One Day in the Life of a Chechnya Reporter

THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE, Russia -- "Damn!" Islam got out of the car and uttered another, more powerful oath, and if you had been there you would have seen why.

His beat-up Zhiguli, pulled over to the side of a pitch-black road, had a jagged hunk of broken-off metal sticking out from under one wheel. The wide expanses of the Dagestan steppe stretched endlessly in all directions. A chill wind blew out of somewhere.

Islam kicked the side of his car, while the three passengers wedged into the back seat snoozed on, barely feeling the weight of their flak jackets. I remember thinking, "This isn't so bad," and given the day we'd had, it wasn't ...

The two jets had this annoying habit of appearing in the back window, their sinister gray shapes growing larger by the second against the blue sky as each of us make the sickening-but-unavoidable deduction that they are attacking us. Then they would screech by, unleashing their ordnance. The results were strewn along the stretch of the Rostov-Baku highway that runs through Chechnya just south of Grozny: Burning hulls of cars, some of which seemed to still have passengers in them.

It was January, and we had just witnessed the now infamous bombing of the outdoor market at Shali. A lot of people were dead and wounded, but every time someone came to help, the jets would strike again. One of our group, James, had gone to the local hospital, which had also been hit, and found even more victims. I had taken a dip in the Dzhalka river after some bombs fell near a bridge I happened to be on.

So we decided to leave. As we drove west along toward Ingushetia, some Chechen fighters had waved us down and warned us that the road in front of us was under attack. Islam did a 180-degree turn, and that's when the jets appeared in our window.

In Russia, you never know where the next complication will come from; you only know that it will indeed come.

James commented that for the pilots, strafing us must be like a video game, "except that it's so easy and stupid, no one would want to play." Nikolai didn't say much of anything, I think because one of the bombs that incinerated the market at Shali had come too close and temporarily damaged his hearing. Marina, in the middle, stared straight ahead as if she was in shock. I kept shouting at Islam to stop the car so that we could take cover, which we did twice, but Islam seemed to think that if he drove fast enough, maybe he could outrun the jets bearing down on us at the speed of sound.

By the time Islam finished running, we were at the Dagestan border and it was dusk. There were no more planes, but we all agreed it was too risky to try to go back through Chechnya and decided to spend the night in Dagestan. Islam, however, was determined to make it home to Nazran, Ingushetia. "We will drive here," he said, pointing at a thin line weaving through the entire length of the North Caucasus on the woefully inadequate map we had brought along. He said he thought it would take eight hours. We soon realized that our journey would be much longer and decided to stop off in the Dagestan town of Kizlyar to phone our bureaus and tell them what we'd seen.

Kizlyar looked as though Victor Hugo had decorated the place. A derelict coughed in a corner. Seated on the steel bar that was all that remained of the bench, a toothless woman with slits for eyes and rags for clothes cursed a dirty urchin at her side. Numerous other down-and-out people approached our brightly colored entourage, said incomprehensible things, and disappeared into the ink-black Dagestan night.

We made our phone calls. As I was finishing up, James ran over: "Nikolai is in trouble."

Remembering that we hadn't eaten since breakfast, Nikolai had asked a group of hard-faced young men loitering nearby where we could get something to eat. It was a bad mistake.

You cannot entirely avoid what one colleague has dubbed "the aggressive hospitality of the Caucasus," but there are certain things you never do if you are in a hurry, and asking strangers for food is one of them. The young men hurried off to prepare a feast. Their ringleader, Aluaskhab, a lean character with a shaved head and an acrylic overcoat, stayed to make sure we didn't get away. He did not have a business card that said "Member of the Local Mafia," but that was probably because he didn't need one. I explained that we were in a hurry and that we really couldn't stay for dinner.

"It's too late," he said flatly. "My comrades have already gone to prepare a feast." We argued that we had to make it to Nazran. He said we had time to eat. We said we didn't. In the aggressive hospitality system, refusing food is a grave sin, especially when you asked for it yourself. It got loud. The police arrived.

"Uh, we have two foreigners here," the lieutenant said into his walkie-talkie and waited for an order. We were arrested for refusing hospitality. Aluaskhab promised to spring us as soon as we got to the station. The police arrested him, too. Not surprisingly, Aluaskhab had just done a stretch in jail. Within minutes, he was free. It turns out he had some nifty connections.

We were thinking about our own problems when a Russian counterintelligence colonel showed up. He demanded to see our permission to travel to Dagestan and we showed our accreditation cards. He sniffed at them and began taking notes. He threatened us with fines and deportation. We began taking notes.

Several notebooks later, the colonel let us go with a warning not to return. We promised him we'd sooner die than come back to Dagestan. Aluaskhab and his mates were waiting for us in the parking lot with a steaming barrel of borshch, chocolates and cognac. It was past midnight, and we had hundreds of miles to travel. After we ate it all, they grudgingly decided to let us go. Aluaskhab told us to look him up next time we came through.

Around 2 a.m., Islam got lost when the thin line on the map led us to a dead end. As we were trying to figure out where we were, he failed to notice a small railroad track, which we hit it at 100 kilometers per hour. Which is where this story began: "Damn!"

The jury rig of wire and metal Islam put together was enough to keep the car moving -- at speeds not exceeding 30 kilometers per hour. My socks were still wet from my little bath in the Dzhalka. James and Marina were setting a world record for consecutive hours spent in the back seat of a Zhiguli in flak jackets. Nikolai was slowly getting his hearing back.

Islam got us to Nazran 30 hours after our improbable journey had begun. A few nights later, I heard, he drove his Zhiguli out into a storm and totaled it.

David Filipov is a correspondent for The Boston Globe. He contributed this article to The Moscow Times.