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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rebel Fighters Thrive Under Grozny's Ruined Shell

GROZNY -- Rebel fighters in Grozny live in the basements of bombed-out buildings and travel underground through a network of tunnels. Doctors operate on the wounded without an anesthetic. Civilians, afraid to venture outside, bury their dead in the courtyards of their apartment buildings.

Daily bombardment by Russian aircraft and artillery has so devastated Grozny that when the war ultimately ends, there will be few homes left standing for those who wish to return.

For the rebels, life is guerrilla warfare. For civilians, it is a test of survival.

Despite heavy losses, morale appears high among the 2,500 to 3,000 rebel fighters encamped in this ruined city.

"The Russians can destroy our city, they can reduce it to rubble, but they will never be able to seize it and control it," said Vakha Israilov, 27, commander of a Chechen battalion fighting in Grozny. "We will never lay down our arms."

Acting President Vladimir Putin is banking on a successful military campaign to help him win the presidency this spring. The political significance of the war is not lost on the rebels, who are doing their best to wreck Putin's plans.

"It is clear the Russians are bogged down up to their ears in the war in Chechnya," said Ruslan Makhmayev, 35, a unit commander. "There is no chance the war will be over before March 26."

In Grozny, the fighters appear upbeat and cheerful. They seem well fed and well groomed, given their circumstances. In one basement, they have built a sauna. They obtain water from natural springs nearby and heat their dwellings with wood-burning stoves.

The Chechens say they are well prepared for a long siege and have enough food and ammunition to last indefinitely. They add to their stores with munitions they take from the Russians.

An estimated 8,000 to 25,000 civilians remain in the city, most of them hiding in basements. There is little food.

"The losses among civilians are tremendous, and most of them are ethnic Russians," said Avalu Saydayev, 30, commander of a rebel reconnaissance platoon. "The federals are killing their own people."

The rebels have turned apartment blocks and government buildings into fortresses, strengthening their hide-outs with concrete and logs. Within each city block, they have connected adjoining buildings by breaking through the first-floor walls, which allows the fighters to move freely from one building to another without going outside. They travel around Grozny through a maze of utility tunnels built during better times, popping up in unexpected places to ambush Russian soldiers.

"The Russians can't understand why they keep pounding the city but nothing happens to us," Saydayev said. "The federal troops have turned the city into a pile of rubble - the people who used to live in Grozny will have nothing to return to. City courtyards have been turned into cemeteries."