Excerpt from Chechnya by Carlotta Gall, Thomas de Waal, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Chechnya

Calamity in the Caucasus

by Carlotta Gall, Thomas de Waal

Chechnya
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  • First Published:
    Jun 1998, 416 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2000, 255 pages

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The Russian soldiers were so poorly trained that when the fighting erupted they were incapable of defending themselves. None of the eighteen- and nineteen-year-old conscript soldiers had any training for urban warfare and had no idea of the dangers. "We only practised shooting lying flat in a field"' Zarovny said bitterly as two years later he watched documentary film of Chechen fighters firing from multi-storey buildings. They were also totally unprepared for the grenade attacks on their tanks. For all their heavy weaponry, their communications and back-up were abysmal, and isolated units blundered around without orders, even clashing with each other.

The Chechens, by comparison, were fearless and often merciless. Natural marksmen who learn to handle a gun as young boys, they picked off fleeing soldiers easily. Hundreds of volunteers ran in to grab weapons from the dead Russian soldiers, especially seeking the prized sniper rifles with night-sights, the more experienced hacking off the big machine-guns from the armoured vehicles.

Many Chechens carried daggers and even swords they had forged themselves or carried as a family heirloom; the kinzbal, the Caucasian dagger, being the most precious of possessions, intrinsic with a Chechen's manhood and honour. One commander, Batia, a big-bearded Chechen, led his group of fighters into battle brandishing a sword above his head. It was not for show, as countless dismembered and decapitated Russian corpses around the city bore witness.

Their most deadly weapon, though, was the Russian-made rocket-propelled grenade. Fired from the shoulder, it could pierce the vulnerable parts of tanks and armoured vehicles with extraordinary efficiency. Aimed from the top of Grozny's multi-storey buildings at the base of a tank turret, it would rip into the heavy armour, blasting off the gun in one go. Most of the Russian tanks and troop-carriers sent into Grozny were old and did not have full armoured protection against anti-tank weapons, proving easy prey for the Chechen fighters who would run in perilously close, aiming at the treads of the tanks or the fuel tank at the back part of the undercarriage. The ammunition inside the vehicle would do the rest, igniting and exploding with terrific force, giving the striker only seconds to leap aside.

Shelling picked up around 2 p.m. on New Year's Day and pounded on until dark. The Maikop Brigade was now under desperate pressure as the Chechens began hitting the station building where they were all sheltering. Colonel Savin called in artillery strikes to the immediate area around the station but it did little to ease his predicament. "They are firing from all sides, where is the assistance? The whole battalion is wounded and lying in the station," he radioed, his voice cracking under the strain. "Think about how to get all the wounded out, we have no vehicles left, do you understand, work out how to get the wounded out. We are all dying, we need help, do you understand?" he said in one of his last radio messages, now passed around on cassette tape among the Brigade's survivors.

After dark he finally decided to evacuate the wounded to the only armoured vehicle still working. Two soldiers helped Ryabtsev hobble along the length of the station, two more were carried in blankets. A total of forty wounded men were loaded up, the badly wounded lying inside, the rest, Ryabtsev, Zarovny and Kim among them, somehow clinging on top. One of the only officers to survive, Mamed Kerim-Zade, sat at the front behind the driver. They left at speed, then suddenly stopped and turned back the way they had come, as the major in command reckoned they were heading the wrong way. "We turned round and we were going back into the centre of town," recalled Kim. "We had nearly made it, too"' They were in fact less than half a mile from a Russian paratroop regiment who had set up base in a park. As they slowed to turn a corner, fighters caught them with several grenades. Soldiers spilled off in all directions as the APC crashed to a stop and gunfire broke out. Several tried to make a run for it, Zarovny, his wounded hands in bandages, guiding a friend who was blinded. They tried to climb a wall, only to come face to face with an armed Chechen. Kim dived into the drain. Kerim-Zade, badly wounded, could not move. Ryabtsev alone got away to an apartment building. He found some Chechen civilians who took him in but they alerted the nearest fighters, who came for him minutes later. Only thirteen of the forty wounded survived to be taken prisoner. Savin abandoned the railway station on the evening of 2 January, leaving on foot with the remaining officers and soldiers until they found several abandoned armoured vehicles. They headed out of town but they too were caught by the Chechens. The Colonel died on the street from shrapnel wounds beside his wrecked vehicle. The entire Maikop Brigade, over 1000 men, had been wiped out in just sixty hours.

Copyright © 1998 Carlotta Gall and Thomas de Waal.  All rights reserved.

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