Editor’s Note: This article was written before the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.
Bitch of War
Cellars, said Iakha, a thus-far survivor of the second Chechen-Russo war, are good for psychological comfort only: they provide absolutely no protection from bombs. The Russian government (under Vladimir Putin’s leadership) termed the “anti-terrorist” operation launched in Chechnya in September 1999 “won” in February 2000. Russia’s efforts to pacify and control the stubbornly recalcitrant province of Chechnya in the “first war” (1994-96 under President Boris Yeltzin), and again in the second was (and still is, many would argue) yet another modern-day genocidal war of ancient origins, rife with complex and deep ethnic tensions and conflicting motives that seem to never end.
Chechnya’s symbol is two she wolves; those shy, fierce creatures of ancient lore that remain much maligned to this day. In the Russo-Chechen wars, it seems, Russia’s symbol of hammer and sickle has been forged into a steel jaw trap. The remote, mountainous villages of Chechnya have no running water, no electricity, and little means to communicate with one-another, let alone the outside world, save what rides in on a rumor. Anne Nivat, a French reporter with a doctorate in political science, Russian Affairs, went to Chechnya during the second war because of a “yawning need”; an emptiness inside her that was somehow filled by this harsh landscape. In Grozny and the villages surrounding it, Nivat found strange fulfillment, drawn from the hollow eyes of women who suffer depression and men who suffer schizophrenia; or so goes the diagnosis of the Chechen population per a tenacious yet beleaguered psychiatrist. The children, their psychological ailments as yet undiagnosed, suffer the long-term, damaging blight of a non-existing educational system.
Nivat has command of the Russian language, thanks to her parents who smuggled Russian guests to their home in eastern France for soirées. Armed with this knowledge, seasoned as a reporter of the first Chechen-Russo war, and packing a hell of a lot of chutzpah , Nivat taped her cell phone to her waist, dressed as a peasant woman, and in defiance of her editors at Libération, US News and the Russian authorities, spent six months behind the lines of the second Chechen-Russo war.
Weaving her way through a patchwork of tribes where women are at best largely ignored, fierce Chechen warriors, shell-shocked refugees, stoical hangers-on and Russian soldiers comprised of starving men and skeptical intellectuals would all, often at great peril to themselves, talk to her. The result of Nivat’s extraordinary experience, in addition to her newspaper reporting which can be found on the internet, is Chienne de Guerre, a book that has brought me closer to what it must feel like to be in a war than most any other telling I have read*.
A good story is often a bad story told well. Nivat tells hers in a blend of first person narrative complete with astute observations of character, direct quotes from her interviews, and good old-fashioned footnotes that I relied upon heavily, trying to make sense of the conflicting viewpoints, the numerous ethnic tribes, the complex history, and even the names of weapons. Nivat knows her weapons. While keeping her facts straight she conveys the utter confusion, inconvenience, boredom, terror and suspense of war, and makes it very, very difficult to put her book down.
Like any good thriller writer, Nivat will have you holding your breath at the approaching danger, then sighing with relief when the danger has passed. For example, she describes being a guest in a Chechen home while Russians soldiers are going house-to-house, terrorizing the residents. Nivat is certain the soldiers are looking for her, the rogue journalist. As the household listens to the approaching Russians’ voices grow louder, she lay on a sofa, feigning illness so that should the Russians burst in, she will appear too weak to talk to them, and too unworthy of their attention, anyway. The suspense, as the soldiers approach, is incredible. “‘As we would learn later in the afternoon, two streets away from ours,’” writes Nivat, “‘the Russians, for no particular reason, summarily executed seven persons, including two women. Rumor has it the soldiers were blind drunk.’”
During a four-hour bombing Iakha, who spoke of the cellars and doesn’t have one, calmly cleans shattered glass from the windows and makes dinner. Nivat describes the bombing.
“First, the windowpanes are blown to smithereens. Burning bits of steel tear through the air. The walls tremble. The doors fly open. During the attack, Iakha goes imperturbably about her household tasks, sweeping up the splintered window glass, putting the kettle on for tea.” Iakah’s grandmother calls out during those rare, still moments, “Is there anyone still alive?” When the bombing has stopped, Iakha insists everyone sit down for dinner.
As Nivat’s compassion for the Chechens and Russians alike is unquestionable, her journalistic integrity is undeniable. For example, there were rumors that Chechen warlord Shamil Bassayev, Moscow’s “number one terrorist”, who staged several incursions into neighboring Dagestan in the hopes of establishing an Islamic Republic, was badly wounded. Nivat had already interviewed Bassayev and found him to be a “master of spin control”, avoiding questions he doesn’t like and presenting the Russians in the worst possible light. “‘We Chechens can steal from each other and tear each other’s guts out,’” he said, “‘but we’ve always been united against the Russians . . .’” Nivat wandered the halls of a hospital, unquestioned, determined to settle the rumor. She finally wound up at the operating room doors, and walked in.
“. . . Without a doubt, it’s Bassayev, with his sad eyes and delicate nose,” she writes, “His face is ashen. He turns to look at me, and two other pairs of eyes turn my way, those of the nurse and the doctor in his green tunic, his forearms red with blood. They’re getting ready to amputate Shamil Bassayev’s right foot at the ankle. On the table, Bassayev’s half-nude body appears to be covered with metal fragments. They shimmer like the scales of a fish. I close the door.”
As I read Chienne de Guerre I began to feel I had to write a review that explained why this war happened. I made copious notes derived from this book and newspaper accounts of both Russo-Chechen wars, hoping to clarify, simplify and eventually find a reason to believe that this war and others like it will end and our species will end up like our fictional brethren in Star Trek, The Next Generation; our problems solved, our hostilities toward one-another ceased, our only remaining desire would be to increase our knowledge and spread peace and love across the universe.
You won’t get Star Trek out of Chienne de Guerre, but you will get Xena.
“‘Since I was little,’” says proud, 21-year-old, nominally schooled Larissa “‘I wanted to make the gazovat (Holy war).’” Brave, blue-eyed Larissa is a sniper, a cook, and an intelligence worker—a true boyvitchka (a woman Chechen combatant). Larissa blames the war on the Wahhabis, Muslim religious fundamentalists brought into Chechnya mainly during the early war with the help of people like Bassayev. Wahhabis are considered extremists by more moderate Chechen Muslims, which explains why many Chechens support the Russians.
“‘If (the war) stops against the Russians,’” she says, “‘we will continue it ourselves. It’s what our ancestors predicted since the beginning of time. According to them, there’s still one war left for us to win . . . the ultimate war between those who believe and the others, that is, the Wahhabis’.”
Casually cradling a loaded Kalachnikov, Larissa declares that she is not afraid of the bombs, the Russians, or the Wahhabis, and I believe her. In a world where it is common for men to steal their wives from their families, Larissa is only afraid that her former fiancé will come looking for her.
“This war has absolutely nothing to do with religion,” says Ibadulla Mukhaev, while touring his destroyed mosque, “. . . It has to do . . . with political machinations . . . You certainly don’t need arms to pray.”
“‘This war is just a sordid tale of money-grubbing,’” says Igor, a Russian soldier and intellectual, who is covertly welcome in a Chechen home to talk with Nivat, “‘Everybody knows that. And we shouldn’t have anything to do with this so-called Operation Antiterrorist. It’s a total farce.’”
“‘Politics play no part in this,’” Khattab, Bassayev’s right-hand man tells Nivat as she sits, barefoot and submissive, on a rug at his feet, ‘“We’re waging a war of religion.’”
A Chechen Muslim voices his frustration about American Islamic interests funding the more extreme Wahhabis. In the markets, where Chechen women sell low quality junk and poor quality vegetables and meats to the Russian soldiers who have the money, M&Ms and Snickers bars are in abundance. Religious fundamentalism and chocolate are, in Nivat’s book, the only aid America seems to provide. And then what is happening in Chechnya leaps from confusion to flat-out surrealism. In the trenches in Grozny, Chechen and Russian soldiers are so close to each other that they talk back and forth in Russian.
“Sometimes, when one of their planes is flying over and we’re trying to bring it down, they get all excited and give us advice,’” said Edik, a wounded soldier who is still in shock from his wounds as he speaks with Nivat, ’” . . . I heard that once they even started shooting at their own plane because they were afraid a bomb would drop on their heads!’”
I cannot make sense of this. I can only find that as I read this book my compassion for my crazy, screwed-up species begins to outweigh my frustration. Perhaps this is Nivat’s intention.
Indeed, Nivat’s journalistic accounts of the second Russo-Chechen war led to antiwar demonstrations in front of the Russian embassy in Paris. This book has led her to speaking engagements and interviews that continue now, a year and a half after Russia’s “anti-terrorist operation” was “won”.
. “. . . What’s happening now might even be worse because when Putin and the Kremoi tell us, ‘well, this war is over—’” said Nivat in an interview with Online NewsHour (April 2001), “. . . It’s completely wrong. What is going on in Chechnya is that civilians are still being killed by the Russian army, and the Russian army so far did not arrest any of the top rebels.” Indeed, Human Rights Watch is spotlighting Russian forces’ continued illegal detention and torture.
Physical distance from Chechnya, from Palestine/Israel, from Rowanda, Albania, Guatemala, Kurdistan, Macedonia - how many places have I failed to mention?—for those of us who feel we have such distance, provides psychological comfort only. It provides no protection from the fallout from these wars.
“Since we’ve been without water and gas . . .” says Mumadi Saidayev, Chechen Chief of the General Staff , “. . . people have begun to cut down the woodlands, which has been a great shock to the ecosystem . . . Nature is feeling the effects of this cataclysm, and it will go well beyond our frontiers. They’ll be harvesting tainted fruit for several generations. But who here worries about the future?”
* For another excellent portrayal of life in the center of modern-day war, read Jasmina Tesanovic’s essay, “A Political Idiot”, published in Granta, Issue No. 67. Tesanovic is a Serbian writer, editor, translator, publisher and filmmaker who was deemed a “traitor” by nationalist Serbs because she opposed the war in Kosovo.