-illumination flares were suspended in the sky, bouncing their light into the billowing smoke and fire while the shell, machine-gun and small arms fire reached anew crescendo, the punch of the detonations shaking into us through the doors of the car. I had managed to effect my usual dullard’s mentality under such extreme circumstances, my mind transcending any notion of responsibility, surrendering myself to circumstance and chance – the duo some call destiny, others the will of God. Their notions may afford more strength than mine, for I still could not escape the sensation of being scared witless. . . .

After the fall of the Presidential Palace the respite in the Russian bombardment lasted for two days. It allowed both sides to collect their dead a breathe. Then that moment of stillness ended, seemingly swallowed in an instant, and the shelling intensified once more. There were no more lulls.

Having wasted so many men in their attempt to take the first part of the city, the Russians seemed determined to destroy the southern half of Grozny with massive concentrations of artillery fire before moving upon it. It was an act of mass murder. In Bosnia I had seen men guilt of attempting to take innocent life; in Chechnya I found the Russians as cold-bloodedly culpable in their complete disregard for innocent life. Basically they just blew the place to pieces.

No weapon frightens me as much as the shell. Bullets have a certain logic. Put a sizeable enough piece of concrete between yourself and the firer and you will be untouched. Run between cover , for it is difficult even for an experienced shot to hit a man who sprints fast. Even when people around you are hit the wounds seldom seem so bad, unless the bullet has tumbled in flight or hit them in the head. But shells? They can do things to the human body you never believed possible; turn it inside out like a steaming rose; bend it backwards and through itself; chop it up; shred it, pulp it: mutilations so base and vile the never stopped revolting me. And there is no real cover from shellfire. Shells can drop out of the sky to your feet, or smash there way through any piece of architecture to find you. Some of the ordinance the Russians were using was slicing through ten- story buildings before exploding in the basement. Shells could arrive silently and unannounced, or whistle and howl their way in, a sound that somehow seems to tear at your nerve more than warn you of anything. It’s only the denotation which always seems the same – a feeling as much as a sound, a hideous suck-roar- thump that in itself, should you be close enough, can collapse your palate and liquefy your brain.
There is a philosophical element to it all too: a bullet may or may not have your number on it, but I am sure shells are merely engraved with ‘to whom it may concern.’

In Sarajevo there were times when we thought it was a bad day if a few hundred shells fell on the city. During the second half of the battle for Grozny the Russians sometimes fired over 30,000 shells a day into the southern sector. It was an area less than a third the size of Sarajevo.

And so Grozny had the life torn out of it by the second mot powerful military machine on the planet and the lethal dynamics were breathtaking in every sense. A concrete killing zone, it was if a hurricane of shrapnel had swept through every street, leaving each perspective bearing the torn, pitted scars, the irregular bites of high-explosive ordinance. The remaining trees were shredded and blasted horizontal, while the snow on the pavements became covered in a crunching carpet of shattered glass.

Artillery, tanks, mortars, rocket systems, jet aircraft, helicopter gunships – the permutations of incoming fire were endless. It left the dead plentiful: dead people blown out of their flats; dead pigeons blown out of their roosts, dead dogs blown off the street. Death became too frequent and too abundant to deal with, so that often the bodies were left where they had fallen to become landmarks in their own right . . .

Pathetic graves accumulated in the dismal parks and gardens as thousands of Russian civilians who remained as troglodytes in the city, leading a subterranean existence in the cellars, emerges to bury the dead whenever the opportunity arose. Bearing the brunt of the Russian army’s fire, they were the wretched victims of the war, dying for what Moscow deemed ‘salvation.’

‘We are Russians,’ a woman told me as her friend was lowered into a shallow scrape in the hard ground on a day unremarkable for its violence and misery. She had a gentle sing-song voice and clutched a small dog wrapped in a woolen coat to her breast. ‘We don’t have anywhere to go. It makes no difference to us whose flag flies above the Presidency. All we get from our own people is bombs, bombs, bombs. It is so cold. There is no water. There is disease. We are dying.” BY the time Grozny fell a month later, 25,000 would be dead in the city.

Dying in abundance, too, were Russian soldiers. The army so laden with artillery assets still sent its troops, many of them teenage conscripts, to be gunned down in bungled assaults through alien streets, or incinerated in their flaming APCs. Dazed Russian commanders had already spoken to their own media of hideous confusion, of troops ill-prepared and unready, of vicious and internecine firefights between disorientated Russian troops lost in the capital, of surprise attack and ambush.

Derbentskaya Street, Grozny. We stumbled out into the white desolation and ran slap into a thickset woman muffled in a coat held together by a string belt. She was shrieking hysterically, unhinged with rage, shock, grief. In one hand she brandished an awkward-looking club. It took me a few seconds to realize it was the severed leg of a man. With her lefty hand she tugged frantically at a sledge. On it lay the chopped  bloody bundle of a corpse. Through some sacking the remaining leg dragged a scarlet wake in the snow. For long seconds she screamed her sound into us, the leg flying back and forth, boot to thigh, as we stood, stunned. Then suddenly she turned away and raged off into the wilderness dragging the sledge with its dismembered body behind her. Dumb with shock we next walked into a scene every bit as dreadful . . .

Jon and I hired a car and gold-toothed driver , and began to work the war in the countryside, while keeping one ear open for any significant development in Grozny.  One morning we saw a Sukhoi jet completing a bombing run on a distant village in the mountains, rolling back over the target to rake it with cannon-fire before swooping low away above us. Rather than lose ourselves trying to find the village without a guide, we headed for Shali, a small town south of Grozny, to see if they had brought any casualties to the hospital there.

We found many faces of President Yeltsin’s war in the stinking ward: the burned, the blind; the maimed and disabled. Soon after our arrival some villagers entered carrying two little girls along the corridors slippery with a muddle of used dressings, urine and blood. The children were sisters.

Marika was four years old. She was missing the lower part of her back and buttocks, but was still alive, just, and her pale, doll-like form lay motionless facedown on a table as a doctors removed large pieces of metal from her wounds, allowing each to drop on the table with a heavy clunk. Her sister Miralya was a year older. I do not know what it takes to make a tiny child weep tears of blood, massive concussion I guess, but as she shook with noiseless terror it ran in thick lines from the corner of each eye, joining scarlet streaks from a head wound to form a cobweb mask that covered her face. . .

Then, through the melee of casualties, the fighters and nurses stepped a tall man dressed in a black suit, overcoat and wide brimmed trilby.

“Come with me,’ he said mysteriously, in English. ‘I shall take you to their village and you shall see everything you need to.” We got into the car with him and left.

After an hour’s journey into the snow covered mountains we arrived at the children’s home. It was an isolated farm building overlooking a decrepit bridge that traversed a small mountain stream,. The bridge was still standing. Nothing else was: the bombs had turned the earthy black and transformed the site into a lunar landscape of charred domestic junk. The chassis of a car hung in a treetop.

Web found the girl’s family, their two sisters, brother and mother, in the nearby village little over a mile away. They were laid out in an empty house on a bed in bundles, none of which was bigger tan a supermarket bag. The boy was the best preserved, the mother barely recognizable as a human being. Of the other sisters a small pair of legs emerged from a cloth, and the two heads lay at the end of the bed. Apparently the father had been vaporized. I remember the scene every time a hear a military spokesman use the phrase ‘collateral damage.’

A year later, in July 1996, the Chechen forces swept back into Grozny.  They took on the  Russian army head-to-head and recaptured most of the city within twelve hours. Defeated and humiliated, the Russians were forced to negotiate an end to the war and an eventual withdrawal from that tiny state.

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