The Chechen rebels slipped into the snowy southern mountains, beating a retreat ahead of the Russian soldiers who last week reclaimed the smouldering ruins of the regional capital of Grozny. But not all of the rebels got out before their enemy's arrival. Some fighters who left after the fact spoke of taking an escape route that turned out to be mined - and of the horror of stepping over the bodies of fallen comrades while dreading every footfall.
Along that bloody trail, about 600 Chechen fighters are reported to have been killed or mutilated. With this botched exit and the fall of Grozny, some Russian officers now speak about crushing all resistance and of postwar plans to station a division of troops and special police units in Chechnya. But many - even among the rank and file of the conquering forces - do not think this war is about to end. "There is no simple military solution to the Chechen problem," said Dimitri Trenin, a prominent defence analyst in Moscow. "The war could last for another three to five years."
While the rebels have been forced to move farther south in a region only roughly a quarter the size of Nova Scotia, they remain entrenched in their resolve to fight on - even making brash threats to widen the war by attacking cities across Russia. In Moscow, acting Russian President Vladimir Putin is dug in as well, refusing to seek a political settlement with rebel leaders, and freshly bolstered by Grozny's capture after five weeks of savage fighting.
A trip through Russian-controlled Chechnya not long before the fall of the capital showed the difficulty of resolving this situation, even in areas where there is no combat. Unlike in Grozny, the Russian army simply rolled into neighbouring Gudermes in mid-November, hardly firing a shot, after local authorities persuaded outgunned rebel fighters to withdraw. But many residents of the rundown industrial centre of 60,000, located just 35 km east of the capital, regard the soldiers as an occupying force. "I wish they would leave us in peace, but that isn't likely to happen," said Akhmed, an unemployed electrician who was helping his wife sell homemade bread in the town market. He had spent several fruitless hours scavenging for firewood outside the city. "All the trees near the road have been chopped down and it can be dangerous in the countryside," Akhmed said. "Russian helicopters sometimes fire on people they suspect of being fighters."
That danger didn't deter several vendors at the side of the road leading out of the city. "This is a commercial war," hissed a woman selling giant glass jars of crude homemade gasoline. "Russia wants to hold on to Chechnya because of its oil," she said, admitting her fuel had been produced from oil siphoned illegally from a pipeline.
In the Communist-era Young Pioneers' building housing Mayor Marbila Gezemyeva's office, the rumble of the big guns pounding Grozny could be heard. Men in Gudermes turned down the mayor's job for fear of reprisals from Chechen rebels. But not Gezemyeva, who said: "I am afraid only of God." In the manner of the school director she was for 26 years, she rhymed off the benefits that Russian reoccupation has brought - "we have light and heat again and we are rebuilding normal lives."
But her upbeat assessment is rare in what the Russians call liberated Chechnya. "They have promised so much and delivered so little," said a woman who wore sandals over socks on a cold, snowy day. She was part of a small crowd that had gathered outside the town's administrative centre to protest the lack of services. "I don't know anyone," she said, "who has received a kopeck in pensions or any other social benefits from Moscow."
In the city's shabby central hospital, Kometa Resheyeva paced worriedly between the beds where her two sons and a daughter, ranging in age from 7 to 14, lay with heavily bandaged legs. They had stumbled across a Russian shell or a mine. "It is mainly civilians who are getting killed and wounded in this war," she said. Nearby, a nurse wept openly. "We can do so little," she said. "The Russian authorities have told us they would provide anesthetics and other medicines that we need, but we have received almost nothing."
In Moscow last week, Putin said that somehow his cash-strapped government would find the money needed to rebuild the shattered province - and grant it more autonomy within Russia. But he also remained steadfast on the subject of talks, rejecting visiting U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright's urgings to open negotiations with rebel leaders. As for the Russian military, says Alexei Malashenko, a specialist on Chechnya with the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in Moscow, its job in this war remains simple: "Just win. Beyond that," he says, "no one has made any plans."
The young conscripts who make up the bulk of the 100,000-member federal force in Chechnya say no part of the breakaway province is really secure for them. In Grozny, about 3,000 rebels armed with rifles and grenade launchers for weeks held off the Russian offensive backed by tanks, artillery and air power.
Around the shell-battered highrises of the central Minutka Square, groups of Chechen fighters had moved quickly, controlling the strategic traffic circle. "Roach tactics" is the term the Russians used to describe how the Chechens scuttled away only to circle back and ambush federal forces from the rear. Those hit-and-run techniques have set nerves on edge throughout Russian-occupied Chechnya. And the rebels acknowledge they have been trying to reduce Russian support for the war by killing as many soldiers as they can. (Russian ministry of defence officials say 500 servicemen were killed in the battle for Grozny alone, although unofficially some say the number of Russian dead is at least three times that.)
The generals who have recaptured Grozny say they plan to push the retreating rebels farther south, into the mountains bordering Georgia and neighbouring Dagestan. Still, servicemen of all ranks recall that the Russians stationed 10,000 soldiers in Grozny after they retook the city in 1995. Because they failed to eliminate strongholds in the mountains, the Russians lost the city - and the war - when a rebel force half that size swept down and drove them from Grozny. The Russians insist they won't make that mistake again. But in mountains and villages across this region, there are 16,000 Chechen fighters determined to prove them wrong.
Maclean's February 14, 2000