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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Furtive Life of Chechnya's Woodland Army

SOUTHWEST CHECHNYA -- A group of Chechen fighters, rifles over their shoulders, came up the hill, moving quietly through the trees. They greeted the men crouched around a campfire in low voices, propping automatic and hunting rifles against a tree and embraced.


They stopped a bare 10 minutes, to exchange news of the previous night's shelling and Russian troop movements before moving on, climbing easily until they disappeared among the trees. They were heading deep into the woods to avoid the incoming tank and artillery shells from Russian positions on the plains below.


The Russian advance across the plains south of Grozny and its heavy bombardment of the furthermost villages in southwestern Chechnya has forced Dzhokhar Dudayev's fighters into the wooded foothills that climb gradually to the high snow-covered mountains of the North Caucasus.


Groups of fighters are defending a straggle of villages stretching along the southern edge of the plain, from Bamut in the west, near the border with Ingushetia, to Orekhovo and Alkhasurovo.


The only way to move between the villages is through the woods, fording rivers and negotiating precipitous ravines that even a horse cannot manage, let alone a tractor or a tank.


The woods, now lush and green, are a second home to the fighters. "You will never go hungry in these woods," said Hussein, a fighter who has lived all his life in the area. He spots a deer through the trees and points out the prints in the soft mud where a wolf came down to drink from a stream.


At the bottom of a steep ravine, lofty beech trees soaring above them, several Chechen fighters, hunched and stiff in the cold morning air, warmed themselves by a fire.


More men emerged from a bunker set into the side of the ravine, barely visible but for the thick logs forming its roof. It is one of many hiding places where they rest up from the fighting, though still within earshot of the constant rumble of Russian artillery.


But even in the woods, Chechens are not safe from Russian air power. Smashed trees and twisted metal in holes gouged in the earth show where Russian helicopter gunships have attacked. They come over morning and afternoon, every day.


Fighter jets roar over daily too, heading deeper into the mountains on bombing runs, but reminding the fighters as well as the locals who live here what could be in store.


The fighters move with extreme caution when approaching the villages, ducking low and running when crossing a clearing in the Russians' sights. They hug the walls and crouch down when shells come in.


They have good reason for caution. The badly wounded are unlikely to survive here, and anyone hit by shrapnel is a burden to the others. "We have a first-aid post here where they can extract superficial fragments and give immediate care," said Isa, a battalion commander in one village, who asked that he and the village not be named.


"But we cannot get the wounded out easily. We take them to Bamut and then on to Ingushetia or west to Shatoi, but it is hours on foot. You have to go by foot -- a horse, car or tractor cannot make it. I had to send 15 men to evacuate the latest wounded. They took turns carrying the stretchers."


The fighters man the village defenses in shifts, sniping at Russian soldiers at the posts below and looking for a chance to knock out a tank or armored personnel carrier. In between they sit around a camp fire with a guitar, sheltering beneath the river bank, just 600 yards away from the Russian tanks that send a barrage of missiles to shake their hiding place day and night.


And according to Isa, they will go on fighting to the end. "We have no choice, nowhere else to go." he said.