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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ESSAY: One Family's Frightening Flight From Grozny




The following essay is based on the author's oral account, provided on cassette tape to The Moscow Times while he was in Moscow. Currently, he is back in the Chechen capital, where he works as a stringer for the Los Angeles Times.


One night in late September, I was looking out the window of my Grozny apartment at the traffic in the street below. It was clogged with cars that were all traveling in one direction and completely disobeying posted regulations. In the distance, I heard the clamor of an explosion. Moments later two cars, their horns honking and headlights ablaze, peeled around the edges of the traffic. I understood immediately that they were headed to the hospital with victims of the blast.


I decided not to put off my family's departure from Grozny any longer. My youngest daughter had recently had life-saving heart surgery in St. Petersburg and had to make the long journey back for a checkup. Any delay could mean her life. The Russian government's stated policy at this time was that no new war would erupt in the Caucasus, and that any bomb raids were only surgical tactics aimed at terrorist bands. In other words, the civilian calamity I had just witnessed in the streets below had not officially happened. According to my neighbors, the bombing would be even more intense the next day. Rumors were our only guide. I set out for the telephone office to make travel arrangements to Moscow.


All the booths had long lines. Many of the people there were making arrangements to leave Grozny, like me, and many others had waited hours for a line to Moscow to check on relatives in the wake of the apartment building blasts. These people weren't searching for lost relatives, though. They were warning relatives against the anti-Chechen sweeps by Moscow police. I overheard a woman tell her Moscow-dwelling son to sew up the pockets of his pants. The explanation was obvious enough: In their zeal to haul in Caucasian nationals, Moscow police were said to be planting drugs in the pockets of Chechen men. If your pockets were sewn up, the woman explained into the telephone, they at least couldn't get you for that.


I booked all five members of my family tickets from Nazran, in Ingushetia, to Moscow, and from there to St. Petersburg.


We had planned to leave early in the morning to beat the beginning of the bombing, which, corresponding to the schedules of the last war, usually began at 8 a.m. Our departure was delayed, however, and we didn't pass the police checkpoint at the outskirts of the city until 8:30 a.m.


When our taxi had just cleared it, an explosion rocked the slow-moving stream of traffic. The bombing had started again. The police checkpoint and the car that was parked next to it had been vaporized. Everyone was killed. Had my family been delayed a minute longer, it could have been us.


The 80 kilometers from Grozny to the border of Ingushetia were lined with refugees in cars and on foot. They were people who had lived through the first Chechen conflict of 1994-96. They had set out with everything they could carry, everything they had left after the first war.


Eventually, the traffic ground to a halt. Cars were backed up 15 kilometers from the Ingush border, and the prospects of making our train looked grim unless my family set out on foot. We walked the remaining distance, through a city of tents pitched by stranded drivers, and crossed the border. We hired a car to Nazran.


When we arrived, it seemed there were more Chechens there than in Grozny. Familiar faces were everywhere. All of them told stories of what they had seen and where they were going. For now, though, no one was going anywhere. My old colleague, Magomed, had been sleeping - with all six members of his family - on the street outside the train station for a week already. The station closed at night. He was just thankful the weather had been good. Inside the station, the clerks told me no tickets were available at all, even though I'd ordered them in advance.


The station masters were dealing with the crisis miserably. One confusing order after another was issued. One after another, those orders were changed. First, we were told that Chechens who didn't have a propiska, or living permit, in Russia would be stopped at the sanitary zone thrown up by Russian troops around the Ingush border.


Next, we were told that no Chechens, regardless of their propiska situation, were even allowed on the train. Rumors circulated that the Nazran to Moscow train might be canceled altogether. My family was exhausted by the trip and from the endless, pointless orders from the station masters and wanted to know one thing: When can we leave?


The station master came out of his office with another announcement. The Nazran-Moscow line would likely be stopped at any time, he said, but he had managed to make a deal with his colleagues in Vladikavkaz, which lies on the direct line to Moscow, for a train to take Chechens at least as far as Beslan. The one drawback was that the train was made up of boxcars.


This news cast a hush over the crowd. Some were suspicious that it was a trap. Others suggested that they only wanted to get rid of the Chechens by any means possible. Neither option was comforting, but for my daughter's sake, we had to take our chances.


An hour later, boxcars were wheeled up to the station. As soon as we were loaded on, we were told by station authorities to get off. Then we were told to get back on again. Eventually, we got underway. Several uncomfortable hours later, we drew up to Beslan and the passengers began crowding at the doors. No one wanted to stay on this train a minute longer than necessary. The train slowed to a crawl and drew up to the station. But it didn't stop. It kept going, and we all watched in confusion as the station disappeared behind us. What was going on?


The train continued slowly for some time. Peering between the boards of the cattle cars, I eventually made out a mass of buildings and barbed wire fences. It looked like a camp. As we drew closer it began to look more specifically like a filtration camp - the detention centers used by the Russian army during the first Chechen war - and its familiar form caused panic to spread through the passengers. Some screamed and clawed at the doors of the car. Others stood in mute confusion.


It tuned out to be a false alarm. The train continued past the abandoned prison camp and veered south with the track. The passengers were badly shaken. Eventually, we reached Vladikavkaz.


The rest of our trip to Moscow was uneventful by current Chechen standards: At the Vladikavkaz station, we were searched several times by machine-gun toting OMON officers. All of our property was again searched three times at three stops on the train from Vladikavkaz to Moscow. And we were searched when we disembarked in Moscow. But there were no more boxcars and no more bombs.