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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Behind Enemy Lines




Grozny was off-limits to journalists when freelance reporter Nadja


Vancauwenberghe decided to visit the Chechen capital last March. But she was determined to get in. She chatted up officers, drank rivers of vodka, and even donned a uniform to sneak onto a military helicopter. Her efforts finally paid off, landing her a ticket to Grozny and five days with the OMON - the country's paramilitary police. What follows is an insider's glimpse into the chaos that rules in Chechnya's ravaged capital.


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Beware. Danger Zone. Artillery Fire," reads the warning sign opposite the OMON's headquarters in downtown Grozny. Or, more precisely, what is left of downtown Grozny.


The headquarters itself- home to 200 OMON soldiers - is a maze of ruins. The upper floors of the three-story mansion are a heap of broken glass and stone - the result of repeated air raids on the city. Downstairs the windows have been replaced by sandbags. They may block out the sunlight, says one bored soldier, but they have the advantage of being bullet proof.


A few tattered textbooks and abandoned toys are the only evidence of the building's pre-war existence: a school for deaf and dumb children. Where are the former inhabitants now? Perhaps they fled the city in the chaotic days leading up to the capture of Grozny.


"Let's check the basement. Who knows, we may get lucky and find more proof of the Russians' well-known bestiality," joked one officer, referring to repeated reports by the Western media of human rights violations conducted by federal troops in breakaway Chechnya.


"'Defenseless, innocent, handicapped kids cut into pieces by Russian torturers' - what a great headline that would be," he adds. His fellow soldiers remain silent, impervious to his attempt at humor.


FEDERAL RAMBOS


But it looks as if these guys are impervious to more than just jokes. Muscle-bound and heavily armed, they could make Rambo look like a sissy. Their job - since the Interior Ministry captured the Chechen capital in January - is to maintain order in the so-called "fully controlled" area. Yet when night falls the war starts again, and little beyond the perimeter of the OMON's headquarters appears to be under control.


"Peace? What peace?" says Yevgeny, an OMON deputy commander. "Everyday people get killed, civilians and soldiers. Do you call that peace? We don't control anything yet. Not even during the day. And during the night it's worse."


Indeed, even though high-ranking army officials declare Grozny to be within the territory "liberated" from Chechen rebel fighters, peace seems to be a long way off. The abandoned ruins and backyards of Grozny are still peppered with mines, and federal soldiers are the targets of snipers - even during the day.


One such sniper - an 18-year-old Russian - claimed 24 victims before he was arrested recently. According to Sergei, a federal soldier, the boy was a mercenary, shooting randomly at anyone in a uniform. The rebels pay him $200 for each kill, Sergei added.


"A pretty good job for a low-life," says Sergei, adding that he has respect for enemy soldiers, but not for criminals. "No mercy for them."


"Peace still has to be restored, and we don't know how long it will take," says Yevgeny, a veteran of the first Chechen war who is now on his sixth tour of duty in Chechnya since 1994. This time Yevgeny is both a warrior and a policeman who has to deal with the inhabitants who still linger behind in what remains of the city.


NOMADS OF WAR


Grozny was once home to 400,000, but according to official reports, only some 20,000 civilians have remained after the bombardments. It is difficult to evaluate how many residents there are, since most of the inhabitants have been bombed out of their homes and are living like nomads in the rubble. While the majority of those who have remained behind are Chechen, the Interior Ministry has registered as many as 40 different nationalities.


On any given day a crowd of women, children and elderly men wait behind the barbed-wire checkpoint of the Interior Ministry's base to register or try to retrieve lost documents.


"Most of the people coming here are trying to get papers that will allow them to leave this inferno," says Yevgeny. "Bombings, shootings, mines. People are scared. They live like rats - not like human beings. It isn't possible to live here anymore."


But not everyone knocking on Yevgeny's door is looking for papers.


Recently a Russian woman in a worn-out black coat and black scarf came to Yevgeny to report a crime. A double murder. Federal soldiers killed her two eldest sons during the army's mopping-up operations after the fall of Grozny, she says.


"They killed them just because they didn't have their papers with them. Just like that. They didn't give them a chance. They were only 18 and 21," she says, holding their passports in her hands.


She recalled how eagerly her frightened sons were waiting for the Russians to come and restore order in the city. "And yet the Chechens, the Wahhabites - they didn't touch them. And when the Russians came into the city we thought everything was going to be alright. ... And it was a Russian bullet that took them away.


"Why? What for?" the woman asks, accompanied by a wild-eyed 8-year-old boy, her only son left. The boy seems exceptionally quiet for a child of his age. Like two solemn shadows, the woman and her son wander along the well-guarded entrance to the military headquarters looking for recognition - not revenge. Revenge cannot bring her boys back, she says with a vacant look. She just wants the crime to be reported. After all, she asks, isn't this a police station?


She says the OMON are to blame for the shooting, but it is difficult to say. All she knows is that her sons were shot by men wearing federal uniforms.


"We cannot exclude the possibility that such things happened," Yevgeny says after listening to the woman. "What can I say? We are not here to act like criminals, but to arrest them. We are here to do our job. To restore Russian constitutional order and to protect the civilians."


BACK IN THE BUNKER


Taking advantage of some quiet time, the OMON take a lunch break in their quarters - a dark room that smells of homemade soup and a wood-burning stove. Three of the walls are decorated with an eclectic collection of bare-breasted models, Orthodox icons and children's drawings. The fourth wall is where they store their weapons.


The soup, made by a fellow officer, is incredibly warm and tastes of adjika, a spicy sauce from the Caucasus made of garlic and tomatoes. Afterward they drink tea smoking hot with loads of sugar. These men seem to have a special weakness for sweets and they keep an impressive supply of chocolates and cookies they brought from home. As lunch lingers some men slip off for a nap. A feeling of laziness fills the air until a radio message snaps them out of their post-lunch lethargy.


Some rebel fighters were spotted in their sector, the radio blares.


Yevgeny chooses four of his men and they spring into action, grabbing their guns and piling into a jeep without uttering a word. There is no need to give any orders here. They all know their duty.


Their one mission is to "eradicate terrorists," as Yevgeny says. Street by street, building by building, they scour cellars for the rebels and snipers who seek shelter during the day. "We are here to hunt them down and arrest them."


Racing through the ravaged streets of Grozny, they reach their destination and screech to a deadly silence. Their target is a former residential area - once home to Grozny's nouveaux riches. Looking at the street, now lined with gutted houses and heaps of broken stone, it is hard to imagine the lavish palaces that stood here a short while ago.


Yevgeny and his men take their positions and start to sweep across each house, each cellar, as if they were performing a well-rehearsed tactical ballet.


The sound of a shotgun breaks the silence, but the enemy remains invisible. Then an explosion. A bang and a great black cloud rises from what used to be a roof. Yevgeny's men have detonated a mine. They find a second one that they can't defuse, so they cart it back to the base.


This time they do not find any rebels, but they do find a stash of weapons and leftover food supplies. Ampoules of caffeine and traces of a white powder are scattered on the floor. It's cocaine, one of the soldiers says. "They use it to keep their morale high."


On the way back to the base the tension is gone and small talk resumes. Indeed, these mopping-up operations have become routine. Of course one can get killed. So many already have. But in a place as perilous as this the fear of death seems banal. On duty every one acts with assumed calm. Off duty they relax and joke around.


BLOWING OFF STEAM


But a few evenings later Yevgeny and his men cannot hide their tension. There has been a lull in the fighting - two consecutive nights of relative calm - and they are on their guard. "They must be cooking something up. That's no good. No good at all," Yevgeny mutters.


They decide to make their presence known. That night, after the 8 p.m. curfew, they decide to mortar a building. For good measure, they fire off a few bursts of luminous green tracer bullets. "We have to show we are here," Yevgeny explains.


While there may be moments of tension, evenings in the officers' quarters are generally gay, the atmosphere around the table relaxed and friendly. The men are light-hearted, taking turns at telling a joke or drinking a toast to women, success or whatever moves them. The third toast is traditionally dedicated to their fallen comrades and is gulped down in solemn silence.


They speak about life back home, their children and the war in Chechnya with the same resignation. While they all came here out of a sense of duty, no one wants this war. This war should never have started, they say, but now it is their job to clean up the mistakes made by their own politicians.


Back home, many of their families do not realize that they are stationed right in Grozny. They write their families that they are in North Ossetia, or some safer locale. After all, in "pacified" Grozny, a military uniform is a sniper's favorite target.


"I don't want my wife to know I am here. She would worry," says one 22-year-old officer. "I prefer to let her think I am safe."


As he spoke, a radio receptor broadcast a litany of codes: "Three 'two-hundreds,' six 'three-hundreds,'" the radio sounded, listing the codes for injured ("two hundred") and dead ("three hundred") soldiers. But no one seems to pay any attention - they have learned to ignore these reports just as they ignore the sounds of gunfire that regularly break the night silence.


Instead, the off-duty officers arrange themselves cozily among their scavenged sofas, drinking cocktails of 90 percent proof medicinal alcohol mixed with a little water. A few more of these and they forget about the war outside. Sasha, a young officer, grabs his guitar and starts to sing a song his wife wrote during the last Chechen war. They all seem to know the lyrics and join in. They sing about the special forces' "bloody job," about their sacrifices and sense of duty. They don't like this war, but "let us only hope it will not all have been in vain," they chorus together.