Wednesday, November 10, 2010

In this dirty war

‘They screamed and shouted, begging us not to kill them because they had family and kids back home. So what? As if, by contrast, we’d come from an orphanage into this shithole. We executed them all.’ This is one extract of several written by a Russian special forces officer active in the war against Chechnya and very recently published by The Sunday Times. Although the newspaper is now a pay-to-view website, several other organisations, not least The New York Times, have picked up the story, and made some of the extracts freely available online.

According to WaYNaKH online, an English-language Chechen website, the war in Chechnya has been ‘one of the world’s most brutal conflicts’. The Russians, it claims, abducted, tortured and executed suspected militants in extra-judicial killings - brazenly violating Russian and international law. Up to 200,000 Chechen people mostly civilians, it says, are thought to have died in the two periods of Russian occupation, the first of which began in 1994; and at least 5,000 Chechens simply disappeared. These wars were hidden from view, it adds, with access being severely restricted, especially on the Russian side where the most controversial, dangerous and secret work was carried out by the Spetsnaz - Russia’s elite special-forces units.

Indeed, The New York Times (NYT) accepts that Chechnya has seen some of the most severe forms of political violence of our time (but on both sides), much of which has been documented by human-rights investigators and a small number of journalists (one of these, Anna Politkovskaya, who kept a diary, was murdered in 2006). However, the NYT amplifies, accounts of participants have been few and far between. All the more valuable and extraordinary, then, is this new first-hand diary account published by The Sunday Times magazine on 31 October.

The diary extracts, penned by a senior Spetsnaz officer at the height of the Second Chechen War, in the years 2000-2004, appeared first in the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Mark Franchetti, The Sunday Times’ Moscow correspondent since 1997, then translated the text into English for his article entitled, The War in Chechnya: Diary of a Killer. The NYT says the diary ‘offers a front-line account of characteristic forms of Russian-Chechen campaigns - roundups, torture, extrajudicial executions of detained rebels and the almost casual killing of civilians who happen to be in the way. It also captures some of the frantic energy and sorrow of firefights. . . The result is a portrait of confused dehumanization, of both relishing in fighting and agonizing over the results.’

Here are two extracts quoted by The New York Times:

‘We got hit from two sides crossing a settlement. Our commander told us to move faster, but we got hit anyway. We moved on, taking cover behind a row of houses, and could hear a firefight just ahead. Suddenly, my eye caught some shadows, one behind a window, the other at the entrance of a basement. I lobbed a hand grenade into the cellar, and sprayed the window with machine gun fire. When we walked up to check on the outcome we found two bodies, an old man and woman. Bad luck.’

‘Counterintelligence got wind of a group of female suicide bombers. We stormed their safe house and nabbed three women. One was in her forties, the others were young – one barely 15. They were drugged and kept smiling at us. The three were interrogated back at the base. At first, the elder, a recruiter of shahidkas [female suicide bombers], wouldn’t talk. That changed when she was roughed up and given electric shocks. They were then executed and their bodies blown up to get rid of the evidence. So in the end they got what they’d craved.’

More about the diary can be found at websites. Here are several more quotes, as found on the WaYNaKH website:

‘Off to the scene of a firefight and a powerful blast. An APC had run over an improvised explosive device (IED). Five guys died and four were wounded. We went to look at the dead, laid out on a helicopter landing pad, in silence. The war has become much fiercer. We used to see the enemy and knew who we were firing at. Now, we wait to be shot at.’

‘All around us is treachery. And in this dirty war, of course, it’s the blood of ordinary soldiers, not that of the politicians who started it, that is spilt. They’re even scamming us out of our warzone wages [the bonuses troops are paid for time in battle]. Yet we keep carrying out these stupid orders, and keep coming back for more tours of duty. Each of us has his own reasons.’

‘We were sent to retrieve a heavy machinegun a detained Chechen had left behind during a firefight. We couldn’t find it. Enraged, I beat him up. He fell to his knees and cried, saying he couldn’t remember where he’d thrown the weapon. We tied him to the APC with a rope and dragged him around.’

‘I often think of the future. How much more suffering awaits us? How long can we go on for? What for? Maybe I should think of my own life, start living for my family, my children, my wife, who deserves a memorial for all the pain I’ve put her through. I’m 31. Maybe it’s time to unwind.’

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