Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A War Reporter Fighting the Enemy Within

Sometime during the early months of the second Chechen war, the Federal Security Service summoned me to their Moscow headquarters for "an informal chat."

I must admit I was terrified. I thought that they would interrogate me about what I'd seen while reporting behind the rebel lines — the number of tanks and machine-guns, the whereabouts of the most notorious field commanders. As a journalist, the last thing I needed was a reputation as an FSB informer.

But I was wrong. The "Chekists" didn't ask me even a single question about the rebels. They simply told me something that I will remember for the rest of my life: "When you go and do your professional duty," they said, "never lose sight of the fact that you are a Russian citizen. Always remember that."

As far as they were concerned, it was a simple choice: Either you work in the interests of the Russian state or you are working against it. And the second Chechen campaign in particular has shown that the Russian journalistic community is split irreconcilably into these two camps.

Back in August 1994, when then Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev's troops clashed with the Chechen opposition, one of the Russian news agencies sent two journalists to Grozny to cover the fighting.

One of the correspondents worked with the opposition while the other followed Dudayev's men. Both sent their dispatches back to Moscow where they were combined into a single report and the agency was satisfied that its version of events was fairly evenly balanced.

In practice, however, the two journalists were merely publishing the conflicting lies of the two opposing camps. The truth wasn't "somewhere in the middle" — it was completely lost. And, as a result, the public in Moscow and throughout Russia was led to believe that Chechnya was in a state of civil war, with serious losses being incurred on both sides.

This approach to war journalism set the tone for the years to come.

Since 1994, most Russian journalists traveling down to Chechnya have found themselves emotionally involved in the conflict –— and their loyalties have been severely put to the test. War, as the great Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyayev wrote, is not fought only in the trenches –— it is fought in the hearts of the journalists who see the suffering for themselves and struggle to understand it.

They too see nightmares. A journalist who has been in a war-zone comes home a different person. A friend of mine who went through the whole of the first Chechen war found himself unable to re-adapt to civilian life and went into a monastery.

After I returned from Chechnya for the first time, I found it impossible to go through the motions of an ordinary existence. I couldn't bring myself to go to discotheques or concerts. I thought about nothing but the war. It was a kind of fixation, a drug that kept drawing me back.

And yet I could never write about what I really saw. Paradoxically, this was the most compelling thing about it, the secret knowledge that I could never share and that set me apart.

At the beginning of the second campaign in the autumn of 1999, I passed through the village of Dattykh, on the border with Ingushetia. The Russian troops stationed in the village were busy building machine-gun emplacements. Without asking the villagers' permission, they had demolished a stable building and turned the horses out onto the steppe. Then they tore up the headstones in the village cemetery and used them to clad the embrasures.

I remember writing an article that concluded that the Russian military was turning the civilian population against Moscow and soon the federal army would finding itself fighting the enemy on two fronts. Several Moscow newspapers refused to publish this article on the grounds that it was pro-Chechen and that public opinion supported the Russian invasion.

Then I wrote an article about the infamous zachistki — the federal clean-up operations aimed at flushing out rebel fighters who had taken refuge among the civilian population. In the town of Shali, with a population of 20,000, a house-to-house search conducted by Russian Interior Ministry troops lasted just 90 minutes. It unearthed one sniper's rifle, one mortar and one AK-47. Zachistki in Argun and the village of Kurchaloi were equally cursory.

Again my article was turned down by the newspapers because it "betrayed pro-Chechen sympathies." But two days later, Chechen fighters swooped on these very same settlements and forced the Russian garrisons to retreat. Then the newspapers were all clamoring for my story. You see, it was no longer perceived as a warning but as a postscript to an actual event.

I have to say that some Russian journalists often succumb to the temptation to shape the course of events. On the most simple level, I have sometimes seen them accept invitations from Russian troops to take pot shots at the rebel lines. I have even seen some ask to have a go.

But on a professional level, the pen can be mightier than the machine-gun. On November 10, 1994, the newspaper Megapolis Kontinent published an article titled, "Ingushetia Is Stockpiling Arms."

Hiding behind a pseudonym, the author stated that Ingush President Ruslan Aushev had ordered government agents to buy up vast quantities of contraband weapons — from handguns and sniper's rifles to armored cars and tanks.

The article was published at a time when tensions on the Ossetian-Ingush border were fast reaching the breaking point and President Aushev was incensed. He instantly threatened to sue the paper, demanding a billion rubles in compensation.

Megapolis Kontinent quickly published a complete retraction and gave Aushev the name of the offending journalist — who was summarily dismissed.

But the reporter himself was clearly unmoved by the scandal. He went straight to Aushev and offered to write a similar article claiming that the Ossetians were buying arms with a view to launching a new pogrom against the Ingush in the Prigorodny region.

For every Russian journalist who attempts to understand the paradoxes of war, there are a thousand more who see armed conflict as a chance to pursue a personal agenda. And before we can expect to see objective reports coming back from the battlefields of Chechnya, we all need to face the many enemies inside ourselves.

Erik Batuev is a journalist and a regular contributor to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting's Caucasus Reporting Service, to which he contributed this essay.