Within hours the square had turned into a horrific inferno of burning tanks and dead bodies. Ryabtsev was shot in the legs trying to haul a heavy machine-gun into the railway station building. He dragged himself behind the tanks and was pulled in through the window to a room that filled rapidly with wounded soldiers. Nikolai Zarovny, another young conscript, wag inside his light tank firing the gun when an anti-tank grenade seared into the side, bursting like a fireball. His clothes on fire, his face and hands scorched, he yanked open the hatch at the back and leapt out, stumbling over the dead bodies of his comrades as he dashed blindly into the station building. Badly burnt, he joined the growing number of wounded in the impromptu field hospital. As the fighting raged through the night, Ryabtsev remembers drifting in and out of sleep, hearing loud explosions and someone saying another tank had been hit.
The commander of the Brigade, Colonel Ivan Savin, radioed all night for reinforcements but none came. Kim's unit only made it to the station at five in the morning but was in no position to help. His vehicle was hit in the street by the Presidential Palace around three in the afternoon. His team leapt free and made it into the light tank ahead. Fifteen of them then took cover in a building until the early hours of the morning when they managed to duck and weave their way to the station buildings. At midnight the men stopped for fifteen minutes while their commander offered them a swig of vodka. It was by now New Year's Day but they had little to celebrate.
In a bunker beneath the station Khavaj Khajbekarov, one of a small unit of Chechen railway police, was listening in terror. He had come to work that day as usual but as the bombardment grew heavier, he took cover underground with a group of colleagues. When the battle suddenly exploded above their heads, they thought they were the target. They radioed frantically to their Russian headquarters in Rostov but raised no response. Technically they were employees of the federal Russian railway police and they wanted to tell the Russians there was a mistake and they were not the enemy.
"Every fifteen minutes they hurled grenades against the building. They were trying to make us come out. We had automatic pistols but we didn't shoot. We were hoping they would talk to us, that they would even protect us," Khajbekarov recounted as he fled the city two days later. In fact it was the Chechen fighters who were attacking the station, but even two days later, when Khajbekarov pushed away the rubble and crawled out to find the station destroyed and dozens of pieces of Russian armour burnt out in the square in front, he could still barely comprehend what was going on.
That evening the Chechen Information Minister, Movladi Udugov, managed to broadcast an appeal on Chechen television before the transmission was cut: `Guard the borders. Take up your arms, move on Grozny. Today, once and for all, we should solve the problem of the Russian occupation,' he said. He was in the Presidential Palace along with the entire group of men who were to lead the rebel movement over the next two years. Vice-President Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, donning his tall grey lambskin hat, gave interviews to journalists from his underground office, where his pet parrot was still with him.
The lean, grey-haired Chief of Staff, Aslan Maskhadov, commanded the fighting from a small room crammed with fighters bringing reports of the battle or Russian prisoners they had captured. Sitting in his Russian army field uniform, a thick grey fur collar on his jacket, he looked tense and tired, dark rings marking his eyes. He was a former colonel of the Russian army and had commanded an artillery division based in Lithuania before returning to Chechnya in 1992. Aged forty-three, he was to prove the mastermind of the Chechen military success and two years later would become Chechnya's post-war President.
Copyright © 1998 Carlotta Gall and Thomas de Waal. All rights reserved.
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