The Second Chechen War: Testimony of an Eyewitness

Chechen journalist Abdul Itslayev lived out the Second Chechen War in his native village. Against a backdrop of rocket attacks, murder and robbery, he tried to piece together what, in fact, was happening. RU

Abdul Itslayev
28 August 2018

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Illustration by Polina Zaslavskaya. All rights reserved.

Note from the editors: In August 1999, Russian forces started a brutal air campaign against Chechnya, killing and forcing tens of thousands to flee. Weeks later, after a series of apartment block bombings in Russia, President Putin declared the Chechen President and parliament illegitimate, and ordered a ground invasion.

Abdul Itslayev experienced this conflict in his home village of Goiskoe, located in the Urus-Martan district, south-west of Grozny, the capital. Here we publish an excerpt of his forthcoming memoirs.

The second war arrived in my native village of Goiskoye on Friday 10 September, 1999.

There were two rounds of aerial bombing, the first at 11.30, the second at 13.30. Their targets: a television relay station and a bridge spanning the Goitinka River. Residential houses were destroyed as well. Flying fragments injured Akho Bakayev and killed old Zelimkhan Ibiyev on the spot.

On a road not for from the bridge, a car carrying my neighbour and teacher Mansur Eskiev and his wife and children was riddled with holes. On the second morning they all set off for Georgia, and from there to Europe.

My own house didn’t escape unscathed. A dozen fragments struck the roof and another flew in through a window and lodged itself in the wall. I’d built my two-room khibara (hut) the year before using materials salvaged from the ruins of my parents’ house, destroyed during the first war. My hut may have resembled a barn more than anything else, but I delighted in it as if it were a palace. Having a roof over your head is any refugee’s dream. And that’s what I was, having spent over two years homeless.

Fifty metres from there, on the site of the destroyed house, stood my mother’s home. Built out of used brick, it boasted a slate roof and a basement – the only one in the whole area. Neighbours would take refuge there during air raids and shelling. My mother lived with my sister and four brothers. We built this house between June and December 1996, coming in to do so from Urus-Martan, where we spent over a year living in the partially constructed house of a friend after our village was destroyed.

The air strikes shredded the power lines. The pumping station ceased to function in the absence of energy. We got water from the river. After it rained, the water was a mixture of sand and clay - and the sediment would fill half a bucket.

Our only connection with the outside world was an old transistor radio. Commenting on the movements of the army in Chechnya, General Manilov, representative of the Russian General Staff, would often mention Goiskoye. The strikes, he said, were being conducted against militant targets, even though there were absolutely nowhere to hide in the places he was talking about. Everything had been obliterated and bombed out back in 1996.

No outsiders set foot in the village. This, everyone had decided, was Goiskoye’s fate: to be crushed by war for a second time. Those who’d stayed put in the settlement numbered some four dozen people.

In early December, the shelling began to intensify. Military forces massed in the immediate vicinity of Urus-Martan.

They had missiles that detonated just above the ground, and they proved to be terrible weapons. Buildings ended up riddled top to bottom with fragments. Remaining in the village was no longer possible. Taking advantage of a window between raids, we relocated to my cousin’s place in neighbouring Alkhazurovo. Eight families holed up in the same house. Under a canopy in the yard was a dugout shelter for children and women.

The war, meanwhile, was following close on our heels. On the approach to Alkharzurovo, aerial strikes destroyed a Moskvich car and a motorbike being used by Salambek Soslambekov and Mumaid Gabzayev to transport some household things. Both Soslambekov and Gabzayev perished; Lom-Ali Ingayev sustained a knee injury.

The first sweeps

That morning, all Alkhazurovo was talking about a column of militants.

Leaving Urus-Martan, they’d retreated to the Argun River gorge via Martan-chu, Goy-chu and Alkhazurovo. There were no Russian planes in the air while the column was on the move. The artillery remained silent the whole night through. We were far from the “big road” and neither heard nor saw the militants. The next morning brought more news: Akhmed Zakayev had stopped here for the night but left in the small hours and said that he’d be relocating to Georgia.

In the evening, a car pulled up by the gates. I came out to the car and saw Adam Gatsayev. Around three years younger than me, he’d once been my student. The period between the two wars saw him working for the village administration. He had news, and a question to ask me:

“Military forces have entered Urus-Martan. Representatives from three villages – Alkhazurovo, Goy-chu and Goiskoye – have been summoned there by Shamanov. Delegations will be travelling over from the first two, but we’ve no one to send. Yunus did promise but he’s old and sick. Come tomorrow he might not even be able to get up – or he might change his mind. Maybe your brother could make the journey with me?”

“That’s no place for my brother to be. If Yunus can’t or won’t go, I’ll go myself.”

After returning from Urus-Martan, Adam waited for me on the outskirts of Alkhazurovo. I squeezed my body, heavy with fatigue, into the Zhiguli. Adam told me what had happened en route:

“People had gathered from all over the district. Shamanov welcomed them in person. All the military men were seriously well oiled and there was a whole sea of vodka waiting to be drunk. And all this in the t mosque the Wahhabists built in the central square. Shamanov made a speech. He said that Goiskoye had given him a massive headache during the first war as well, and that now his intelligence operatives had been taken out there.”

“What operatives? I’ve not heard anything about this…”

“I understand that a Russian reconnaissance group encountered a group of militants who’d retreated from Urus-Martan. They took out an armoured personnel carrier... Shamanov promised to be in Goiskoye tomorrow at noon. The sweep will follow, whereupon the population will be able to return. That’s what Shamanov said.”

Vladimir Shamanov was the general who destroyed Goyskoye. Back in 1996, he’d also summoned village elders for negotiations outside Alkhazurovo and set them conditions that couldn’t be fulfilled. Then he summoned the helicopters. “At least allow the women and children to be evacuated!” they implored him. “No!” he replied.

The column was crawling along. Yards and houses were searched from top to bottom, basements and attics included. Anything that aroused the slightest suspicion was subjected to a microscopic examination

We, Adam and I, decided: Shamanov wouldn’t be coming tomorrow, and the sweep would commence in the morning. We needed to arrive in the village before the soldiers.

On the way to Goiskoye, Adam told me more about the previous day’s meeting. The district now had leaders chosen or appointed by God knows who. We too had just a single card to play: if anyone asked, we’d say we were local officials. The village streets were absolutely deserted. Adam parked the Zhiguli in my mother’s yard. Shana spent five minutes telling us about the events of the previous night– but then armoured vehicles materialised at the far end of the street, along with soldiers inching along fences.

We headed towards them, keeping strictly to the middle of the road. No words, no unnecessary movements. Like tin soldiers. The APCs stopped. Someone dropped to one knee and took aim at us. The butts of automatic rifles were poked into our napes, backs and stomachs:

“Who’re you?”

“Local officials. Tell your commander we’re here.”

Someone spoke into a walkie-talkie behind us. We were nudged onward: “Go! The commander’s at the end of the column.” The column was a good kilometre long. Before we reached the end we were stopped another dozen times, prodded with automatics, showered with profanities and sniffed by Alsatians.

Finally, we came upon a middle-aged military man wearing an astrakhan hat.

“I’m the commander of the internal troop brigade,” he said. “What did you want?”

“This is the first sweep. You ought to warn people, calm them down. We were expecting you at noon.”

“You have half an hour. Tell everyone: don’t lay a finger on my guys and I won’t lay a finger on you. I give you my word.”

Who had stayed put in the village? On what streets? Did they have documents or didn’t they? We were two ordinary guys, just like everyone else, we enjoyed no authority. But there was no doubt about it: people would listen to us.

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Illustration by Polina Zaslavskaya. All rights reserved.

Half an hour later we were back at the end of column. The colonel addressed us brusquely:

“Come with me. You’ll leave once the sweep is over. Yesterday,” he added, “they finished their inspection of Urus-Martan. 27 residents in the whole town. Would you believe it!”

The column was crawling along. Yards and houses were searched from top to bottom, basements and attics included. Anything that aroused the slightest suspicion was subjected to a microscopic examination. Reports and orders sounded over the walkie-talkie. Trailing two steps behind the officer, we heard someone exclaim in surprise: “Dirt-poor village, this is!”

The colonel glanced over at us: had we made out these words?

“Two years ago all this was just ruins,” said Adam. “At least there’s something here now.”

Another report over the radio:

“We’re here in the southern zone, we’ve just stopped a Moskvich with three people inside and a bloody axe and knives under the seat. We’ve roughed them up a bit…”

I guessed who “they” were:

“They’re from Urus-Martan, sons of a butcher. They’ve holed up at their uncle’s, relocated to Alkhazurovo together with us. Order them not to be beaten.”

“Don’t touch them until I arrive,” ordered the colonel.

All three were stood by the flung-open doors of the Moskvich, muddied, bruised, one of them with blood on his face. Recognising me, they addressed me by name, and I by theirs.

“Let them go on their way,” said the commander.

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Illustration by Polina Zaslavskaya. All rights reserved.

This was the first and last sweep to have involved next to no bloodshed. All the subsequent ones – and, in the first year of the counter-terrorism operation, they were conducted at least two or three times monthly – featured arrests, beatings, zindans (underground prisons), fingerprinting, widespread looting.

The second sweep followed a different playbook. The village was blocked off to the world before sunrise: no exit, no entry. The two generals in charge of the special op – Yakov Nedobitko and Viktor Medveditskov – stationed themselves on the village’s southern outskirts, near a roadblock. Close by was the filtropunkt (“filtration point”) to which all male residents aged 12 to 65 were being herded. Later, an old quarry in the north-eastern outskirts was transformed into a filtropunkt (and fingerprinting facility) as well.

If the first sweep didn’t fray people’s nerves, all restraints were now cast aside: rudeness, boorishness, high-handedness... Complaints from all sides: “They confiscated this, took away that, stole this, made off with that.”

Even my hut was picked clean. The items taken included old notebooks, a camera, a Dictaphone, a couple of t-shirts, and a honey harvesting tent. The hives themselves weren’t touched.

We now faced our first “official” ransom demand: one ram.

A relative fleeing Chechnya had left a Mercedes in Uvais Kayev’s yard. As for the documentation and keys, he either took them with him or left them in someone’s keeping. Whose? This remained a mystery. Some military men smashed one of the windows, opened the door, combed the interior of the car. The trunk wouldn’t open, not even with the help of a crowbar. So the officer laid down a condition: “Either you cough up a ram or the car gets towed!”

“The old master of the house has no sheep.”

“There’s sheep in the village. He can buy one.”

Long story short: a ram took a ride in the last car involved in the special operation.

Death squads come to Urus-Martan

The “federals” reported the coordinates of the mass grave site in the old quarry. Close by stood the 245th Motorised Rifle Regiment (notorious for its atrocities) and a regiment under the command of Colonel Yuri Budanov. Even before his arrest and trial, Budanov was, how to put it, a familiar face to everyone. Everyone knew about his conflict with Khavazhi Dzhambulatov, the administration chief of the village of Tangi-chu. The colonel fought him and was beaten on more than one occasion.

Flash-forward to a courtroom in Rostov-on-Don in 2003. Budanov glanced at the next witness, Dzhambulatov, and asked, his voice full of anxiety: “How did you get here?”

“You and I are both here on your account…”

But this was still yet to come. Back in the present, people were angry after the bodies of 69 people had been uncovered, near Urus-Martan at the start of 2000. The anger and indignation could lead pretty much anywhere, and so the “federals” refused to honour their promise – to show people another three burial pits.

Most of the corpses in the mass grave had been laid out in a row, face up, and covered with tarpaulin and earth. Bodies in another mass grave discovered north-east of the village of Novye Varandy, on the banks of the Argun, had been “committed to the ground” in identical fashion. This area was within the responsibility zone of regiments stationed outside Tangi-chu. Later, corpses of residents detained in villages on the banks of the Argun were found scattered in Tangi-chu cemetery.

In the evenings, the curfew forced the town’s denizens into their homes. The streets became the domain of forces what were soon dubbed “death squads” by local residents

People returned to Urus-Martan; public transport started working again, as did the market. In the afternoons, the centre was completely full. But the town was buzzing like a hive about to disgorge a swarm of bees. Not a day passed without someone being killed or kidnapped...

In the evenings, the curfew forced the town’s denizens into their homes. The streets became the domain of forces what were soon dubbed “death squads” by local residents. They freely bypassed roadblocks and initially didn’t even cover up the side numbers of armoured personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles or the registration marks of UAZs and Zhigulis.

When the victim count rose into the hundreds, the town authorities were finally able to secure the consent of the military commandant’s office to nightly patrols by (unarmed) local residents. These patrols took control of key intersections and streets, documenting and suppressing any unauthorised movements. The murders and kidnappings stopped. A week later, however, the patrol parties formed by the locals began to come under fire. They ought to have been reinforced, made capable of striking back. The military, however, had decided otherwise – and banned the townspeople from going on patrol…

The death squads once again became the sovereign masters of Urus-Martan after dark. Among their victims were two imams from the congregational mosque (Umar Idrisov and Hasmagomed Umalatov), officials from local government agencies and security services, old people and young people.

The majority of the people who were kidnapped were unaccounted for. Some were found killed, tortured to death. Their remains were most often discovered in orchards outside Urus-Martan which had gone wild in the course of two wars.

There were two kidnappings in Goiskoye. Abducted directly from his house, Movldi Umayev struggled free and fled… only to be struck down by machine-gun fire. Aindi Dudurkayev, too, was dragged from his home at night by unknown individuals. Is he still alive? What fate befell him after his abduction, and where did it befall him? There’s no answer.

Without light or kerosene

A different situation was developing in neighbouring Goy-chu. There was a roadblock manned by Rybinsk OMON personnel on the main road to the north of the village. A motorised rifle regiment was stationed in the south, at the foot of the mountains. Meanwhile, the authorities were also putting the heat on the populace: “Your sympathies are with militants and you’re helping them out.” How exactly they were doing so remained unclear. Forget about a human slipping through the regiment’s lines – a woodland creature hadn’t a hope in hell of doing it.

In late February-early March, however, the bulwark was found to have a breach through which a small group of militants had made their way into the village. The group surrendered, and the military summoned the village residents to a meeting. The generals threatened to wipe the settlement from the face of the earth. But the village’s military commandant – a captain everyone knew (Volodya) – asked the generals not to call in the planes: “I have to live with these people, I have to work with them…”

A day or two later, people started talking about a second group of militants who’d managed to make it through the cordons. The voices of those who’d suddenly discovered a conspiracy between the military and the militants now began to make themselves heard. Quiet at first, these voices grew ever louder; the military had allegedly provided a corridor for the militants, and the latter, a detachment led by Arbi Barayev, advanced through it, proceeding via Goy-chu and Goiskoye. It immediately turned out that this occurred on a day when Goiskoye was subjected to yet another sweep. Having mentally reviewed its entire course, we suddenly discovered that a single empty farmstead had remained “unswept” in the village.

We drove down there and took a look. Footsteps from the gate led not to the house but to a cellar off to the side of it. The floor was thick with dirt left there by dozens of pairs of shoes. Who’d been hanging about here for so long – the “Barayevites” or the “sweepers”?

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Illustration by Polina Zaslavskaya. All rights reserved.

There was still no light, and kerosene for lamps wasn’t available. Your eyes quickly get tired in the candlelight. You could find yourself some transistor radio batteries at the Urus-Martan market and spend whole nights listening to news broadcasts on various frequencies. It was as though broadcasts out of Chechnya and about Chechnya weren’t about us at all. You sometimes heard something akin to the truth from Radio Svoboda and other foreign “voices”.

As for the reports on the new radio station Chechnya Svobodnaya (Free Chechnya), they were just pure fiction. Listening to them, you’d have thought we Chechens had one foot in a bright future and another in veritable ocean of bliss. According to Chechnya Svobodnaya, it was only yesterday that our children did no studying and had only ever held machine guns in their hands; and as for today, well…

My daughter entered Year 1 in September 1998. In September 1999, she ran home from school in tears as bombs and rockets rained down on us. Her school was housed in a prefabricated panel house allocated for that purpose by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees following the destruction of Goiskoye – and, specifically, the school – in the spring of 1996. Windows covered with polyethylene film. No light (nor would there be for another ten months). No heat (no gas, no wood, no coal). Roadside orchards and strips of forest cut down for firewood. Desks, tables, chairs all ramshackle. Teachers were mostly in Ingushetia, as refugees. Some were already in Europe...

Meanwhile, Russia’s presidential elections were scheduled for 26 March 2000. The bullet-riddled school was to be used as a polling station serving the settlements of Goiskoye and Michurina, with voter lists already being compiled.

How to make all of this out from Moscow, to say nothing of the provinces?

Massacre in Goy-chu

Daybreak brought the sounds of combat from Goy-chu.

The first news came a couple of hours later: something odd was happening, people were leaving their houses…

You could see from the Y-junction, from the roadblock that soldiers had formed a semi-circle around those people who’d managed to escape. According to two women who’d forced their way through the semi-circle, residents were cajoled and threatened back into their homes.

Towards evening, the denizens of Goy-chu had been convinced that the group of militants who had forced their way into the village were now neutralised and the village itself swept clean. No need to worry: federal forces were in control of the situation. The road to the village was completely blocked off. Neither Adam nor myself – nor, indeed, anyone desperate to know if their relatives were still alive – were allowed access to the settlement.

The din of the approaching battle floated in from Goy-chu throughout the night. Now, with the coming of morning, the village was being pounded by aerial and artillery strikes. Columns of military equipment were advancing through Goiskoye on their way to Goy-chu. At the crossroads between Alkhazurovo and Goy-chu, the carnage taking place in the latter was clearly visible: shells and rockets were tearing houses to shreds and sending plumes of smoke and fire into the sky.

Half a kilometre from the intersection, on the outskirts of the village, a vast crowd of men, women and children had amassed in a field. They had been encircled, and no one was allowed to leave the encirclement or to approach it. Here, at the fork in the road, the “operation’s” HQ had been set up in the military-occupied house of Visayev. Communicating through “intermediary” officers, residents of neighbouring settlements attempted to persuade the generals to release women and children from the encirclement. The generals, though, had other ideas…

Towards lunchtime, we learned the names of dozens of Goy-chu residents who’d failed to flee the village before the aerial and artillery strikes began. Then, after lunch, information filtered through that there was neither food nor warm clothing within the encirclement. People started putting together food packages in Goiskoye and Alkhazurovo and bread was brought over from Urus-Martan.

In a field next to the roadblock stood a battery of regimental mortars as well as Buratino rocket launchers. They were firing over the heads of the thousands of Goy-chu residents taken hostage by the military. These people’s houses, all their possessions, the village itself – it was being destroyed before their very eyes.

The slaughter went on for over two weeks. Abating at night, the intensity of the battles would reach a peak by noon. Having forced their way into the village from the south via the Goitinka River gorge, the militants reached the northern outskirts almost immediately. They were negotiated with, and then, after a turning point in the situation, methodically finished off – alongside local residents who hadn’t managed to flee the village in time.

Corpses... There were many of them. So many, in fact, that even six months, even a year later they wouldn’t let me sleep. Images of wounds, faces, clothing kept flickering before my eyes… They were brought in, freshly searched, either by military personnel conducting a post-battle sweep or else by the funeral team of the Ministry of Emergency Situations. Clothes unbuttoned, pockets turned out, often shoeless...

Each corpse was photographed and filmed. Dress, appearance, approximate age, possessions – all this was recorded. Their official papers rarely turned up, and these records were supposed to help identify them. And so it frequently proved: over half of the individuals committed nameless to the ground went on to acquire names. Some were identified immediately, and relatives would either take away the corpse or bury it here, alongside the others.

It wasn’t only Chechens from settlements near and far who were searching for “their own” among the dead. One day a Russian general arrived:

“My intelligence operatives never left this village. I was informed that the corpses of some non-Muslims with wire-bound hands were brought here yesterday...”

“There were no such corpses here.”

“I’d like my guys to take a look at yesterday’s corpses.”

They left their weapons in the vehicle, inspected a long row of dead bodies in the cemetery – and recognised not a single one. Nor would it have been easy to do so: identifying familiar features on mutilated bodies crushed by rubble or lying for weeks under the open sky isn’t a straightforward matter. Some, the charred ones, were completely unidentifiable. A bloody mess where the face should be. Noses and ears cut off, throats slashed. There wasn’t a single elderly face.

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