His top commander, Shamil Basayev, a low-key twenty-nine-year-old who hung his head as he talked, came and went. He had a thick black beard and wore a grey and blue camouflage jacket of the Russian Interior Ministry, a green ribbon with Koranic inscription round his blue woollen hat. He carried a Kalashnikov assault rifle slung casually over his shoulder.
New Year's Eve was a big Russian holiday, a time when everyone throughout the country would be gathered round the table at home, drinking champagne toasts and watching television. All over Russia they would be watching Yeltsin's annual New Year's address: `My New Year congratulations to all servicemen. When you carry out your duties, when you risk your lives even on New Year's Eve, remember that you are serving Russia and that you are defending Russia and the Russians,' he said ponderously.
Few in blacked-out Grozny were listening. An estimated 100,000 civilians were trapped in the city, sheltering in overcrowded bunkers, deafened by the explosions. The majority of them were Russian families who had not had the means or the foresight to leave. They had heard Yeltsin promise to end the bombing a few days before and yet the bombing had continued. Russian television even announced that evening that Grozny had fallen, but the former Soviet dissident and presidential human rights commissioner Sergei Kovalyov and the group of Russian parliamentarians denied it. Kovalyov, once a close ally of Yeltsin, like many of his liberal colleagues, became one of the most outspoken critics of the Chechen war and of the President himself. Now, from the basement of the Palace bunker, they denounced Yeltsin and appealed to all their fellow-countrymen to demand an end to the war.
"From the basement of the heavily shelled residence of Jokhar Dudayev, we who fought with you for democracy in Russia in 1991 to 1994, tell you that we are on different sides of the barricades today,' they said, reading an open letter to Yeltsin. `We are not for Dudayev. We are against the war launched against the whole Chechen people ... and unfortunately you are the commander-in-chief in this war. Today the problem is not about Chechnya but the democratic future of Russia."
" Respected citizens of Russia, the situation is desperate for Grozny and desperate for Russia," Kovalyov added. "There stands before you a brutal choice."
Patrick Chauvel, a French photographer, walked into Grozny at dawn on New Year's Day. He was the only independent journalist with the fighters in the centre of the city that day and he found the hunt for Russian tanks still going on.
The third battalion of the Maikop Brigade, some forty tanks and armoured vehicles, finally responded to calls for help and headed into Grozny mid-morning to try to break through to the station. Like the second battalion, they never made it and were blasted at close quarters as they trundled down the surrounding streets. Warned by those in the station to avoid the Presidential Palace and Orjonikidze Prospekt, they cut down side streets, only to run into more ambushes.
With no idea what to do, where to take cover or how to break out of the nightmare, soldiers were thrown into panic. Tank drivers backed frantically away to hide, crashing over pavements and through courtyards in a desperate attempt to get to safety. As the afternoon wore on and the light began to fade, tanks careered wildly down the streets, often lost, reversing in panic when they saw trouble, yanking their machine-guns round and firing in all directions. Some soldiers dived into nearby buildings, barricading themselves into the basements. `They are hiding like chickens,' one fighter laughed scornfully.
"The Chechens would hit the first tank and the Russians in the tanks behind would run into nearby buildings to escape. There was a crazy game of hide-and-seek, with Russian soldiers hiding in apartments, bunkers and even toilets, and the Chechens hunting them with swords, knives and pistols," Chauvel recalled. "There were lots of tanks hiding in back yards and behind walls. The Chechens said they were waiting for night-time. They let lots of tanks in, then blocked the streets, they wanted to capture them".
Copyright © 1998 Carlotta Gall and Thomas de Waal. All rights reserved.
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