explorations

Chechnya Album, 1999–2001

 

Jonathan Littell travelled to Ingushetia at the start of the Second Chechen War, in late 1999, and later to Chechnya in 2000, soon after the Russian bombardments of Groznyi and numerous other Chechen towns. While working on a food-distribution programme for a French NGO, he took a series of photographs documenting his work and the recent destruction. One purpose of the pictures of Groznyi was to estimate the number of inhabitants who had returned to live in the city, a number significantly lower than the optimistic claims made by the United Nations and the Russian federal authorities.

The photographs were later assembled by Littell into a private album, which is made public by Forensic Architecture for the first time. Some parts have been redacted, to protect the identity of people still living in Chechnya today. The text below is an edited transcription of an interview held with Littell on 14 and 16 May 2013.

  

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During the Second Chechen War (which began in 1999 and tapered out around 2005), because of the kidnappings, all the NGOs were based in Nazran, which was the capital of the neighbouring Republic of Ingushetia. We had police escorts when in Ingushetia and we travelled in and out of Chechnya; we never really slept over. My organization, Action Against Hunger (Action Contre la Faim, ACF), was one of the only two—the other being Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)—that didn’t take escorts into Chechnya, for reasons of objectivity and neutrality. The photographs in these first pages are of Ingushetia.

 

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The first photos of Chechnya itself are of Sernovodsk and Assinovskaya. Those were the two places where we started working: the first two villages right over the border, administratively inside Chechnya. To get to these villages we had to get through this huge checkpoint, which you see in some photographs a few pages earlier, called Kavkaz-I, and that’s why it took a few months to negotiate access into Chechnya: getting through Kavkaz-I, which is right on the border on the main highway, was very complicated.

 

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This is Assinovskaya. You see it’s not very damaged; it was pretty much spared in the bombing. A community of old Russians lived here, and had a church. Because the town had been relatively spared there were a lot of IDPs (internally displaced persons), so we were assisting there.

 

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In April of 2000 we did a distribution in Sernovodsk. In the photo of the residents in Sernovodsk you see a couple of holes in the wall of this person’s house, which look to me like, I would say, 20 or 30mm type, light tank shelling. They put these long trains on the train tracks and they had the refugees (I’m saying refugees but technically they were Internally Displaced Persons) living in the trains for many months, up to over a year I think.

 

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The checkpoint in the image at the top is at the crossroads between the main highway, which is called the Rostov-Baku Tras, and the intersections to Sernovodsk and Assinovskaya. And this was a checkpoint of Cossacks, as they indicate: ‘DONtsy’ means Don Cossacks, and they have this lovely graffiti, ‘Terrorism is a disease, but we, DONtsy, are going to cure it’. The bottom photo shows a checkpoint—they had a checkpoint about every kilometre on the Tras. From the border to Groznyi you had to go, if I remember correctly, through 31 checkpoints, all similar to the type you see in the picture here. And so this bottom one is pretty representative.

The checkpoint is actually a fortified camp, because they got attacked at night, so they’ve got concrete blocks around it, and tanks. And in each checkpoint they were racketing all the people going through. We didn’t pay because we had official papers, we were an NGO, but all the civilians going through the checkpoints had to pay 10 roubles a head per checkpoint, which means 300 roubles to get from the border to Groznyi. The money was being passed up through the chain of command, up to the Ministry of Interior general who was in charge of all the checkpoints in Chechnya. He was making, according to what we were told at the time, a million dollars a month from this. Obviously everybody along the chain of command was keeping a cut, but the general at the top got a million dollars a month, which is pretty typical of the way the war was run in Chechnya.

 

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There was a major episode at the beginning of February 2000 where 3,000 fighters retreated from Groznyi through the town of Alkhan-Kala, immediately to its west: they were trapped there, they went through minefields, many died or were wounded in the minefields, the Russians were waiting for them and bombed them, and then they had to go further west towards the big forest called the Samashki Forest, and they hid a bit in the forest and then cut through Shaami-Yurt, Katyr-Yurt and Gekhi-Chu, to escape up into the mountains. And as they were moving in groups of 20, 50 or 100 men, the Russians were just pounding all the villages along the way with heavy field artillery and aviation, mostly field artillery.

One of the main clues to this kind of destruction is the roofs. You see the roofs have been blown off, the metal sheeting of the roof, but the wooden structure is still intact. That is typical of destruction by artillery and aerial bombardment, where it’s mostly the blast effect that blows the sheeting off the roofs. In the other photos you’re going to see buildings that have no wooden structure left on top. Those buildings were burned by the soldiers when they entered the village. When they occupied the villages, the federal troops burned a lot of houses, either with gasoline or by using gas bottles, blowing them up from the inside. And so the way you can tell between bombardment and wanton destruction by soldiers burning houses is from the presence or not of these wooden roof structures. The building on the right was quite clearly burned: you see the flames rising above the door from the inside of the building. It was probably torched by the soldiers when they occupied the village a bit later on. 

A direct hit would destroy the wooden structure, obviously, but then the walls would have collapsed too; the whole building would collapse. Like in the top photo: you see the building on the right where a whole side is collapsed. That building took a direct hit. But in the case of the ones where the wooden structure remains but the sheeting has gone, these buildings took a hit nearby and the blast blew off the sheeting. And in the bottom photo you see a building that must have been hit directly through the roof by a shell. But the roof is still there, even though it’s crumpled and damaged, which is different from the photo on the right where there’s no roof at all. The federal troops would occupy the villages they accused of supporting the fighters, and would torch intact houses as a vengeance. The debris you see in the photo on the right was debris that was pulled out of the houses; people had already come back and cleaned the houses. 

The heavy fighting continued all the way into March. 600 fighters of Gelayev, a senior commander at the time, now dead, were trapped in Alkhazurovo and Komsomolskoe, and were basically annihilated. All the survivors were captured and mostly murdered after their capture; this is all very well documented. The fighting ended at the end of March. So we must have gone in three or four weeks after the major combat operations had ended. By that point, by the time we were allowed in, the fighters had moved up into the mountains and the fighting was more localized. And clearly we were entering with permission of the Federals, so we could only go where they allowed us to go, when they allowed us to go. We weren’t doing this clandestinely. But still it was relatively soon after the Katyr-Yurt destruction—the people had just come back a few weeks before us.

 

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The buildings that have intact walls and no roofing are basically the ones that were torched from the inside. You see this guy in the photo on the right: he was showing me the safe in which he had put all his lifetime savings. He and his family had gone to Siberia to work in construction during the summer every year for 20 years and had built a house with the money they brought back and saved. And the rest of the money, everything they saved, was in that safe, and it was burned when his house burned. So the house was destroyed and a lifetime’s savings were gone. And in the bottom photo, where the whole family is, you see one room that they rebuilt on the bottom right. That’s the room the whole family was sleeping in, the one room they managed to restore. And that’s the family right there.

 

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The mosque has taken a direct hit from a shell. The Russians were also using a lot of grad: multiple-rocket launchers on trucks, sometimes called Katyusha, that fire a series of rockets. And at the bottom you see bits of different types of ordnance that the man was showing us: some of it is rockets, some of it is shells. Grads are a highly imprecise weapon: you fire 10 or 20 rockets at the same time, it’s a scatter-effect weapon, and firing that on a populated village full of civilians is considered a war crime by international standards. There is no way you can claim accuracy or discrimination with that type of shelling. So you see the mosque has been hit by shelling, you see the houses; on the next page this man’s car has been burned. I don’t remember whether the mosque was bombed or the roof collapsed during shelling.

 

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Here we are visiting Groznyi, it’s less than a month later, in May. These were all day trips; we lived in Nazran, in Ingushetia. We had our house and office there, and then we did day trips over the border into Chechnya. We were always out by night time, except when I stayed a couple of nights later in November. So in the next photo, the big sign there that says Groznyi is on the Tras just south of Groznyi, at the entrance of an important forest.

Zavodskoy Raion, the factory district, had been spared during the First War, because the Russians had considered it a useful economic resource. Because the Chechens had been able to exploit those factories between the two wars, in the Second War the Federals made the decision to destroy the entire factory district, so all the factories were levelled, by aerial bombing. In the bottom photo what you see is a destroyed factory, the Khimicheskii Zavod, the ‘chemical factory’, and on the orange slab is graffiti that was drawn by Russian troops entering Groznyi. It says, ‘Groznyi is ours! 6 February 2000’. It has the name of the unit, 330 OBON, which is a unit of the Ministry of Interior, part of the Interior Troops. The guys entering that district signed the date they captured it.

 

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Ulitsa Mira is where the main market was, and probably is once again now, the central market of town. And the whole district above it is an area called the Chastnyi Sektor, the private sector, which is a district of private houses. There were no [public] buildings there—it was all private houses. The buildings only start when you get close to the prospekt, the boulevard which is now called Putin, and which at the time was called Prospekt Revolutsia (Revolution Boulevard). I lived in the Chastnyi Sektor for six months during the First War, in 1996, on ulitsa Nikolaeva, if I remember correctly. This area was pretty much spared during the First War, but during the Second War they levelled it. 

So, here in these first photos of the centre of Groznyi, you are looking at destruction of that neighbourhood by massive, random artillery and rocket fire. You see a rocket lying in the street, that’s a grad rocket, which didn’t blow up obviously. The house next to it has been hit by artillery fire, and the mosque by artillery fire.

 

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This poor lady is standing in the debris of her house, a huge amount of debris. Artillery doesn’t make holes that big, so that would probably be a half-tonne bomb dropped from an airplane. If it were a one-tonne bomb, the house wouldn’t have been left standing. Then you have my former office, of which the roof is still standing—it’s pretty damaged. It was my office during the First War. I just went back to visit it.

 

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In the bottom photo, you can clearly see the impact of a half-tonne airplane-dropped bomb on the building. However, it’s impossible to say whether that is damage from the First War or the Second War, because that area was already quite damaged in the First War. Actually, from the way for instance the grass is growing on top of the building, I would say that it’s damage from the First War, from four years earlier. And the same goes for the buildings above, on ulitsa Mira: some of those shell holes are old, some are new. You can’t really tell, but that’s all direct rocket fire, artillery fire, tank fire impacting on the buildings. The street’s been cleaned up obviously.

 

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I was shooting with an old type of camera—it’s actually film, an APS format which allowed me to do panoramic views, so I did all these panoramics to show the buildings. In that panoramic at the top you can clearly see that an airplane flew right over the building and just dropped one bomb after another, all along the entire length of the building. It’s one, at most two, strafing raids from an airplane just systematically flying along the axis of the building and dropping half-tonne bombs, destroying the entire height of the building. The bombs fall through their own weight a couple of floors into the building and detonate towards the bottom, thanks to a delaying device on the fuse.

 

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On the same day, we did a sort of big swing through the city to see it and get a general sense of the situation. It was our first visit into the city. The top photo shows a building on ulitsa Zhukovskogo which was not hit by an airplane but by shelling. And in the next photo, with the sort of metal sidings, I assume that’s the bridge over the river, with a view of the buildings further on.

 

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 In the next photo, the panoramic at the top shows the ruins near Minutka, one of the main roundabouts of the city. At the time there was a series of buildings around Minutka which were known as the devyati etazhey, the ‘nine-floor’ buildings. They were called that because they were the only nine-floor buildings in the city. They were dynamited by the Federals in March 2000, shortly after they took Groznyi, with the official reason being that the Chechens were using them as a snipers’ nest. So they destroyed, they dynamited, every single one of these nine-story buildings, which were the main, tallest, most important civilian habitations in the city. Nothing was left. And the bottom photo: we headed through the city towards the west and went to a suburb called Aldi. The photo is taken from a hill, looking back at the city and the Zavodskoy district.

 

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This photo is from a different trip, two weeks later. It’s taken in the east part of the city. That’s an area called Microraion; you find these microraion (micro-districts) in every Soviet city, there’s even one in Kabul. I actually worked in the building in the top photo during the First War—we ran a collective centre for displaced persons in the building. And in this photo you see very clearly that it took a hit from an airplane-dropped bomb, half-tonne or one-tonne. And in the photo below it’s the same thing, a bit further along on the same street, also a building that took a hit from an airplane bomb.

 

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Here you see a man with one leg, he lost his leg in all this, and the building is burned, obviously. Cause of burning unknown. Shelling can cause burning, so it could have caught fire from the shelling, or it could have been set on fire by the occupying troops.

 

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You see different types of destruction on these buildings: shelling hits, mostly shelling on these buildings. And in the bottom photo you see one apartment which is inhabited; in the middle of these devastated apartments, someone’s put her laundry out to dry. And you see there is a chimney, with smoke from the chimney coming out. Everything else around has been destroyed, visibly by artillery fire.

 

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Here we go in towards the centre. The building at the bottom, which is quite impressive, was clearly hit, again, by a string of airplane-dropped bombs.

 

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The top building is possibly the former Petroleum Institute, the petrochemical university, but I’m not positive about that. These buildings had been quite heavily damaged in the First War. They were probably hit again, but it’s likely that they were completely uninhabited at that point. And it’s the same with the building at the bottom. That’s really a sector that was completely devastated during the First War, and never really rebuilt.

 

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The building on the right, with the huge airplane bomb damage in the middle, was the mobile telephone company set up between the two wars by Salavdi Abdurzakov, a man who had close links to FAPSI, the electronic surveillance branch of the former KGB. But that didn’t prevent his company from getting bombed along with all the rest. And the bottom photo is the bridge over the river; the photo is taken looking towards the west. The big plume of smoke in the background, on the little hills south of Groznyi, comes from an oil well. Bombing set an oil well on fire, and it burned for about a year after the war, until they finally put it out. You can see this big plume of smoke in a lot of photos: it’s the oil well burning. I even remember seeing it back then on Google Earth images of the city.

 

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So now we’re heading over the bridge, heading south. The building at the top left has completely collapsed, but I have no idea about the destruction dates. The building on the top right, I remember clearly, had already been quite heavily destroyed in the First War. And in the photo at the bottom left you see shelling damage and airplane bombing damage.

 

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This is a cinema; it clearly took a hit from an airplane bomb, a big one, possibly one-tonne, given the size of damage. In the bottom photo, the whole Minutka roundabout was transformed into a giant checkpoint. So I had to sneak these pictures because it was forbidden to photograph checkpoints. The buildings, the five-storey buildings in the background, are still standing, and the rubble in front of the five-storey building is one of the dynamited nine-story buildings.

 

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Here we move to something different: our third trip to Groznyi. There was a big massacre on 5 February 2000, when the Federals entered Groznyi, in the suburb called Aldi, which is to the southwest of Groznyi. It was a big massacre; I can’t remember the number of dead, probably close to a hundred. Human Rights Watch has a big report on it. Human Rights Watch didn’t have access into Chechnya; they couldn’t physically go there. They could only work by interviewing people who had survived and fled to Ingushetia. So they were able to get a lot of data about the massacres from cross-checking interviews of survivors, but they couldn’t physically go in.

And so at Human Rights Watch’s request I went to Aldi on 1 June, interviewed survivors, and whenever I found someone who had a relative murdered, I photographed the place when the murder occurred. So what we’re looking at here are the photos of Aldi, houses that were burned by the Federals or places where people were killed. Human Rights Watch asked me to take as detailed statements as I could, to go with the photos, that would be used to draw up captions. So I actually took them in my notebook, and this is a photocopy of my notebook which I glued into the album.

 

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This is a sort of general view of Aldi: of the roofs blown off by bombing, and of our cars leaving Aldi. We had two cars, as always. And that’s the end of the Aldi sequence in the album.

 

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The photo at the top of the page is a view of the factory district from Aldi, so you see all the different factories. And then we went down into it and back into the city towards Oktobersky Raion, October district, where again you have a lot of private housing which was pretty much destroyed by the bombing. And I took these photos which are very impressive because of the gardens. There is a very famous photo by Stanley Greene, taken I think during the First War, of a man who’s gone insane because of the shelling, and who’s trying to protect himself under a chair held over his head—that photo was taken in this area.

 

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So then 10 days later, on 10 June, we did a fourth trip with my desk officer, who was responsible, back in Paris, for all our operations in the area. She wanted to have an idea of what was going on, to look at security issues and all that. So we did another trip to Groznyi together. And Shamil, the man in the top left photo, a close colleague of mine who was later killed, showed us the wreckage of his house, which he built between the two wars, probably with the money he made from us during the First War, because we already worked together at that time. And then the house, as you can see, was completely destroyed. And in the photo with my desk officer you see a lot of plants behind her; it was actually marijuana, because hemp grows wild in Chechnya. It’s not really good quality marijuana, because they don’t separate the plants, it’s just hemp plants, but they grow wild and a obviously lot of Chechens and Russians soldiers smoke it. It’s very poor quality, but it’s there. Then we went back to Microraion and we had lunch together.

 

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Here we skip to two months later, to the end of August, to one of my first trips to a place called Chishki, right at the foot of the mountains. Chechnya is incredibly flat all the way up to the mountains, and the mountains start very abruptly. So we took that road that goes straight past Starye Atagi. And that place where the mountains open up and the road goes into the mountains up to Shatoy is called the Volksky Voroty, which means ‘the Wolf’s Gates’—an indication that you are entering a completely different kind of world from that point. And Chishki is right there, right at the Wolf’s Gates on the west side of the river. We went there because a doctor we knew was from Chishki, and we were sort of setting up contacts to go further up into the mountains, to go to Shatoy and then to try to work all the way up into the valley.

In the first photo you see this oil well still burning, which is seen in the background of several of the other photos. And then in the next photo that’s the river coming out of the mountains, and the main road is on the other side of the river. The village you see in the background is called Duba-Yurt. Because that bridge, which normally crosses from Duba-Yurt to Chishki, was destroyed, we had to do a huge detour to make it to Chishki.

 

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Then you have two more photos of Chishki itself and the main road across the river from Chishki. The village on the crest there is called Ulus-Kert. There is a very famous episode where a whole Russian special forces unit was wiped out somewhere near that crest, in January 2000 I think it was. And I was held up on that road in 1996 but a bit further up to the south, by Khattab, who was a famous Islamist Arab commander. So I have ‘fond’ memories of that road. The next photo is one of our first major convoys into the mountains, but I don’t have a date for that.

 

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Then we skip to late November. For the first time we slept overnight in Chechnya. We went for four days because we were going so far in the mountains it was impossible to do a day trip. So we followed that road up to Shatoy, and up to Itum-Kale; we slept in Shatoy for two nights and then we went down another valley, the valley that goes east from Shatoy. We went up the other river, which is the Sharo-Argun, all the way into really remote territory. We went there to see if there were any villages, if people were living there, if it was worth having distributions up there. I’m always very curious, I wanted to see what it looked like, but that was the professional reason: an assessment trip. 

Basically Chechnya is divided into districts, and the way the UN coordination worked, each NGO that was doing food was responsible for a set of districts. The plan was to distribute food in the entire district, not just the main towns, and so we wanted to do as thorough an assessment as possible to see how many people were living there, what the access conditions were, whether we could trucks get there, what cooperation we could expect from local authorities and what kinds of problems we could have at checkpoints. Because it is so close to the border of Russia, it’s actually an area under Border Troops control, which is a completely different branch of the military. You found yourself dealing with either regular Army, or FSB (the Federal Security Service) or MVD (the Ministry of Interior), and obviously each branch didn’t recognize the permissions you got from other branches. You could have an Army permission, and the Pogranichnie Voiska (Border Troops) would say, ‘Fuck off, we are not Army, so get out.’ But we actually didn’t have any major problems on this trip at all, except at the border from Ingushetia when we went through a huge amount of trouble, but that’s another story. 

So in the first photo: the line at the back is the famous Volksky Voroty, where the mountains open up, and you see the clouds are low on the mountains. They come from the north so they get blocked at the mountains, and behind it’s all clear. And then we went up into this pass; you see a helicopter flying over the river, following it for guidance. Then we passed Shatoy. 

There are two rivers in that area, the Argun and the Sharo-Argun. Those two rivers come close to each other, and you can easily pass from one over to the other. The Sharo-Argun is the one that is more to the east of the Argun, which goes through Itum-Kale and Shatoy. The Argun begins all the way up close to Georgia. That’s the route a lot of refugees followed, up the Argun river to cross the border over into Georgia, into the Pankisi Valley. There was a huge flow of refugees crossing the mountains on foot—it’s very hard to get through, you can’t get through in a car obviously, you have to go on foot, but that’s how people were going up that river into Pankisi Valley. And when we went there it was a year later and some people were starting to come back from Pankisi, but very few.

 

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Here you have me posing in front of a very old bashnya, a tower. I had a good friend, who committed suicide at the start of the Second War, who had posed a few years earlier in front of that bashnya, so that’s why I had this picture taken. The next photo is the house where we stayed: the house of some guy in Shatoy, and those were his children.

 

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And then the next day we went up to Itum-Kale. There is this village, Ush-Kaloi, which you can see was destroyed by bombing. You see the roof beams are still standing. This vehicle was destroyed by a rocket, probably fired by a helicopter.

 

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My colleague here is in front of a house which was burned by the federal troops, when they entered the district. It’s all very fresh destruction; we had testimony from the locals. The Federals, when they took the place—there was very strong fighters’ resistance—were very angry and they burned a lot of houses, just quite gratuitously and as a sort of vengeance burning. Then you have a general view of Itum-Kale from even further up; we went higher than Itum-Kale to a place called Tazbichi. And you see some of the houses blown up in Itum-Kale. It’s a tiny place. The Tazbichi cemetery is on the next page.

 

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The man standing here is the deputy head of administration of a subdistrict of Itum-Kale. That’s his house, and that’s his car. So his house was burnt to the ground, his car was destroyed. Below you see other destroyed houses, some from shelling and some from wanton burning.

 

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Then it’s the next day, so we leave Shatoy again, but this time we turn east. From Shatoy there’s a pass over to the other river, the Sharo-Argun, and the next photo, with the sign there, is where you cross that river. The sign says ‘Cheberloevskii Raion’ (Cheberloy district), and you see the wolf symbol of independent Chechnya on the sign. That’s a sign from the period between the two wars, when Chechnya was de facto independent. So it has the symbol of free Chechnya, and that’s also why the sign had been machine-gunned. But no one thought to take it down, even though the district didn’t exist anymore with that name.

So then we went further up along the Sharo-Argun river, south, to the village called Dai. Then we were on a mountain pass, and you see the sort of green and blue paint on the rock, to the left of our cars. That’s also a Chechen independence flag, which had been sort of machine-gunned by the Russians. You see there’s snow on the ground, but the sky is incredibly clear, crisp.

 

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Then we go all the way to Sharoy, which is the last village before the border. It’s really the last village, and then after that there is nothing. In Sharoy, and the villages before, there was a lot of destruction: of the mosque and the bashnyas. It’s is actually very old, it goes back to 1864, when the Tsarist troops, having captured Chechnya in 1859, dynamited the bashnyas, which at the time really served as fortified towers, to prevent the Chechen rebels of the time from holing up in these towers. So there is a cemetery, the old mosque and one intact house. 

And this place is interesting because, although it doesn’t show in any of the photos, there is some 1980s prefab housing at the foot of the hill, built under Gorbachev. You know about the Chechen deportation in 1943? They were allowed to come back in 1956 but even then they were not allowed to resettle in the high mountains. They weren’t allowed to resettle past Shatoy because they were felt to be still too unruly and dangerous. So the authorities wanted to keep a no man’s land, a buffer zone up in the higher mountains. And in the 1980s, when there was glasnost and perestroika, they were finally allowed to return there—they had been resettled in the plains up to then, so very few people got there, and the living conditions are incredibly harsh and difficult. And the Soviet authorities built prefab housing for them; the village was just ruins.

 

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So these people, the very poor-looking old men here, are living in this prefab housing. In the next photo is the mosque with Arabic writing, and the photo next to it is the bashnya; you can actually see pre-Islamic petroglyphs carved into the stone. The Chechens only received Islam in the late eighteenth century, so there is a long tradition of pre-Islamic religion and signs on the towers there.

 

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This is a different village called Khimoi, which was also dynamited by the Russians in 1864. And actually you see a swastika—that’s very, very old. The photo at the bottom is the valley that branches out towards Daghestan, called Kenkhi, and that’s an interesting place. We went up there also to take a look, because that village you see in the photo is the only village of Chechnya that’s not inhabited by ethnic Chechens. They are Avars, which is a Daghestani ethnic group. When this area was cleared out by the Soviets in 1943, the Avars were not deported; they were allowed to come in and occupy the houses, and they kind of stayed in that area. So there is one valley which is still Avar, although they are residents of Chechnya.

 

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This is a photo of the mountains separating Chechnya from Daghestan. Behind those mountains is Daghestan already. And the bottom photo shows a village with a wrecked tank; there were so many in Chechnya which the Russians didn’t even bother to carry away.

 

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The last photos refer to an incident on 9 January 2001, when I went together with MSF to a town called Starye Atagi in the plains of Chechnya, south of Groznyi. We were coming out of Starye Atagi when we were ambushed by Wahhabis, Islamists, and I managed to escape with a couple of holes in my car. My colleague from MSF, Kenneth Gluck, was kidnapped and held for a month. He was finally released after an intervention from Shamil Basayev, who realized that his associates had fucked up, that they shouldn’t be doing this to humanitarian aid workers. So these photos were taken: the one at the top, which is undated, shows the river between Novi and Starye Atagi. We were attacked on the Starye Atagi side. 

When I escaped, there was a lot of blood on the windscreen, but the injury was completely unimportant. I was hit in the face by a tiny shard of the car, and it hit an artery, so there was a lot of blood. But then I got arrested by the Russians and was detained for over twenty-four hours, and that turned into a minor diplomatic thing after the US embassy got involved. And then they finally let me go. So these photos show the aftermath, the holes in my car. The back window of the car had been blown out, there were holes in the car, there was blood all over the place, which we tried to clean but kind of unsuccessfully.

We got through the first two checkpoints which were just manned by draftees—we just talked our way through—but then we got to a checkpoint held by kontraktniki, professional Interior Ministry troops, and they clearly saw something was very wrong. So, as is the natural reflex when something’s wrong, they just held us.

And there was a very funny episode with the colonel of the base where they took us. He was calling his general, Babichev, and the general was screaming at him over the telephone, ‘Who is the fucking asshole who signed these idiots’ authorisation?’ And of course it was Babichev himself who had signed our permissions. So the colonel was quite livid. And actually I later found out that this colonel—he was relatively polite with me, he had me locked in a room but he was reasonably polite—was a very well known torturer. His personal ‘sport’ was to get up in jogging clothes and go and torture people in his basement at night, for just relaxation and entertainment. They were torturing systematically for military reasons, but he kind of liked to do it himself, just to relax his nerves I guess.

His name was Gadzhiyev; he was a Daghestani. He was later promoted to general for his loyal services, and about a year later he caught two brothers and tortured them both. One died under his hands and the other one survived, and was sold back to his family for quite a significant amount of money. So he told the whole story, and the widow of the dead kid (very young people, they were 25 or 26) got a chest bomb from the Islamists (at that time there had never been a woman suicide bomber, nobody paid attention to women), went to the base and, as the general was coming out, blew herself up very close to him. He was mutilated, lost his eyes and his genitals and then died, I think, three days later. That was the first female suicide bombing in Chechnya. So this was the guy who detained me.