With spring warming southern Russia, the air over the plains around the shattered city of Grozny also carried the scent of a pending Russian victory in war-torn Chechnya last week. Following intense and prolonged artillery and aerial bombardments, Russian forces seized the last two major rebel strongholds south and southeast of the Chechen capital - forcing fighters loyal to Chechen President Dzhokar Dudayev to withdraw further to the stony sanctuary of the mountains bordering neighboring Georgia. But even with federal forces now holding 80 per cent of a region that is roughly the size of Connecticut, Russian Defence Minister Pavel Grachev grudgingly confirmed that the rebels would fight on from the Caucasus range. That ensures a Russian military presence in the area - and heavy work for international aid organizations intent on helping repair the havoc caused by Russia's savage internal war. Said Irena Raicevic, a 36-year-old Montreal linguist working as a Red Cross interpreter near Grozny: "The devastation has been extreme. I've had to get used to people saying such things as dogs were eating war victims near their house and could we help take away the bodies."
But removing the fallen is a job for local authorities and the military: the Red Cross and other aid organizations focus on the needs of the living. That is no easy task in a region where the war has laid waste to entire towns and villages and displaced hundreds of thousands of people who now lack shelter, food and water. Russian politics has added further complications to international aid efforts. In Moscow, 1,500 km to the northwest, Kremlin officials privately acknowledge that they want Chechnya wholly or largely subdued before U.S. President Bill Clinton arrives in Moscow for an early-May summit meeting with Russian leader Boris Yeltsin. That goal appears close at hand. After two months of protracted fighting in Grozny, the fall of the Chechen capital in February allowed the armor, heavy artillery and warplanes of the 40,000-member federal force to move against smaller rebel strongholds just as the warmer weather began to dry the tank-trapping mud on the plains around Grozny.
Last week, the clear skies over a city centre literally pounded into dust and rubble conveyed signs of the quickening tempo of military operations. Sukhkoi-25 fighter bombers streaked through the air to rocket and strafe Shali, a large village 25 km southeast of Grozny that has served as Dudayev's unofficial capital for the past two months. The air also carried the dull thump and roar of artillery barrages that knocked out a mobile TV broadcasting unit that Dudayev had used to send messages of defiance to the 1.3 million inhabitants of Chechnya. The Russians announced that they had taken Gudermes, a railhead and the second-largest city in the republic, and Shali itself. Then, they turned their big guns on rebel bands withdrawing into the foothills of the Caucasus. In Moscow, meanwhile, Russian media observers and Western defence attachés alike do not expect the military advance to roll into the rocky defiles of the Caucasus. Air-dropped leaflets that warned of impending bombardments unless villagers drove out armed Dudayev supporters - followed up with prompt action if the messages were ignored - have helped speed up the Russian advance beyond Grozny. But in the mountains, according to one Western defence specialist, small, mobile units of guerrillas could ambush armored vehicles. Added the diplomat: "The Russians are ahead of schedule in capturing key objectives and they now control the important pipeline and communications systems crossing the republic. They can afford to sit on the plains and keep the boyviki [Chechen fighters] bottled up in the mountains."
The early spring and speeded-up Russian military operations have also caused problems for the International Committee of the Red Cross - the Geneva-based organization that operates on both sides of often poorly defined front lines. There are four Canadians among the 70 ICRC representatives working in Russia's volatile southern border region, and all now have firsthand experience of the vagaries of war in the Caucasus. For one thing, the Russian advance forced the Red Cross to withdraw from a post in Shali, making it harder for its representatives to provide food, clothing and medical help to refugees fleeing south from the fighting. For John Wert, 42, an Ottawa logistics specialist, the fluctuations of war have disrupted plans for a project close to his heart - the distribution of some 10,000 packages from Canada each containing a child's snowsuit, boots, socks and a sweater. Starting in Toronto last fall, Wert has overseen the assembly of the clothing packages that are part of a $2.5-million federal government contribution to Chechnya.
For the moment, however, the snowsuits are still in storage as the warm weather and lengthy delays in getting Red Cross convoys into Chechnya have bumped the winter clothing down the priority list. Now, they are behind such aid items from Canada and other donor countries as food, blankets and candles. Said Wert: "The snowsuits aren't going to go bad or anything and we can distribute them later. But food is the main priority right now: it wouldn't do some child any good to be warm and dry and perhaps starve to death."
Wert spoke from a base in Nalchik, a southern Russian town some 180 km from the Chechen border. There, from an office in a hotel that has been partly taken over by the Red Cross, he spends 12-hour days organizing a 29-truck fleet into convoys bound for Grozny and other points where aid is needed. Wert has been in Nalchik for about a month, fitting into an operation set up by Calgarian Kasandra Milne, a veteran Red Cross organizer who recently turned over control of the Nalchik base after spending the past three months there. While Wert, whose wife, Lorraine, is in Ottawa, will stay on in Nalchik for another three months, Milne is awaiting another assignment. She does not expect to see her husband, Douglas, a family doctor in Calgary, until September. "In a job like this, you need a spouse who is supportive," said Milne. "But it is still very hard on them."
One problem facing Wert is the attitude of some Russian bureaucrats who openly resent the presence of outsiders in what they see as a purely internal affair. Last week, Russian officials delayed a medical-aid convoy bound for Grozny for a day at a checkpoint just inside Chechnya, claiming the Red Cross drivers lacked proper credentials. A discreetly offered bribe is the time-honored response to such official obstruction, but the Red Cross refuses to resort to that local custom. That leaves its representatives relying instead on time-consuming negotiations to keep the trucks moving.
Despite such delays, the aid packages continue to move jerkily along the holed and narrow roads of the Caucasus region. In Nazran, a dusty frontier town in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, another Canadian relief specialist, Whitehorse-born Terry Lewis, stood near the local railway station last week, watching over the distribution of truckloads of food aid to a lineup of several hundred refugees. They represented a human wave of misery that has sent more than 100,000 people spilling over the border to escape the fighting in Chechnya. Still, the Red Cross representatives must constantly strive to ensure that aid from Canada and other countries ends up in the hands of genuine refugees. Said Lewis: "We've found some of the local people we have hired trying to work special deals for their relatives who might or might not qualify for help."
Privately, many of the aid workers acknowledge that it is only a matter of time before black marketeers get their hands on donated items. In Grozny, a thriving street market has sprung up recently offering items ranging from vegetables to U.S.-brand cigarettes for $1 per pack. It is a sign of continuing life in a region that has a long and tragic history of war with Russia's rulers. There is still no end in sight to the current conflict. But aid and aid workers from Canada and other countries are at least offering many people a chance to avoid joining the casualty lists of a war that has already claimed more than 25,000 lives.
Maclean's April 10, 1995