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A new war in Chechnya sees the New Zealander Rendt Gorter abandoning a promising SCUBA diving school, and returning once again to the North Caucasus. Heading a large relief operation of a major relief organisation on the ground in Chechnya and Ingushetia, he finds the needed professional distance distracted by having know this haunted land too well when he worked there from 1995 to 1997 during the previous conflict. In this series he reflects on his personal experience in a war that has been largely ignored by the world.
The end of the year is here. February, back when the Chechnya story began, now seems such a long time ago. And by now new suffering in the next humanitarian crisis has substituted for the Chechens in my working day.
The news I watch these days are the pictures of stone throwing Palestinian youths, reports of Hezbollah kidnapping Israelis in Lebanon and Iraq remaining defiant in the face of UN sanctions.
Chechnya - Are they still fighting?
So my first hand accounts came to an end, but at least I still make the effort to read on to page 7 and follow the reports from that forgotten corner of the world where people are simply trying to survive.
In January, before I set out from home to return to Chechnya, all I could refer to were these scanty news reports that I look at again these days. But with a little imagination it is not about some meaningless corner of the world, but about real people. And so the question I had posed myself at the outset - "Why come back here, to Chechnya, of all places?" really answered itself.
On just a typical morning, these headlines, that the world still gets to hear about Chechnya, say a lot.
The refugees complain that as the Chechen war drags on, they're receiving less help than ever. ''We sold our last warm clothes for almost nothing, to get some food, and our only hope of surviving the winter is to get some humanitarian aid,'' said Laysa Akhmadova, who lives in a tent with 10 relatives from the Chechen capital, Grozny.
Some refugees are living in private homes, others in hastily erected encampments of threadbare tents and frigid railroad cars. As men wander the camps looking for news from home, women bundled in parkas and woolen scarves cluster around campfires, stirring thin soup and toasting sunflower seeds to sell. There is almost no work to be had.
Eight Russian servicemen were killed in attacks in a 24-hour period in Chechnya, including two shot in a bold daylight attack in a cafe in the rebel republic's capital, officials said.
The deaths underlined how insurgents continue their ability to mount small, demoralizing attacks despite Russia's claim that the rebels are on the verge of military defeat. Throughout Chechnya, Russian positions were attacked 23 times over the past 24 hours, an official in Chechnya's pro-Moscow administration said.
The assailant had walked out unimpeded before federal troops arrived at the site, witnesses said. Russian armoured vehicles blocked the site, causing a huge jam, while helicopter gunships buzzed overhead. Another serviceman was killed by a sniper near the city's Sunzha River and a soldier died when an armoured personnel carrier hit a land mine in Shali, south-east of capital Grozny, the official said.
The other four fatalities were reported in a rebel attack on a federal position in the Nozhai-Yurt region near the border with the neighboring Russian region of Dagestan, the official said. Also Friday, four policemen were killed in a shoot-out in Dagestan, near the Chechen border. It was not clear whether the killings were connected with the Chechen rebels, who made incursions into Dagestan last year.
Meanwhile, a Chechen man on Friday accused Russian soldiers of shooting his son without provocation. Idris Batagov said his 22-year-old son Apti was shot in the head Tuesday by troops who were conducting a passport check in the town of Sernovodsk in western Chechnya. The young man had left his house to herd cattle when the soldiers opened fire, Batagov said.
''When he came out into the street, soldiers started to shoot and he was wounded,'' Batagov said. He remained in ''extremely grave'' condition Friday, his doctor said.
The rights group called on European states to file a case against Russia in the European Court of Human Rights, for these and other abuses during the war in Chechnya. The 99-page report, entitled "Welcome to Hell," describes how Russian troops have detained thousands of Chechens on suspicion of collaboration with rebel fighters. Many of them were detained arbitrarily, with no evidence of wrongdoing.
Guards at detention centers systematically beat Chechen detainees, some of whom have also been raped or subjected to other forms of torture. Most were released only after their families managed to pay large bribes to Russian officials. Russian authorities have launched no credible and transparent effort to investigate these abuses and bring the perpetrators to justice.
Human Rights Watch researchers also gathered testimony from several former detainees about rape and sexual assault of both men and women. A number of former detainees also gave detailed accounts of the injuries they sustained to their ribs, liver, kidneys, testicles and feet from prolonged beatings.
Most former detainees interviewed for the report were released only after their families had paid substantial bribes --- ranging from U.S.$75 to $5,000 --- to their Russian captors or predatory intermediaries. Such bribes were demanded so often that in many cases, detention itself appeared to have been motivated by the promise of financial gain, rather than by the need to identify rebel elements.
Chechens who do not have proper identity papers, who share a surname with a Chechen commander, who are thought to have relatives who are fighters, or who simply "look" like fighters, continue to be detained and abused on a daily basis in their communities or at Chechnya's hundreds of checkpoints.
Many "disappear" for months as Russian officials keep them in incommunicado detention. Some are eventually released when relatives pay a bribe. Others never come back.
The report said mass graves were regularly being uncovered and it cited a figure of 18,000 people missing in Chechnya published by the Council of Europe, a human rights watchdog.
"The extent of the misconduct is staggering -- staggering in its wanton cruelty and staggering in its scale," said Rachel Denber of the group's Europe and Central Asia division. "Torture occurs all the time in Russia, and if it's common in peacetime, it's more so in wartime."
But Chechen forces have also violated humanitarian law by summarily executing servicemen they have captured, physically abusing civilians, and violating civilian immunity.
According to victims and officials, many of the Russian units that have reoccupied the rebel republic are running their own kind of abduction business, illegally detaining Chechen men and freeing them for ransom. For many Russian servicemen, a tour in the war zone is a moneymaking proposition, both by official and unofficial means.
Officially, they get combat pay of about $30 a day -- a significant improvement over an average military salary of $50 a month. But for many, that's not enough, and unofficially they increase their earnings by taking bribes to let travellers through checkpoints, or to release detained suspects.
Aslambek Aslakhanov, a retired police general recently elected to serve as the rebel republic's deputy in the lower house of Russia's parliament, says the practice is widespread, although some Russian units are more deeply involved than others in the reverse kidnapping industry.
''I'm barely able to write,'' the letter said. ''Everything, everywhere hurts... They broke my nose twice, they beat my head against a wall and a chair... then they got me up at night and choked me from two to five in the morning.
"Mom, do anything you can to get me out of here.
"But Mom, don't write the officers here. If they find out about this letter, understand, I'm a dead man.
"Mom, please try, PLEASE. I CAN'T TAKE IT ANY LONGER!''
Not a letter smuggled out by a Chechen prisoner, but a 18-year old Russian conscript writing a postcard home.
Grozny, a city with a peacetime population about equal to Atlanta's, was leveled. Terrorized by the blitzkrieg and exhausted by four years under a secessionist government that had surrendered power to bandits and kidnappers, many Chechens were ready to shelve dreams of independence.
Now, however, the situation has sunk into a vicious stalemate. Russia has squandered its chances. Atrocities, pillage and arbitrary arrest reinforce the traditional image of Russians as occupiers.
Moscow has failed to create a new political infrastructure in Chechnya, and its local appointees have little popular support.
Russian military authorities admit to over 2,700 soldiers killed in action, though many independent observers suspect the true figure is double that. Even during quiet periods, an average of three to four soldiers die every day. There are no authoritative figures for civilian dead.
Russian troops control population centres during daylight and man 400 fortified checkpoints along the main roads. But they cannot break the back of the resistance in the countryside, where guerrillas move freely in both plains and mountains. Their enemy, however, has not been able to launch the dramatic, demoralising raids on big towns that could swing Russian public opinion behind a negotiated settlement. The result is a world of shadows.
Both Chechnya and Russia are the losers.
In the words of Pavel Felgenhauer, a leading Russian commentator on military affairs, "The two-faced Russian policy - official love on the one hand, and actual destruction on the other - can only produce a long-lasting savage guerrilla war. In the end, the Russian military will most likely lose."
The Kremlin and the West are still reluctant to accept this last point, but after what has happened the chances of a Russian "victory" - of a subdued Chechnya being peacefully reabsorbed into the Russian fold - seem minimal. An independent Chechnya makes little sense in economic or political terms. Yet Russia's brutal policies are driving it inexorably towards that pointless goal.
Meanwhile, women in Grozny do what they can, in advance of a winter that will test their resilience to the limit. Realistically, they have little hope of significantly improving their lot.
Grozny is a ghost city, 150,000 of whose former inhabitants are still in refugee camps. The war is unfinished business. Whatever the women rebuild, they are powerless to resist what Moscow may yet do to them, their homes and their families. Like children building sand castles on a beach, they can only wait for the next big wave that may violently sweep it all away once more.
The 19th-century Russians gave Grozny its name - "terrible", or "fearsome" - to intimidate the Chechens whom they were trying to tame; the Chechens had renamed the town Jokhar, to imbue it with heroic qualities in memory of Jokhar Dudayev, the man who led Chechnya to not-quite independence before the Russians finally killed him in 1996.
Now, however, Grozny is neither fearsome nor heroic. Just 10 years ago, it was a city of cafes and restaurants and life. Now, it has become a city of emptiness and desolation - and Westerners who disapprove should reflect on their own governments' shameful inaction. In the words of Sergei Kovalyov, the former dissident who spent time in Grozny when it was most dangerous to do so, the only response was "senseless diplomatic steps in the Western tradition".
But the translation into everyday language is actually not that difficult. You may even recognise it .. "Don't just stand there .. Do something! "
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