On 14 June 1995, the small steppe town of Budyonnovsk in southern Russia (population: 60,000) became famous all over the world. But no one wants this sort of fame. At midday, the quiet provincial lives of its citizens were suddenly interrupted by the sounds of automatic gunfire and explosions.
Residents of the town were, of course, aware that there was a war raging just 300km away in Chechnya, where the Russian government was fighting irregular forces that had seized power in the former Soviet Autonomous Republic and were demanding independence. A helicopter unit was stationed just outside the town. Flights took off from there every day in support of the government’s military actions. And this situation had come back to haunt them. Chechen irregulars periodically attacked bordering areas in Stavropol krai, taking livestock and prisoners ransom. But they had never ventured so deep into the neighbouring region before.
The first victims of the attack were members of the police force who had pursued (and stopped) a column of three Kamaz lorries. The passengers and drivers, who were wearing Russian military uniforms, refused to be searched. Under instructions from the interior ministry, the police escorted the lorries to the regional branch of the interior ministry.
No one would have believed that 195 fighters had left Chechnya and crossed through the entirety of Dagestan, disguised as Cargo-200
No one would have believed that 195 fighters had left Chechnya and crossed through the entirety of Dagestan, disguised as Cargo-200 (the military euphemism for soldiers’ bodies being shipped home). Later, Shamil Basayev, the leader of their detachment, spoke of the greed of Budyonnovsk police officers that considered the bribes they had been offered too low.
As the rest of the convoy entered the town, one of the lorries began to hang back. Fighters jumped out of it and shot the traffic cops who were escorting the convoy. By this time, the fake soldiers at the interior ministry building had already opened fire. The building was seized in a matter of minutes and the police officers standing in the Chechens' way were dead.
Shirt of a Budyonnovsk resident killed in the siege, on display at an exhibition in the city museum.
Police Chief Nikolai Lyashenko was at work at the time. He had given the order to escort the suspicious lorries and when he learned that they had dispersed, set off from his office. Suddenly he heard the explosions.
'It felt like the start of an earthquake,' Lyashenko remembers. 'The building shook. It sounded like gravel was falling on the roof. Then I heard the sounds of rocket launchers. They called me on the phone. “There’s an attack on the police station!”' At the time, Lyashenko had about 10 prisoners who’d been arrested for various crimes (fighting, murder). 'We knew someone might try to free them, but we never expected a raid like that.'
Several police officers dived in to Lyashenko's office and locked the door. (Though aside from a standard issue pistol, Lyashenko kept no weapons in his office.) One of the women, Larisa Panteleyeva, had lived in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, for many years. The window in her office looked out onto the street. Seeing the faces of the attackers, Panteleyeva realised they were Chechens. Meanwhile, Lyashenko was being overwhelmed with calls from everywhere asking who these armed people were going through the town shooting innocent people.
Not a film set
Within 15 minutes, the fighters had left the police building and seized other buildings in the town centre. They now controlled the local administration, the telecommunication centre, the banks, the Young Pioneers' centre, medical facilities and the market. The Chechens were taking hostages everywhere and driving them to the main square in front of the local administration building. They killed people who refused to move.
Tatyana Fomenko, 16, was on the bus returning home from school. She assumed the gunfire and sound of helicopters were part of a military exercise for the local pilots. Tatyana remembers it like it was yesterday: 'I understood what was really happening when they started shooting at the bus. They were in green fatigues, military uniforms. About 8-10 passengers were killed. Everyone got down. I also hit the floor. The fighters started shouting at the driver to open the bus. He was in shock. He opened the door and they shot him right in the head.' Memorial to medical workers killed in the hospital in Budyonnovsk. The surviving passengers were driven to the central square and placed on their knees with the other hostages.
I was 15 at the time, and I was hitching a ride into town in the vehicle behind the bus. The armed men in the car, the broken glass and finally the dead bodies convinced me that we were not, as I had first assumed, on a film set. The driver and I couldn't turn back. We were stopped by a fighter in a Lada.
The dead bodies convinced me that we were not, as I had first assumed, on a film set
We caught up with the bus whose driver had been shot. An armed man ordered me out of the car with a gesture and, together with some passengers from another car, I was taken to the main square. All the prisoners were being taken to the courtyard of the town administration building. There was a fuel tanker there and, as helicopters began to surround the town, the fighters warned us that any rescue or escape attempts would result in us being blown to bits.
Under a tree not far from us, a badly injured woman – a bank worker – was bleeding profusely. She was groaning incomprehensibly, and people were looking for a doctor among the hostages to help her.
A few hours later they lined us up and then split us into several groups. We were led to the hospital about a kilometre from the square.
Pyotr Bukarev, 14, was being treated for pneumonia at the hospital. He was one of the first to learn of the attack, but didn't take what was happening very seriously. 'I was standing in the hospital courtyard when the ambulances arrived with the wounded. I thought someone had lost their mind and run out and shot everyone. The doctors were moving the injured from the waiting room to the basement, hoping to save them. If I'd known the Chechens were coming, I'd have been home like a shot.'
My mother sent my father Vasily to find me. He was informed that everyone had been sent to the hospital. He arrived there on bicycle after work around six o'clock, assuming that he would be greeted there by Russian forces. Moving through the labyrinth of hospital doors, my father finally reached the part of the building where I was hiding
We were placed in a ward and given mattresses. During the shooting you could take cover under the bed: but such a luxury wasn't given to everyone.
Chechen militant Shamil Basayev in Budyonnovsk, 1995. He was killed in Ingushetia in 2006. Photo CC: Natalia Medvedeva
A large young man lay beneath one of them. He assumed, and rightly, that he would be the first in line to be shot. The fighters had already dealt with several pilots and police officers, including the Muslims who refused to take off their uniforms and join Basayev.
State channels were deceiving viewers with figures of 200-300 hostages – when we were nearly 2,000 people
For the first few days, the television in the recreation room continued to work and we watched it nervously, following how the state channels were deceiving viewers with figures of 200-300 hostages – when we were nearly 2,000 people. At some point, the fighters, fed up with the lies, turned off both the television and the radio.
While the official version stated that the terrorists had simply wanted to carry out an attack in any city in Russia, we found out what the Chechens were demanding firsthand: the withdrawal of Russian forces from their republic. They explained this not only to Yeltsin's government, but also to us, the hostages. One young fighter wearing a black headband came over to us. He told us that, after Russian troops had killed his whole family in Chechnya, he had become a suicide bomber.
Indeed, Shamil Basayev, the commander of the unit, had been pushed to this desperate act by a personal tragedy. Around 10 days earlier, on 3 June 1995, a Russian air strike had destroyed his uncle's home in the village of Vedeno. Twenty-four of his relatives were killed, including his sister and her young children.
The inhabitants of Budyonnovsk, this small provincial town, including mothers with newborn infants, were destined to answer for these orders of the Russian military leadership. Over five days, 129 people were killed and more than 400 were injured.
After several days, our living conditions were already getting worse. The toilets and showers had stopped working. Food ran out. On the first day, we were given a bowl of soup and tea, but by the second day, it was only tea. On the third and fourth day, we were subsisting solely on air. Only on the fifth day, when the Russian government made concessions, were we given bread.
Basayev had ordered his fighters not to rape the women in the hospital. But not everyone avoided this fate.
One female doctor approached Tatyana Fomenko trying to convince her to have sex with the Chechens. 'I started to cry and asked her to tell them that I was still a child. But she said, “No, you'll go into a room, I’ll give you some wine for courage and everything will be fine. I lived with a drunk for many years, had two children but I’ve never seen happiness. Only in this have I felt like a woman.”
Tatyana Fomenko, 16 years old during the siege, looks at photographs of her children
'They brought me a bearded Chechen. I lied to him that I had a mother who was a medic and asked to speak to her. He commanded me to “stand up and turn around.” I turned around and my whole life passed before my eyes. I thought he would kill me. But then he said: “If I find out you’re lying, that’s the end of you.” I raced off,' she remembers with a shudder.
Tanya managed to hide in a small compartment under a table in a different wing of the building. Later, the fighters came looking for 'a girl in a violet dress', but no one gave her up.
Pavel Bukarev remembers every day spent in the hospital – even down to the small details. 'I remember a painting. They had drawn our lake on it. There was only a small scratch on the painting but all around it was shot up. I remember my grandmother crying out in a child's voice,' he tells me.
I can picture the old woman in front of me: during the attempted storming of the building on the fourth day, she shouted 'Don’t shoot!' the loudest.
Right at the beginning of the pre-dawn raid, the Chechen fighters forced the hostages to stand by the windows at gunpoint in order to forestall the plan of the Russian Special Forces to storm the building. 'Look, your own soldiers are shooting at you and we're defending you,' the terrorists said to us. And we believed them. And from behind our backs, they took up rocket launchers and fired on the Russian soldiers. I saw a man in khaki fall out of a tree like a sack.
The first raid was unsuccessful, and led to the deaths of dozens of fighters and hostages. After a short break, the shooting intensified. This was the second raid. We were again forced to the windows to face our deaths.
A fire started on our floor and we were taken to the second floor where a sea of people had formed. People bandaged from head to toe and angry terrorists scurried past. They had mined the hospital with explosives and oxygen canisters. They were preparing to blow it up. The Special Forces were ordered to withdraw.
This failure forced the Russian government to make concessions. The main aim of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin was to preserve the lives of the hostages. And for this, he was later named an honorary citizen of Budyonnovsk.
Basayev promised to leave peacefully and remove his forces. As a security guarantee, he took a hundred hostages including journalists, human rights activists and my father.
Six months later, a military detachment that had taken part in the fighting was stationed in the town. In August 1996, the Khasavyurt Accords were signed between a de facto independent Chechnya and Russia, bringing the first Chechen War to an end.
Yevgeny Perkun was operations chief at the Budyonnovsk interior ministry during the crisis
But within three years, a motorcycle brigade from Russia was one of many other military units that was used to again bring the separatist republic under Moscow's control. The terrorist attack that took place between 14-19 June 1995 merely postponed this process instead of preventing it.
The actions of the local police during the attack were also commended. According to Nikolai Lyashenko, the Special Forces also acted correctly, bravely and professionally.
But Yevgeny Perkun, former operations chief at the Budyonnovsk interior ministry, says the command of the operation left much to be desired. 'No one knew anything at the top. Not the intelligence or counterintelligence services. Drunken generals rushed around from here to there. I talked to one of the Alfa group officers. He told me: “We’ll take it, but there will be casualties and those in charge here will blame it all on us.”
'No one knew anything at the top. Not the intelligence or counterintelligence services'
'Maybe it’s for the best they called off the raid and there weren't serious casualties. It's hard to judge here. But the fact that it was chaos is clear even to a non-military observer. The hostages who accompanied Basayev's withdrawing fighters said that they were greeted like victors at the border. They were in great spirits. Just imagine: Russia, the mass, the monolith, versus tiny Chechnya?'
Now, though, much has settled down, and relations between Chechens and ethnic Russians are improving.
'After the attack, I was afraid of non-Russian men,' Tanya admits. 'When I saw them, I thought they would hurt me or shoot me. But an adult said to me: “Tanya, nations don't walk the earth, people do. Every nation has its monsters.” And I think that's right.'
Pyotr regularly deals with Chechens for work. 'They can't be held guilty for what happened in their republic,' he says. 'A lot of people say that they [Chechens] didn't start everything, that it was a tussle between the “big boys” at the top. And the people suffered.'
'Nations don't walk the earth, people do. Every nation has its monsters'
Nikolai Lyashenko now runs the Budyonovsk branch of the Institute of Friendship of the Peoples of the Caucasus. 'We have students of 28 different ethnicities. A lot of Muslim lads from Dagestan, Chechnya, and the other North Caucasus republics. The students and teachers get along just fine. They understand the need to respect one another, regardless of nationality or religious beliefs, especially in the North Caucasus,' he says. 'The dead fighters were from different ethnicities. There weren't just Chechens, but Arabs, ethnic Russians, people from the Baltic states. That's why, despite the fact that the Chechen Basayev led the attack, none of the police took it to be an attack by Chechens.' 'If you don't want another Budyonnovsk, don't enter Vedeno'. Vedeno is a region of Chechnya & birthplace of Shamil Basayev. During the attack, and after, though, Russian attitudes to Chechens understandably hardened. Cossacks wanted to gather up the relatives of the terrorists and exchange them for the hostages. Many families were resettled or simply driven out of Budyonnovsk region.
'I know that there was a Chechen being held hostage there, and they threatened to shoot him several times because he refused to pick up a gun and start shooting,' Yevgeny Perkun tells me. 'We had a captain in the police. He was taking wounded to the hospital and he was shot in front of it several times. They dragged him into a ward. He told me that, when the fighting started, a Chechen from the Basayev squad came up to him, took him and hid him in a bathroom. He said: “Sasha, I know you're a cop, but don't worry. I'm not here of my own will. I'm a veterinarian and they told me they needed a doctor. That's why I'm here. When they exchanged prisoners, this Chechen carried the police officer out in his arms.'
After the attack, people started to call Budyonnovsk 'the town of black shawls'. Every 14 June, there's a memorial ceremony at the monument to the victims, and a service in the chapel built on the grounds of the hospital. These days, though, the victims try not to remember the events too often.
All photos except No. 3 (Shamil Basayev, 1995) courtesy of the author
Translated by Maxim Edwards