Summer 2004

Acting as a Witness to a Forgotten War

‘Even if nobody for whom I write this story cares, it is difficult for me to forget Chechnya.’

By Anne Nivat

The war in Chechnya, the second one in a decade, has been raging ever since Moscow sent its troops to the breakaway province in the fall of 1999, promising to rapidly solve “the problem”—Chechnya’s demand for independence from the Russian Federation. Yet while separatist rebels and Russian troops continue to fight, Chechen civilians are both deliberately targeted and accidentally killed in the crossfire, or are living miserably in a war zone without hope of an end in sight.

In the West, it’s been easy to remain ignorant about this front in the “war on terror” because it is politically complicated, located in an area of the world few Westerners could point to on a map, and overshadowed by the postwar violence in Iraq that swallows up the time and space for war coverage in the press. Wars are fashionable, and Chechnya was a la mode during the winter 1999-2000, but not anymore. Then Afghanistan came along, and now Iraq is the place to be. Who really knows any longer what is happening in Afghanistan?

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—packaged by Western governments and military authorities as critical battles in the worldwide war on terrorism—have drawn to them many journalists who basically made the choice to adhere to the script prepared by those who waged the wars. In turn, the U.S. military has worked to adjust, as best they could, to press requirements in covering it. The Russians have tried to use this same approach in Chechnya, but with less attention to the appearance of accuracy and with less success.

My first book about the war in Chechnya, “Chienne de Guerre,” based on my reporting during the mid-1990’s about this conflict, was translated into seven languages, including Russian. But after four years of negotiations, not one Russian publishing house has dared to print it. Eventually the book was posted on an Internet site (and allowed to remain there) only because the authorities in Russia know that the Internet doesn’t have enough distribution to do political damage in Russia—yet.

In the United States, my book was released before September 11, 2001. At that time, President Bush was working to make alliances with the new Russian president and not focused on overthrowing Saddam Hussein. Only muted criticism from America was heard then about the human rights violations against Chechen citizens and minimal aid for refugees, and there was little, if any, commentary or coverage. Why? It is because of what I call the “no CNN, no war syndrome”—when there are no images of a war on a widely watched TV channel, then Americans are not concerned about it.

Grasping the War Story

When I ventured back to Chechnya in the fall of 1999, I was not yet a correspondent for the French daily, Libération. I became one when the newspaper asked me to file daily reports on the war. I was then surprised to see that many things had changed since the first Russian campaign in 1994-96, and I blamed myself for not being there to report on these changes before they erupted into the second phase of the fighting. But that’s how the press usually work: We are sent into the field when something eventful is happening, and we quickly disappear when the action stops. That’s a big mistake, because this second campaign in this ongoing war is a direct result of an evolution that occurred after the end of the first campaign and of the way that one ended.

Chechnya is a particularly difficult war to cover—not that any war is easy—because of all of the minefields, both literal and figurative, that must be crossed. There are many kidnaps, unsanitary conditions, difficulties with language and terrain, and other usual obstacles, but there are also in this war no clear-cut “good guys” or “bad guys.” Each different rebel group seems to fight independently, and they are linked only by their common enemy—the Russians—who commit horrific human rights violations against innocent civilians. There is no single or charismatic leader of the opposition, only a series of discredited and disrespected fighters. It’s almost impossible to find a sympathetic figure in this tragedy, except the innocent civilians, who say again and again that they just want the fighting to stop so they can build a normal life.

“What’s new in Chechnya?” my editors in France would ask me whenever I tried to convince them to let me go back there again. On my last trip there a few months ago, one could indeed have gotten the impression that nothing has changed. There was still the hum of bombers in the distance, the muddy, rusted armored tanks posted along the roads, the bored but arrogant manner of soldiers who stop each vehicle to request papers from the driver and then demand a bribe whether the documents are in order or not. There were innumerable accounts of “zatchistki” (mopping-up operations), when masked Russian soldiers sweep down on the civilian population and kill or drag off men and boys without explanation or justification.

Yet I have concluded that reporting what’s not new must also be part of my job. By being in the field, I can tell that the Russians are as militarily weak as when they reinvaded Chechnya after the 1996 negotiated settlement was violated by a renegade rebel group. And the Russians are no closer to a realistic solution to this second phase of the war than they were several years ago, because President Putin stubbornly refuses to negotiate and will accept only an absolute surrender of all independence-minded people and Islamic fundamentalists.

Changing Perception of the Conflict

Despite the fiasco that is this war, the Kremlin can claim one victory: It has convinced the outside world that this conflict is a part of the global war on terrorism. The Kremlin has understood perfectly the strategic political advantage of making a link between Chechen rebels and international terrorists. Aren’t the Russians friends of the West now, allies in the war on terror and fellow victims of terrorist suicide bombers? Some of the Chechen fighters might be Wahhabis and be connected to al-Qaeda, although nothing has ever been proven. But making this current characterization of the war the justification for the original fighting should be considered a major victory for Russia, proving again that in a time of terror, disinformation can work.

The Kremlin tolerates very few independent-minded Russian and foreign reporters who publish the truth about what’s going on in Chechnya—and do so only outside of Russia or in a local weekly newspaper with minimal circulation. Whether the Kremlin has been misled by its military leadership about the actual situation in Chechnya is unclear. But it is absolutely obvious that Russian public opinion is being misled about it. Officially, Russians are told that the war is over, and the situation is “normalized.” By ignoring the reality of what’s happening in Chechnya, the Russian government acts as if the battle has already been won. It has closed refugee camps in neighboring Ingushetia, forcing citizens to return to homes that are still in shambles.

Having understood that the only “politically correct” way out of the Chechen quagmire is through a democratic process, even a fake one, in 2003 the authorities held a referendum on a new constitution, followed by a presidential election. Both were exposed by those who observed them to be fraudulent. But Moscow—through its successful control of its own press and, mostly, through the self-censorship of its journalists—maintained the fiction of normalization for the Russian people through Putin’s reelection in March 2004. Meanwhile, the Chechen people struggle to get the outside world to understand (and care about) their cause in a war that becomes each month more complicated by the actions of suicide bombers, Wahhabis (Islamist fundamentalists), collaborators, mafia thugs, and intimidated journalists.

I’ve tried to report on this war in a way that would connect my newspaper’s readers to it—by passing along the personal stories told to me in the setting and context I found them. In the five years I’ve covered this war, I have visited hell. At times, fear obliterated any other feeling, and terror made my mouth dry. There were also intense connections I’ve made with dozens of strangers with whom I shared a single moment. Sometimes there was even a sense of calmness, when all of a sudden I felt safe because a man had leaned over to cover me when a bomb was going to fall close by or a woman offered me a cup of steaming tea when she had so little for herself.

I had to meet with as many different kinds of people as possible: civilians, fighters on both sides, men and women and families whose life has been destroyed by this conflict. I wanted to share the daily horrors with the locals and expose how the unimaginable can become the norm. I have described what I’ve heard from many of the Russian soldiers who doubt that they will ever win this war—unless they kill every Chechen male who is older than 12, which some admit is what they are doing. I also have written how most Chechens, while they are Muslim, want nothing to do with the Wahhabis who have infiltrated their villages and brought with them the wrath of the world.

Paying an Emotional Price

As journalists—serving as witnesses to this brutality—we pay an emotional price for the work we do. Even if nobody for whom I write this story cares, it is difficult for me to forget Chechnya. It is impossible for me to stop listening to men and women who offer me so much kindness that I become almost a member of their families and am no longer regarded by them as foreign. I can’t stop going back while I can still give these people a voice and prevent them from being completely forgotten.

But how do I not become hardened to the misery of others? Or lose interest in this story when a new war comes along that’s a bigger story—a story that has captured the world’s attention? How do I confront—with my independent reporting—the arrogant Russian authorities and risk losing my visa and consequently everything I’ve worked for? How do I overcome the blind acceptance of propaganda by the majority of Russians? How do I explain to them why some Chechens believe the terrorist attacks by some of their fellow citizens in Moscow are justified? How can I overcome the need for simplification in news reporting and reliance on emotionally packed imagery? Through reporting, can I debunk the falsely reassuring words of incompetent leaders or the generalized indictment of all Chechens?

These are questions I need to think about as I report from Chechnya. I don’t have answers, and that’s why I keep on going there and writing.

Anne Nivat is Moscow correspondent for Ouest-France, a regional French newspaper. She is the author of “Chienne de Guerre,” which won the Albert Londres prize, France’s highest award for journalism. She is currently working on a book about Afghanistan and Iraq.


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