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CNN Presents

Deadlocked: Russia's Forgotten War

Aired June 22, 2002 - 20:00   ET


AARON BROWN, HOST: Welcome to CNN PRESENTS. I'm Aaron Brown. One side says it is fighting against terrorism, the other side says it is fighting for independence. And all the while, bodies line the street amid the rubble of war. No, this is not the Middle East, not this time. This is the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya, little mentioned, but no less horrifying.

The region is in crisis. It is war-ravaged. And it is war weary and still, it goes on. Russians fighting and dying. Chechens fighting and dying. A cycle of violence where the brutalities seem to have no limit and surrender is not an option.

Michael Gordon of "The New York Times" has covered this conflict extensively. And his extraordinary access on both sides is the basis for our rare and quite sobering glimpse inside Chechnya. And now, "Deadlocked: Russia's Forgotten War" narrated by CNN's Christiane Amanpour.


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Chechnya is one of the most dangerous places on earth. A place where snipers and kidnappers roam free and where anyone can be caught in the crossfire.

It's a place so forbidding that it's nearly impossible for journalists to penetrate, harder still to reach the frontlines. Michael Gordon and a Russian film crew were able to do both, to document not only the ravages of war but the human toll this conflict is taking all across Russia, on the soldiers, their widows, on the Chechen rebels and civilians and on all of those who are now being drawn into the war.

Many of Russia's fresh recruits from Chechnya come from small towns in the provinces. Most kids from Moscow and St. Petersburg are able to avoid the draft through medical or educational deferment. So towns like Nizhiy Novgorod must not only supply the recruits but they must also pay the price.

Eighteen-year-old Timofei is from this Volga river city. He works as a carpenter and he has just received his draft notice.

At the cigarette kiosk, his mother works 24-hour shifts to make $30 a month.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): He's my only child, only child. He's my life. I don't have anything else in my life except him. I don't want him to go. I ask the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) boys, should he see the bloody mess there. They are still children. Eighteen year olds are still children.

AMANPOUR: Many of Timofei's friends are determined to avoid the military. But not everyone in this town feels that way.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I've been to war myself. I swore an oath to Russia. I love my country. That's why I've sworn an oath to it. A man can't become a real man without serving in the army. He just remains some semblance of a man.

AMANPOUR: The next morning, Timofei will be called up into the army. With no means of keeping her son out of the military, Timofei's mother finally accepts that he will have to serve.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): He's a grown man now. Please stand up. What do I want to say? That any (UNINTELLIGIBLE) professionals are needed, learn your task well.

AMANPOUR: Timofei believes that the army will make a real man out of him.

TIMOFEI, DRAFTEE (through translator): I'm still a child. I'm very inexperienced. I want to get wiser, stronger so that I will not return the same, so that I will gain something from the experience.

AMANPOUR: But someone as sheltered as Timofei has no idea what awaits him.

This is the second war in Chechnya. Russia lost the first one. In 1996, after the Chechens fought the mighty Russian military to a humiliating draw, then President Boris Yeltsin and the Chechens agreed to stop fighting.

The Chechens were essentially allowed to govern themselves. But the war-ravaged republic fell into chaos. And when Islamic Fundamentalists in Chechnya invaded the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan in 1999 vowing to establish a pan Islamic state, an already tense situation spiraled out of control.

While there was some discussion amongst Russian officials of isolating and containing Chechnya, Russia's military and its new prime minister, Vladimir Putin, were determined to go further. They were anxious to erase the stain of their first defeat. And when several mysterious and deadly apartment bombings hit Moscow in September of 1999, the gloves came off.

MICHAEL GORDON, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Chechnya for Putin was an opportunity to show his strength as a leader. It was an opportunity to make up for the defeat in the first war. And it was also an opportunity to become president of Russia. AMANPOUR: And so, the Russians drawled back into Chechnya vowing to restore order through force. The military claiming that it had learned the lessons of the first war. Putin promised this one would be quick and decisive and that helped him get elected president of Russia.

Now, after two-and-a-half years, almost 3,800 Russian soldiers have been killed and nearly 14,000 have been wounded in Chechnya. The rebel casualties are much higher and both sides have been accused of brutal atrocities. No one knows for sure how many civilians have been killed.

Since September 11, Russian authorities described the campaign in Chechnya as a war against international terrorism. And they have even suggested that Osama bin Laden is connected.

SERGEI IVANOV, RUSSIAN DEFENSE MINISTER: In fact, terrorist training camps, drug factories and religious schools of extremists, which you have just mentioned, have been already functioning in Chechnya quite actively.

AMANPOUR: Chechen rebels say they are just continuing their centuries old struggle for independence.

LYOMA USMANOV, CHECHEN REPRESENTATIVE TO UNITED STATES: At least 90 percent of Chechen freedom fighters are aiding Chechens. And right now, maybe who knows, maybe we have 10, 15 people from our side, but once again, not - they are not mercenaries. They are contractnikis. We don't have money to pay them.

AMANPOUR: When he was running for president, George Bush condemned Russia's war in Chechnya.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When the Russian war attacks civilians, killing women and children, leaving orphans and refugees, it can no longer expect aid from international lending institutions.

AMANPOUR: But now that Washington needs Russia's cooperation in its war in Afghanistan, President Bush has toned down his criticism.

BUSH: Our initial phase of the war of terrorism is against the al Qaeda organization and we do believe there's some al Qaeda folks in Chechnya. However, I do believe it's very important for President Putin to deal with the Chechen minority in his country with respect, respect of human rights and respect of difference of opinion.

GORDON: There's no question that there is an Islamic link to the conflict in Chechnya. But there are groups around the world that raise money for the Chechen cause. There are some people who have gone to volunteer to fight alongside the Chechens.

However, if you were to take that way, if you subtracted the connections with Islamic militants and extremists, the conflict would be going on pretty much as it is and the Chechen people would be resisting Russian government of their republic. AMANPOUR: Viewed from the war zone, it's clear that Chechnya has degenerated into a grinding stalemate between two losing sides.




AMANPOUR: Inside Chechnya, it's clear that most of its people did not want this war. The Chechens are a fiercely independent Muslim group that has been resisting Moscow's rule for centuries. Joseph Stalin expelled the entire population. But Nikita Khrushchev allowed them to return.

Under the heavy Soviet hand, Chechnya was relatively peaceful. Grozny was a lively city of 340,000 people where Chechens and Russians lived together. But separatists' yearnings lingered and after the Soviet Union's dissolve, they boiled over.

This is Grozny today. The city was badly battered during the first war in the mid 1990s, but it's been nearly destroyed by air strikes and artillery during the second war.

GORDON: My first drive around the city, which I made on a Russian military vehicle, I was trying to find a single structure in the city that didn't have some kind of hole in it or damage to it from the conflict. It has -- n and even now had no running water, no electricity, no services in any form that you or I would recognize it and yet people lived there.

AMANPOUR: Amidst the rubble, there are signs of what passes for normal life in Grozny. The city used to have fourth centers. This is the only one that still functions. Somehow, the nurses and doctors manage despite the conditions.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): In my opinion, this craziness in Chechnya will stay going for many years. Every 50 years or so, they try to kill us off, from generation to generation. I think that if we don't have children like our Muslim traditions dictate, then we will completely disappear from this earth.

AMANPOUR: University students still bribe their way through Russian checkpoints to study law with professors who have not been paid in months.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Can we handle it? Why can't we? We also have smart people. Like any other people, we can also think as long as we have something to learn and we are always prepared to learn.

AMANPOUR: Officially, the Russians say the war is over and that the city is safe under their control.

IVANOV: The first year of fighting in Chechnya is definitely over. There are no big army units, for example, in Chechnya right now. They are not fighting in a classical sense that - I mean there are no tanks firing, no bombers or planes going on missions now in Chechnya. The army supports - the army is (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in big cities. It's a stabilizing force.

AMANPOUR: But the reality of Grozny is different. No one is safe here.

COMMANDER OF PERM OMON (through translator): During the night, we have about 11 to 14 bombardments, always. All the checkpoints -- we have about five of them - they bombard them every day, including our posts.

AMANPOUR: The only people in Grozny today are those who are unable to leave. The Russian soldiers who are sent there and the rebels who have sneaked back in. Snipers, car bombs and remote- controlled landmines still inflict casualties.

Akhmed Kadyrov is the Muslim cleric appointed by Putin to manage Chechnya. He fought against the Russians during the first Chechnya war but then broke with the rebel leaders the second time around. He's against cessation, but he says the Russian tactics are rough and heavy-handed. The rebels consider him a traitor and there have been so many attempts on his life that he carries a pistol in his belt even in his office.

AKHMED KADYROV, RUSSIAN APPOINTED ADMINISTRATOR OF CHECHNYA (through translator): I am a 100 percent sure that the president wants to bring order and peace to Chechnya all the same, to people that are still at war. And the military, most of them, have a particular attitude towards Chechens. If you are a Chechen, you must be abandoned. So you must be beaten up and executed. The longer the troops stay in the republic, the more we lose our hope.

AMANPOUR: According to the U.N., more than 150,000 Chechens have sought refuge in camps like this one in neighboring Ingushetia. A similar number has been displaced inside Chechnya. They sleep in old rail cars or tents and it could be years before they return home. Some remain traumatized by the fighting.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): As they were building the house, she would ask several times a day - "Mom, are we really going to build it without a basement?" And as we approached the end of construction, she cried.

Then, one time, there were a lot of helicopters. She was crying, "Mom, I'm scared. Mom, it's impossible without a basement." Alec (ph) said, "Calm your child down. Let's build a basement." So we built a tiny basement.

AMANPOUR: But even here, the Chechens carry on their tradition. They have a rich culture and pride in their heritage as mountain warriors. And just across the border, in the villages and the hills, the Chechen rebels carry on their ancient fight against Russian rule.




GORDON: Everybody knows about the Battle of Grozny. Very few people know about the battle that comes in Komsomolskaye and it was one of the biggest battles in the war. And there's a reason for that - the Russian military kept the press far away form the battle, as far away as they could except for a few select Russian correspondents who they trusted to report the battle their way.

AMANPOUR: In 1999, when the Russians laid siege to Grozny, Chechen rebels eventually found themselves surrounded. After months of holding on, they managed to break out into the mountains.

And after escaping the siege of Grozny, many rebels sought shelter in the nearby town of Komsomolskaye. It proved to be a deadly blunder. What was supposed to be a refuge turned out to be a trap. Once the Chechens arrived, the Russians quickly surrounded them.

AKHMAT, CHECHEN REBEL (through translator): There were about a thousand people with us in the mountains. We had wounded. The wounded were taken to various villages, but they were waiting for us. There were ambushes everywhere. In four places, there were ambushes.

AMANPOUR: Russian troops pounded the town for two weeks.

RUSLAN, CHECHEN COUNTER-INTELLIGENCE CHIEF: There was nowhere to hide. Russian troops never came too close to the village. The village was surrounded by tanks and armored vehicles. At Komsomolskaye, I lost my two brothers and a nephew.

AMANPOUR: Most of the terrified citizens left before the battle. They returned to find their town forever changed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): These people, the Chechen fighters, there were over 300 of them here and as a result, what did they get from this? I lost all of my animals, off of which I lived. That's what I can say. I cannot stand anymore. I need to go sit.

AMANPOUR: The battle at Komsomolskaye was a huge setback for the rebels. Hundreds were killed and unclaimed bodies were buried two and three to a grave. But the Russians didn't achieve everything they wanted either.

GORDON: The Russians succeeded in causing great damage to the rebels. It was a big rebel defeat, but they never managed to get Goliath, the leader of the whole group that they were determined to get. And we now know that one night Goliath headed toward the nearby river on the assumption that it wasn't mined. He got to the riverbank and then, moved through the frigid river amidst the darkness of the gunfire and eluded the Russian trap. Not everybody was that successful.

AMANPOUR: Now, with the Russians occupying their main cities and towns, the Chechen rebels are carrying on a guerrilla war, operating in small groups. And the Russians are fighting men like Mikha, a former journalist and a poet who took up arms to fight what he considers Russian occupation. He was the only rebel who allowed his face to be filmed.

Many rebels are afraid of being arrested or detained like these men. And though the Russians have offered amnesty, many Chechen rebels don't take them up on that offer. They fear that they'd be jailed, beaten or simply disappear, which has happened to hundreds of young Chechens in Russian custody.

Both sides allege that this war is full of human rights violations. The rebels are as scared of the Russians as the Russians are of them.

MIKHA, CHECHEN REBEL (through translator): They treated me and other prisoners in a very harsh way. They had their own torture methods called rack (ph) or sparrow. There was another amusement called mannequins. They would stick an incandescent needle under your fingernail.

They also put out cigarettes, pressing them against your skin. In my case, they made shoulder straps on my shoulders with burning cigarettes. They also electrocuted me. They would wrap a bare wire around me and turn on the electricity.

AMANPOUR: More fear than the conscripted Russian soldiers as the mercenaries known as contractniki, who come to Chechnya for pay and often anything they can steal.

GORDON: We all drove along a road to the suburb of Grozny, known as Aldi (ph). And we went to the various houses on both sides of the road, knocked on the door and talked to the people. And they told us harrowing stories about how a group of Russian forces had come in one night, knocked on the doors, looted and killed people just randomly. And the contractniki had been implicated directly by eyewitness accounts in Aldi (ph) massacre.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): I wish them the same life as mine for the rest of their lives. They shot, too, my brother and my husband and my child as we were there.

AMANPOUR: The Russians say they're investigating reports of abuse, but deny that any widespread atrocities have occurred. They say the rebels have engaged in banditry, kidnapping, bombings and torture. They claim that most Chechens want peace and believe that only the Russians can provide it.

IVANOV: Not many people know how many local Chechens have been killed recently by rebel groups. In fact, more than the army because they understand quite well - I mean the terrorists understand quite well and they are perfectly sure that if the majority of the Chechen population will shift their attitude to stop the war, to start a normal life in Chechnya, then they will have no background, no safehouses.

LYOMA USMANOV, CHECHEN REPRESENTATIVE TO UNITED STATES: I can't say that we, from our side, there is no war crimes. Of course, I can't say because this is a war. This is terrible war and some independent Chechen groups and some -- even some nutic (ph) commoners (ph) that they -- apparently they conduct some war crimes, but our war crimes is -- has not (UNINTELLIGIBLE) high scale of war crimes conducted by the Russian side.

AMANPOUR: For their part, the Chechens say they'll keep fighting.

AKHMAT, CHECHEN REBEL (through translator): Where is death with destruction all around? I don't want to take part in any war. I want to have a normal life. I want to get married, have children, take care of my parents, just to live like any ordinary human being. Who wants to wage war? No normal people want to fight. Do I want to win this war? Sure. Once I start to fight, I want to win.




AMANPOUR: Within a few hours, Timofei will be a soldier in the Russian Army. As the war in Chechnya grinds on, Russian conscripts (ph) continue to head into battle. Since the war began, the Russians have lost an average of 125 soldiers every week.

AMANPOUR: Timofei's mother and his friend have come to the military recruitment center to see him off.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Just - just come back. Everything will be fine. I believe everything will be fine. I believe.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I know you will be back. I love you.

AMANPOUR: At the draft center, Timofei and the other conscripts endure the less than rigorous Russian military physical.

AMANPOUR: Timofei and these conscripts don't know what lies ahead. Other Russian soldiers say they'll never forget what happened to them in Chechnya.

This videotape shows why. It has never been seen on Russian or Western television. It was shot by Sergei (ph), a young Russian soldier who wanted a souvenir of his tour in the Chechen war zone. On March 29, 2000 Sergei (ph) and his local Russian militia unit are sent to patrol the peace in a Chechen area supposedly secured by the Russian Army.

When one of the convoys' trucks breaks down, Sergei's (ph) commander, Valentine (ph), decides to check out a nearby shack. Suddenly he's ambushed. Valentine (ph) is killed instantly and Sergei (ph) seconds later. His camera dropped on the ground continues to record the sounds of battle as the rest of the column is caught in vicious crossfire from Chechen rebels in the surrounding hills.

VLADIMIR, AMBUSH SURVIVOR (through translator): I saw splinters knocked off the side of the trucks. We were falling down like a rain. I heard people screaming as we were hit by bullets. It was then that the fear hit me. I realized that I might not survive.

AMANPOUR: The rebels destroyed the unit armored personnel carrier and with it their ability to radio for help. Pinned down by fire, they can only wait for rescue.

SERGEI, AMBUSH SURVIVOR (through translator): They certainly felt as if they were in a shooting gallery. They were lying in an ambush. It wasn't a battle. It was pure execution.

AMANPOUR: Another Russian unit in the area scrambles to the rescue, but it, too, is ambushed.

SERGEI, RESCUE COLUMN SURVIVOR (through translator): We were helpless ourselves. We could not (UNINTELLIGIBLE). When their lead APC was knocked out, we couldn't make our way ahead.

AMANPOUR: The rescuers retreat, dashing the hopes of the stranded men.

VLADIMIR (through translator): We heard the engine of the APC start. Our first thought was that our troops had at last succeeded in breaking through. We were about to stand up, then we saw the APC moving away and the Chechen bandits running after it yelling (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

AMANPOUR: The Russians under fire fear capture almost as much as death.

SERGEI (through translator): They're exceptionally brutal people. They just cut off your body parts or rip your belly open while you'll still alive. I don't understand how they justify they're cutting a living human being. If you sentence somebody to death, then shoot him. But if he's to live, then let him go.

AMANPOUR: When Russian helicopters finally get into the fight, they make a bad situation worse, unleashing heavy fire on the area around the stalled column, unaware that their own comrades are hiding in the woods. Cut off from their rescuers, the survivors make a desperate run for their lives.

AMANPOUR: After several days, a column of Russian armor finally makes it to the sight of the ambush and this is what they find.

AMANPOUR: Later they would learn of others who were captured and executed. It now seems clear why the Russian Interior Ministry tried to retrieve all copies of the home video of the ambushed. It shows who really controls the Chechen countryside and that the quick clean war the Russians hope for is not to be. The ambush riveted the country. It was a national tragedy, but it was not an isolated incident. For the Russians, the second war in Chechnya is proving to be even longer, even more brutal than the first. (END VIDEOTAPE)



AMANPOUR: Of the column ambushed on that confiscated videotape, 23 of the dead were from Barinike (ph), a typical factory town that like so many in Russia has paid a heavy price for the war in Chechnya. At the funeral, there seemed to be a shift in the public mood. While no one wanted to hand control of Chechnya to the rebels, confidence in the government was wavering. The governor of the region demanded an investigation into the debacle but the inquiry yielded little results.

MICHAEL GORDON, THE NEW YORK TIMES: When 23 people from one small town die in one episode, it hits that town very hard. They were losing their sense that this was a war that could be won. They were losing their confidence in a lot of the things Putin had said that this time the war is going to be done differently.

AMANPOUR: Nayda Simonova's husband, Valentine (ph), had led the column into Chechnya and he was the first soldier killed in the ambush. She heard about the ambush from a television report.

NAYDA SIMONOVA (through translator): There was uncertainty. I kept calling the headquarters only to hear that they did not know if my husband was among the casualties. I was kept in the dark for three days.

AMANPOUR: At the funeral, there were proud speeches about the column's heroism. Back at home, survivors like Vladimir and Sergei work their fields now and enjoy a traditional sauna, but they say they're bitter about being left with little support.

Before they'd shipped out to Chechnya, they had been given a three-month combated bond. But because their tour was cut back by the ambush, some of the survivors were asked to repay the money.

VLADIMIR (through translator): When we returned and started to work, we were told that the money we had been paid would be deducted from our monthly salaries starting with the first month. They wanted to deduct our travel expenses, our perdeam (ph), our accommodation allowance. All that will have to be returned.

AMANPOUR: Sasha (ph) another survivor has written a song about his fallen comrades. It says "I remember. I haven't forgotten. Good-bye forever Chechnya".

Some say they would fight again in Chechnya if the government orders them, but widows like Nayda wonder why.

SIMONOVA (through translator): Honestly I don't know what he died for. During a Second World War, people died for their motherland. They were defending their mothers, wives, and children, while my husband, it's unclear what he died for. For the sake of someone's policy, my son is only four years old. He doesn't understand what is happening, but when he grows up, I won't even know what explanation to offer him.

AMANPOUR: The government summoned Nayda to a ceremony to receive a medal her husband had been awarded posthumously for his role in the battle. She went to the ceremony, but she shocked the generals by refusing to receive the declaration.

SIMONOVA (through translator): Months ago I met with (UNINTELLIGIBLE) policemen who were about to leave for Chechnya. I had a talk with them. I said haven't you seen all those graves at the cemetery? Isn't it a good enough reminder? When you go, you leave your wives and children behind. They may wind up to be just like me. They're not protected. No one cares for them. Why should you go there? They replied we must take revenge. Revenge on whom? Who can they take revenge on if they don't know who was there. Who shot our guys?




AMANPOUR: Like Timofei, many of the Russian soldiers sent to Chechnya are nothing more than raw recruits, conscripts (ph) in a war that has claimed thousands of lives on both sides.


USMANOV: What Russians want from us is to make us Russians. We don't want to become Russians. We want to be Chechens with Chechen language, with Chechen culture, and to live in peace with all other nations of the world.

AMANPOUR: As the new Russian recruits are sent to fight, Moscow says it is gradually restoring order to Chechnya and that it is terrorists who now stand in the way of peace.

SERGEI IVANOV, RUSSIAN DEFENSE MINISTER: If you think that any strategy might work very quickly, then you might call it a failure, but if you compare it with example - for example with tactics used by the British in the Northern Island or in fact, by the Americans used in Afghanistan, you can't say that it was a complete success. There are scattered groups of bandits. They do what they like at will and it will take still a long time to prevail in the security part of the job.

GORDON: Neither side is able to really win this conflict on its own. The Russians cannot subjugate the Chechen nation and the Chechens can't evict the Russians particularly with Putin putting his own political credibility on the line. The Chechens are projecting a conflict that's going to last for years. The Russians are projecting a battle that's going to last for many, many years and absent to political solution, which is not even on the horizon, both sides are just going to be bloodying each other for decades to come.

AMANPOUR: With neither side willing to back down, this is a deadlocked war with no end in sight, a war without winners, a war that's all but forgotten outside Russia.

USMANOV: I don't know who's winning the war. I know that Russian society, Russian state and Chechen society and Chechen state are losers.


AARON BROWN, HOST: The Chechnya conflict received very little attention during President Bush's recent summit with the Russian President Vladimir Putin. The crisis in Chechnya overshadowed by talk of the war on terror and the agreement by the United States and the Russians to cut their nuclear arsenals.

That's this edition of CNN PRESENTS. I'm Aaron Brown. Thanks for joining us, and we'll see you next week.


Everyday all over the world, journalists risk their lives to tell stories of war and conflict.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If there's no picture, there's no story. You might as well not have been there.


ANNOUNCER: And every year some of them lose their lives. Go behind the scenes to meet the men and women for whom the desire to tell the truth is worth the ultimate price.

CNN PRESENTS "Dying To Tell The Story" next week on CNN.