SEALED MOUNTAINS – An Adventure in Russian Northern Caucasus (Chechnya and beyond)
In 2007 I received a strange invitation from Chechnya: going there to cover the first major event in the republic after wartime, the new “Grozny International Film Festival”. A curfew was still in effect in town. It was the beginning of a long term project on Russian Northern Caucasus, started together with photographer Davide Monteleone. A yearlong on-the-road trip through the hearth of troubled russian southern muslim republics, mostly anti-heroic. A book will soon follow.
Links to some of my reportages from the area:
And some (older) articles in English translation:
BEING TWENTY IN GROZNY –(THE APOCALYPSE GENERATION)
(published in Io Donna, the Corriere della Sera’s weekly women’s magazine on 25.8.2008)
GROZNY – “Grozny? So boring. Particularly at night when the cafes close and the girls have to stay home ….. but luckily we’re alive’. Malika, Mel to her friends, smiles and shakes her jet-black curls away from her green eyes. She’s 21 and dreams of becoming an actress. ‘It’s just a dream’ she explains, even if she’s studying at the Faculty of Drama and speaks impeccable English with an American accent, learnt devouring Hollywood films. America is a long way away, but then, so is Moscow. Glued to the barriers of the newly restored Theatre of Dramatic Art, Mel is hoping to snatch an autograph from the guests at the International Festival of Cinema, the first ‘open’ event in 15 years. It’s a joke or just plain crazy, that’s what the many personalities invited must have thought seeing as they declined the invitation. And in particular, the Russians. They still remember the Grozny of 2000, symbol of the Apocalypse. Until two years ago, it was just a heap of rubble. These days, however, the Kremlin praises its reconstruction and ‘normalisation’, all administered by the controversial president-boss, Ramzan Kadyrov who, from here to 2011, is going to shell out a further 5 billion dollars. But Chechnya is still an ‘anti-terrorism operations’ zone’. For Russians and foreigners to get in, you need a special permit. And once in, you are protected by an armed escort.
Mel knows she’s living on an island but she also knows she’s ‘lucky’ compared to many of her age group. She’s gone through two civil wars; in the first (1994-96), a grenade killed her father and injured her sister. She fled to her grandmother in the countryside but continued her studies, unlike many others. They call them the ‘lost generation’, aged between 14 and 24, brought up during the conflict and who, today, have difficulty speaking Russian the republic’s official language. Chechen is the language of the home.‘Moscow? I’ve only been there once, when my brother was wounded by a missile. He died in hospital there’. This is Timur, with a Kalashnikov slung across his back. ‘I remember huge buildings, the lights, crowded streets…’ Aged 24, security patrol, he’s been used to weapons since childhood. Nowadays, he’s trying to catch-up through evening classes, ‘but it’s hard with guard duty’. He shows me the screen on his mobile, a photo: ‘Can you see? This is Grozny, February 6 2000, when the Russians came in. I’ll never forget that day. There was nothing left’. His pay is 500 dollars, above the average. With unemployment running at more than 70%, the only jobs in plentiful supply are in the local armed services (since 2004, Moscow has exempted Chechens from military service), or on the many building sites swarming in the city – but the pay is a pittance.
In the summer’s sultry evenings, before the daily curfew starts (9pm), you will find youngsters ‘bathing’ in the park which is home to a statue of Kadyrov senior, the former president assassinated in 2004, together with a memorial to the fallen with an eternal flame, and one to the journalists who died for freedom of expression. The Grozny of the Soviet era had several open air dance halls, still remembered by women in their forties. Today, there’s no place to dance, not even one. After seven in the evening, the sale of alcohol is forbidden, even if it’s easy to find. For the boys, there’s always football – Terek (first division) has, this year, has returned home to play in the rebuilt Bilimkhanov stadium. And there’s boxing in the ‘Ramzan’ clubs, such as the young persons’ Patriotic Group ‘RK’; with its Islamic-green t-shirts with the motto Stand up before the Republic, dedicated to the president who funds them. Their leader is also a war child, known as ‘Ramzan’ by all. 31, former rebel, today he is a figurehead for loyalty towards Russia.
The girls’ lives are ruled by tradition; staying out late, smoking and drinking in public, is not well regarded. By day however, they work like mad. You see them dragging enormous weights to the chaotic market-bazaar in the centre, serving in the cafes, running small shops – the only businesses. There are 30% more women than men because of the war. At the State University, above the security-protected entrance, a sura (a book from the Koran) is inscribed. For some months now, it has been compulsory to cover your head to enter, just as in the schools from the age of 10 and in many offices. Kadyrov ‘advised’ this. These days he declares himself to be an ardent believer,hedoes the Sufizikr dance, goes to Mecca, to ‘reinforce traditional moral values’ amongst the young. Some do protest, saying that the Chechen Constitution is secular – the recent religious boom taking place since Perestroika.The ‘veil’ however is only a pretty triangle of material or a simple bandana, floral or with polka dots. Mel doesn’t wear it. ‘I don’t like it, I look like my grandmother’. Fatima, on the other hand, wears the hijab, which covers her head entirely. ‘A just return to our traditions’ she says. High heels, super-tight knee-length skirt (Chechen women don’t wear trousers), a pendant with a religious motto around her neck, Russian pop music in her headphones. She’s studying Chechen language and literature, once forbidden, and would like to go to the Islamic University as soon as it opens, next to the enormous new mosque. From last autumn, ‘western’ wedding dresses have also been ‘exiled’, with their sleeveless styles, in favour of traditional garb. ‘But many girls still dream and buy the modern version’ confides Madame Demilhanova, who runs a bridal shop.‘After the war, there was a desperate need to find an identity and new figureheads, which wasn’t without contradictions’ sighs Marina Sadullaeva, 45, philology lecturer. ‘The level of learning remains low, with little internet use and e-mails viewed as mysterious at the most. But until yesterday, our lessons took place in rooms with no windows, electricity or heating. Today we have a lovely campus, and the students are coming back’.
In the Chechen streets, tens of banners praise the Russian-Caucasian friendship, ‘Bringer of peace and stability’. But if Moscow has formally won the war, the republic appears actually to be independent and ‘Chechenised’. The symbols of the ‘Motherland’ have disappeared, and everywhere are the flags and colours of the Republic, next to the gigantic images of Kadyrov, father and son. One exception however – the enormous face of Vladimir Putin, young and with a lovely head of hair – the Putin of 1999-2000, the one who destroyed Grozny. The new czar, Medvedev, is seen only at the airport. And the Russians? The civilians have no intention of returning.The soldiers, however, and there are still thousands of them, are confined to the enormous fortress-base of Khankala, between Grozny and Gudermes, a self-sufficient stronghold with canteens, shops, a hospital and schools. They’re never seen around. Grozny has now asked Moscow to withdraw any ‘superfluous troops’.
‘Here the real miracle is normality’ whispers Kheda, keeping an eye on her children who are playing at splashing each other in the park’s fountain, trying to keep cool in June’s humidity, around an beautiful display of roses. But every so often, into the routine of every day, abysses of horror open wide. On June 20, a shared grave with 800 bodies was discovered right in the city centre. All needing identification. Five thousand people are missing, disappeared or seized, swallowed up into the nothingness. Stories which affect every family here, as they search for justice for years. ‘’It even happened here at the university, two years ago, or was it four?’ – says a student nonchalantly. ‘They came and took a lad, beat him up in front of everyone, and then they took him away. They said he was an Islamic extremist…’
IN THE ROKI TUNNEL, THE AUGUST WAR (La Stampa, 26.9.08)
Roki Tunnel (North/South Ossetia) – ‘Thank you Russia’, in large letters painted on the rock, is the first thing to hit you as you come out from the darkness of the Roki tunnel, four gently sloping kilometres and three thousand metres high in the bitter Caucasus Mountains. Behind it, North Ossetia, Russia; in front, the breathtakingly green valleys and peaks of South Ossetia. This is where, on August 8, 150 Russian tanks headed to Tskhinvali and beyond passed through, to ‘defend the peacekeepers from Georgian attack’. And it was through here that they have been going back, in large numbers, for two days. After days of highs and lows, the army and its equipment parade past in their tens, all in columns, about 200. They re-ascend the mountain’s curves with the imperturbability of victors. It looks like they’re leaving behind the light vehicles and a fair number of troops, mixed in with the peace corps and the ‘Ossetian soldiers’, called ‘militia’ by Tbilisi and considered illegal.
They lie out on the gun turrets, drowsing beneath the burning sun, such young soldiers, with Asiatic or Caucasian faces, Siberian or Dagestan. It’s their first time in war and they smile and wave, happy to be going home. ‘What truth have you come to tell?’ asks a young man. ‘All the foreign correspondents were on the other side, in Georgia, while we were dying here. Our dead, our ruins, why isn’t anyone coming to see them?’ He gets into his car with its red, yellow and white number plate, the colours of the ‘The Republic of South Ossetia’, on show everywhere these days. ‘This is already Russia’, he says. Tens of tanks wait in line to go through. There are soldiers doing their washing in the clearings, people getting changed beneath the trees. The tunnel has always been the region’s only link with Russia, a fragile umbilical cord between those who feel like a young son separated from a great motherland. And through here, since the 90s and post-Soviet Union, aid, money and, complains Saakashvili , ‘weapons destined for the rebels’ have also passed.
Coming through today have been tens of enormous lorries with humanitarian aid sent by Moscow. The Minister for Emergencies (the Russian equivalent of Civil Protection) got out of one, together with volunteers, parcels, building materials, and food. There are no other humanitarian organisations. The Russians don’t want them and file complaints against the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders. The refugees are starting to come home; from August 7 on, it looks like they fled northwards in their thousands, seeking safety in nearby Russia. Some have crossed the tunnel on foot. The Georgian rockets raining down from the south grazed the entrance of the tunnel. If they had hit their target, the Russians would have lost the sole direct access route to South Ossetia. There’s confusion at the junction for Java, where more civilians are waiting to return to Zkhinvali. A woman carrying a newborn baby ‘only 10 days old’, and the brother of two other children, is unable to stop crying.
‘She’s still in shock from the Georgian bombs’ explains a neighbour. The Ossetian village of Java is surrounded by Georgian villages. ‘There’ says a militia man wearing a uniform without badges or anything to identify it ‘there are still bandits’. He means Georgians. Further on, at the roadside are the signs of what some refer to as ‘ethnic counter-cleansing’. The Ossetian attack on the Georgians in response to the attack unleashed on the Ossetians in the South. Tens of houses and entire villages burnt down; a couple are still burning. ‘It’s only fair’ says a man of around 50. ‘No, it’s sad’. says a woman sitting under a pear tree, with a dark-coloured handkerchief on her head. ‘We used to get along fine with Georgians as friends and neighbours, with no problems. That madman of a Saakashvili dropped us in it, and now? I’ve got nothing against them, none of the civilians wanted this stupid war. But it’s hard to forget the days of terror’.
In a garden between the houses, a bust of Stalin appears. Zkhinvali, the South Ossetia ‘capital’, is nothing more than a large village born out of the union of a group of villages. A ghost city for a long time, symbol of the ‘5 day war’, impenetrable until the official ceasefire. It may not have been burnt to the ground as some have said, but devastated nonetheless. Life is beginning again here, even if there’s no water, and the electricity is coming back. On Friday, as a morale booster, the Russians organised a requiem concert, conducted by Valeri Gergiev, international star of Ossetian origin, but usually, there’s very little. There’s dust and rubble everywhere. ‘Ossezia is not for sale’ proclaims, in English, a sign with Ossetian and Russian colours, above the barred entrance to a dacha. The old city is crumbling, not one house left standing. The Ossetian government takes us ,journalists, for a photo opportunity.
Sunday, Thomas Hammarberg, European Union Commissioner for Human Rights, arrived. Some, like Ruslan and Ezra, aged about 60, stayed despite everything, sheltering in the stables, with their hens. What will happen now? Do you want independence or to be annexed to Russia? ‘Start with independence, then we’ll see’. ‘Saakashvili is a terrorist’ she says, ‘many innocent lives were lost there too. Thanks to the Russians we can rebuild our city, then we’ll see’.
THE LAST OF THE GEORGIANS ( “La Stampa”, 29.9.08)
Tskhinvali (South Ossetia) – Nikolai Dimitrevich Mindiashvili is a little on edge today. The doctor has given him some pills but he has had ‘nervous problems’ since 1992, the end of the first war between South Ossetia and Tbilisi. With his obviously Georgian surname, in front of his dacha in the quiet, scented country lanes of Tskhinvali where he lives with his wife and son, he swears however that he is not afraid to stay in a land that has waged war against ‘his own’. ‘Here I was born and here I’ve always lived – I’m not going anywhere. I’m not the only one to think like this in the city. There’ve never been any problems, they’re our neighbours’. It was, in fact, his Ossetian neighbour, Galina Pistaeva, who took us to him. August 7, when the Georgian tanks entered the city, they took shelter together in the cellar, terrorised, without understanding what was going on, for days. What do you think of Saakashvili? ‘We don’t need anything from him, or Russia. We were all getting along fine with each other…..’. According to Galina, the Georgian president ‘is a madman’. Her grandmother is Georgian, mixed blood just like many here, mixed marriages and, in addition to the lingua franca of Russian, everyone speaks both Ossetian and Georgian and watch multilingual films. Nikolai has relatives both in Moscow and Tbilisi. What would happen with independence? ‘It’s not a problem for us, just as long as they don’t start firing again’. The Mindiashvili family have been lucky. During the conflict, the villages between the countryside and the mountains, inhabited mainly by Georgians, were burnt to the ground, to make sure that no one could go back. The houses however were empty, the owners long gone. According to Nikolai. ‘At the first shots, they understood it was better to get out’. ‘That was after’ Galina takes pains to explain, ‘after the Georgians destroyed our villages in the south’. Villages like Hetogurovo, spitting distance from the ‘border’ where the Tbilisi troops entered, immediately killing 12 Russian peacekeepers living at the nearby base. The town hall is riddled with bullet holes. Today there is a Russian flag waving in the wind alongside the Ossetian one. Six civilians, taken prisoner that night, are still missing; no one knows anything about it. ‘That’s the biggest problem now,’ explains David Pierre Parquet in the Red Cross offices in Tskhinvali. The only international humanitarian organisation with permission to operate here, they work to protect those civilians most in need. ‘The prisoners of war have all been exchanged already. 89 Georgian civilians remain, arrested by the South Ossetian militia, others gave themselves up voluntarily, afraid of reprisals, others again were doing seasonal work here and found themselves trapped’. They’re keeping them safe in various locations, he can’t say where, ‘but soon they’ll have to be evacuated’. The truth, however, is not black or white, says Parquet, many have been protected and helped, and are still being so, by their neighbours. Women and children have already been sent to Georgia, and every day civilian prisoner exchanges take place on the border, 5 in exchange for 5.
Oh yes, that border – where is it? In a war comprised of uncertainties, the most ephemeral concept is just that, the border, while the international community ponders the decision on what to do with the South Ossetian non-state, that no one wants to recognise. One thing’s for sure is that nobody’s crossing that invisible line at the moment. We move down from Hetogurovo towards the south, and, after several road blocks manned by the local militia, we run into the Russians, soldiers. With a couple of armoured cars, they’re guarding Zemi Nikot, the name in Georgian and Roman letters (no Russian) displayed on a brand new blue sign; a ghost town, smoked out by arsonists. They let us through. Further on, a group of undamaged houses, the Ossetian village of Mugut, and, at last, the ‘check point’. Around twenty young Ossetians, also with an armoured car, special troops under orders from Moscow. They say, ‘You can’t go any further; that’s Georgia over there’. An old woman peers out from the front door of her house which straddles the line. She speaks only Georgian. A soldier greets her in her native tongue. After much chitchat and smiles, the miracle; we’re allowed to walk a little way over there to see what there is. On foot. They didn’t even look at our documents.
A group of men are chasing a pig, they push it into a door but it gets out again through a window. Just like in old soviet-georgian comedy movies of the 50es. In the garden of what remains of his house, a man is sleeping in his bed in the early afternoon heat. His name is Georgi, but he won’t give his surname because he’s afraid. He’s a history teacher, his family fled to Tbilisi; in the village called Duani, until yesterday, there were only men. 33 houses burnt and shelled out of 180, including the school, ‘It was the Ossetians, we’re not afraid of the Russians. But it was Russia that wanted this war’. They’ve seen everything go past here; Russian, Ossetian, Georgian uniforms and weapons, up and down for days. Georgi, who has an Ossetian grandmother, was born over there, in Tskhinvali. After the war in the 90s, he fled here, he didn’t feel safe. ‘And now look – here they are again’. Saakashvili? ‘His idea wasn’t a good one, but he’s still a better president than Shevardnadze, who did nothing for us’. In his eyes, with an Ossetian grandmother, Georgia is just one country. And the Russian peacekeepers that Moscow would like to station here in a buffer zone of ‘several kilometres’? ‘They are occupiers and that thing behind you is not a border’. But where are they? ‘Up there’, he points, ‘on that hill. What’s going to happen to us here, in the middle of no man’s land?’.