Summer 2004

When a Story Inhabits the Mind

‘… I rely on a brave group of Chechen journalists to keep me— and my readers—informed.’

By Thomas de Waal

I miss Chechnya. That may seem a strange thing to say, given all the associations that the word “Chechnya” has for most people—war, destruction and cruelty. But between the beginning of 1994, 11 months before President Boris Yeltsin sent in the troops and unleashed war there, and the summer of 1998, I visited Chechnya fairly frequently and, in reporting on its tragedy, I became extremely attached to both the place and the people. Partly it was the landscape: A view of the snowy peaks of the Caucasus is rarely more than a bend in the road away. The thick beech woods that frustrated the czar’s armies for decades in the 19th century crowd up serpentine valleys towards the mountains.

Mostly it was the people. Nineteenth century Russian officers, struck by the flamboyance and repartee of the Chechens, called them “the French of the Caucasus.” A century and a half later, the Chechens somehow emerged as the people who were most unbowed by the experience of Soviet Communism. Eternal outlaws, Alexander Solzhenitsyn had observed that the Chechens were the only nationality in the prison camps of Stalin’s Kazakhstan who did not want to play by the rules but cleaved together at all times. So in the 1990’s it was an invigorating, if sometimes scary, experience to be among them.

Yes, a lot of the men were gun-mad. At Chechen weddings, there was a tradition of firing weapons in the air in celebration, and all too frequently Chechen weddings would lead to Chechen funerals, as one or two guests died from stray bullets. But the less crazy among the Chechens were also among the most alive, engaging, loyal people to spend time with. Conversations would last into the night. Celebrations would be thought up on the spur of the moment. How often I or one of my colleagues would turn up in a mountain Chechen village in conditions of war and turmoil, and a complete stranger would uncomplainingly offer us a bed for the night, whatever was on the table, and transport on farther the next morning. The memory of such warmth is one reason why I look back fondly on Chechnya and with great heartache at the sufferings those people continue to endure.

Another reason I miss Chechnya is that it can be harder to be distant from a conflict you care about than to be up close. We continue to refer to the “war in Chechnya,” but what is happening there now is a low-level insurgency conflict that claims perhaps a dozen lives a week. The menace of violence is still pervasive, but the vast majority of people are managing to live ordinary lives of some sort. The same was true even for much of the first war, and I always found it easier for the mind and the stomach to be down in Chechnya itself than to be trying to follow the war from Moscow through the distorted picture of the Russian media.

My experience of the 1994-96 conflict left me with a profound impression of how war is savagely local. I remember one day in February 1995 sitting on the edge of Grozny, just a few miles from where the battle for the city between Russian forces and Chechen fighters was continuing. There was a regular thump from the artillery pounding the city, and thick black smoke was issuing from the burning oil refineries. Yet by the roadside an enterprising man had set up a barbecue stall, and my driver and I ate delicious hunks of hot meat as we looked out at the burning city. Life, of some sort, went on.

I try to remember that scene when I think of my friends and acquaintances still stuck in Chechnya. They are not living through total war; they are putting together their lives in a society where the vast majority of the violence is elsewhere. Life is very hard, but it is still liveable.

That first Chechen War was an astonishingly open one for journalists. We ran great risks, certainly, but such was the turmoil of the Russian state at the time that it was possible as a journalist to operate with immense freedom. There was no “frontline” as such, and you could cross whatever seemed like one with ease. I remember leaving Russian-controlled Grozny, traveling for an hour to a lazily manned checkpoint, passing through, and half an hour later sitting in a farmhouse doing an interview with the “vice president of Ichkeria,” the deputy leader of the warring rebels.

After the rebels won the first round of that war in 1996, the situation slowly became more menacing. A deeply damaged and traumatized society began breeding a new sinister group of young men, and one day one of them decided to use kidnapping to earn money. Hundreds of cases—and dozens of million-dollar ransoms—later, kidnapping remains a real curse for Chechnya, and the threat of it obviously limits the mobility of foreign journalists.

Foreign journalists continue to go to Chechnya, but the other big difference is that the Russian authorities now do everything they can to restrict them. If you are a journalist fully accredited in Moscow, you will be offered a trip complete with official minders and no access to ordinary people. You might be able to go undercover for a few days, but with very little opportunity to move freely. If you are not accredited in Moscow—and I am not these days—then you may as well forget about it. It is simply not worth the risks.

That is why I miss Chechnya.

Instead, in my job as the editor from London of a weekly bulletin on the Caucasus with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), I rely on a brave group of Chechen journalists to keep me—and my readers—informed. It is gratifying that there are a number of journalists who still possess that irrepressible courage and spirit, which they deploy to the discomfort of all sides in the conflict.

My main writer, Timur Aliev, has won several prizes for his reporting, lately a citation from the Overseas Press Club of America. Sometimes I worry about Timur and tell him it is not worth taking any risks. He usually tells me he knows the risks and does not intend to do anything stupid. Simply being an independent-minded journalist in Chechnya is risk enough, and that is not something I want to deny him. I miss Chechnya, but the longing is eased a little every week when I read his finely observed copy, helping me keep up with a place that is surely one of the most unfortunate on earth and that I have the fortune and misfortune to have known well.

Thomas de Waal is coauthor, with Carlotta Gall, of “Chechnya: A Small Victorious War” (Pan Books, 1997) and is Caucasus editor of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, www.iwpr.net.


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