"Nothing human left"

A journalist who disguised herself as a Chechen woman talks about the atrocities of the war, the cowardice of Western journalists and the dim hopes for peace.

Published July 10, 2001 9:04PM (EDT)

Chechnya is a place of ruins and chaos, yet the Russian army presses on in what it calls an "anti-terrorist operation" -- its attempt to root out the Muslim fundamentalist terrorists who seek Chechnya's independence from Russia. Though Russian President Vladimir Putin still claims that the goal is only to fight terrorists, his army has beaten, tortured and killed thousands of innocent civilians. Many of those who have survived have fled to the neighboring region of Ingushetia.

In 1999, Anne Nivat, a Frenchwoman and Moscow correspondent for Libiration, a left-leaning French daily newspaper, applied for ad hoc accreditation as a war correspondent in Chechnya. She was refused by the Russian authorities. Fluent in Russian, Nivat was able to travel in the country disguised as a Chechen woman and with the help of a Chechen guide gained access to the Chechen president, the Muslim terrorists and Russian soldiers. Her new book, "Chienne de Guerre: A Woman Reporter Behind the Lines of the War in Chechnya," also offers painful details of the lives of Chechen civilians -- the beleaguered people who generously shared with her what food and shelter they had left after years of bombardment and poverty. During this time, Nivat was one of the few journalists covering the war who was not shepherded on Russian-controlled media trips.

For six months, Nivat shared the Chechens' life of horror and hopelessness. She visited an orphanage that preserved its pictures and documents -- records of its existence -- beneath the owner's mattress. They call it their "archive." She witnessed a single Russian rocket decimate five farmhouses and the families who lived inside. And in one of the most harrowing stories of the book, Nivat recalls a young woman who had set up a refreshment kiosk with her sister on the side of the road. One day a Russian armored car pulled up and fired at the stand. When the young woman tried to flee, a soldier simply shot her in the chest. Throughout the book, along with their inconceivable feelings of confusion, anger and despair, the Chechens displayed an unflinching resolve. Nivat describes their attitude this way: "Everything is destroyed, but still the Chechens stick together, clinging to one another, as tight as glue. Waiting for worse to come."

Salon spoke to Nivat from Moscow where she continues to work for Libiration.

What made you return to Chechnya after you were deported?

I was deported in February 2000 and that did not make me think I would not go back. My encounter with the FSB people [the Federal Security Service, a post-Soviet secret police force] was more pathetic than anything else; it didn't make me decide to stay in my office and wait for information. To the contrary, the FSB officers' behavior proved that I could probably go back. Of course, they don't like my writings. At the same time, I realize that there is not that much they can do. The easiest thing would have been to deprive me of my Russian visa, yet two or three months after I was deported last year, I had to renew my visa and they gave me another visa for another year!

How difficult are they making it for journalists there? Were you one of the few?

They are making it very difficult. But it is not only because of the FSB that the journalists aren't there. The journalists are not there because they do not want to be there. They think that it's too complicated, too difficult and too dangerous. Well, it's true! But, so what? Are we journalists or not? If in any war, we decide not to go and instead to give information from one side, I don't really think we deserve the title of journalist. I do ask myself questions though. I don't know if what I did was journalism. Maybe they are journalists and I am not.

In September 1999, I decided to go down there as a freelancer because I had the feeling that something would happen. In August, just a month before, Khattab and Shamil Bassayev had invaded the neighboring republic. But it was not in the news yet. I went to Dagestan and at the time there was absolutely not a single journalist down there. Having seen what I saw in those two villages, I decided to see more. I took a bus to Chechnya and crossed the border without any problem because at that time the conflict hadn't started. [The Russians officially invaded Chechnya on Oct. 1.] Once there, I understood that I was alone, the only journalist, and I understood that something big was happening.

And at that point you went in disguise.

Exactly, but I went under disguise naturally. After two or three days there, wearing pants and a T-shirt, I noticed that I was the only woman dressed like that. I was very visible. I realized that if I dressed like any other woman, I would go unnoticed. That's what I wanted. I knew that the Russian officers would probably have received the orders to arrest journalists. But that was the very beginning, so the Russian side hadn't yet figured out what to do with the foreign journalists.

What are they doing now with foreign journalists?

They're organizing 100 percent controlled trips from Moscow to Chechnya. They started doing that in December 1999, and they're still doing it, but no one is interested anymore. Chechnya isn't in the news anymore because there is no more heavy shelling.

But there are still acts of violence against civilians.

There is a full-scale war going on. Shellings still go on, but not full-scale shelling like we used to see in Grozny. There is nothing to bomb anymore! Grozny is completely destroyed. It's not a city. It's ruins.

So what would be a solution at this point?

We are now almost two years into this war. None of the top so-called terrorists have been arrested. They're still alive. I know where they are. The Russians know where they are. Everyone knows where they are. And nothing is happening.

Why? Because that's not the Russians' objective?

Officially, the Russian objective is to eliminate the terrorists in Chechnya. But judging by what I saw, unfortunately, that's not what is happening down there. But what I observed is that if I can find Aslan Maskhadov, the president of Chechnya, or Bassayev, the terrorist No. 1, then the Russians can find them too. [Arbi Barayev, a feared Chechen commander who was associated with the kidnapping industry in Chechnya, was killed shortly after this interview.]

How did you find them and why can't the Russians? Or are they just choosing not to?

I could find them because they know me. They know I've been around since the beginning of the war. They know what I'm doing when I'm interviewing them: interviewing them and leaving. I am not finding them, interviewing them and staying with them to cover the war from their side. I was accused by the FSB of doing that because they always accuse journalists of doing that. I told them that when I meet with Chechen rebel fighters, of course I interview them because that's my job, I have no other reason to be there. At least I do my job, I told them. My job is not only to interview rebel leaders, it's also to live with the civilians and interview the Russian officers and understand what's going on.

Although, by the way, I am not pretending that I understand what's going on -- it's complicated down there. That's one of the reasons for why this conflict is not covered very much. Everyone is confused. Who is good and who is bad?

Because there are problems within the country itself -- there are secessionists, and then there are terrorists?

Exactly. The Chechen population is confused. They are producing terrorists; some of them are indeed rebel fighters. The problem is that we don't know how many of them are terrorists. According to Russian propaganda, every Chechen is a terrorist. That is untrue. These poor Chechen people are not all terrorists. They are civilians who want this war to stop and want to resume normal life.

Do the Russian people believe this propaganda?

Of course they do. That's why I'm fighting here every day when I'm invited to speak to the Russian media. The journalistic community knows me very well here. I've been on TV and radio, but I was censored on TV in December 1999. Since then, I only do live interviews. A month ago, during an interview, listeners asked me questions. Half of the questions were insults -- "What are you doing there? You are a foreigner. Go back to your country." The other half were compliments. There are people who are saying, "Thank you. You are opening our eyes. We don't understand this propaganda. We are not informed about what's going on. If the situation is how you described it, then what is our army doing down there?" After all, Russian soldiers are dying every day!

What is the death count at this point?

Supposedly, it's around 3,000, but of course, it is much more than that. No one believes this count. Just as no one believes the Chechen count. It's a war without figures. What I can tell you is that I saw dozens and dozens of civilians dying around me during heavy shelling from the Russian army, which is proof that the Russian army is not targeting terrorists like they claim they were. And I could have been one of them.

Do you think that Putin wants to destroy the population as Maskhadov believes, or is that oversimplifying it?

I still don't think that there is an organized genocide from the Kremlin towards the Chechen people. I don't think that a strategy exists; I hope it does not. But, unfortunately, the reality of what is happening in Chechnya is close to that. Last time I was in Chechnya was April. The situation is not improving at all. It's just getting worse and worse every day. It's total chaos. Complete chaos. Everything is possible, which, by the way, is one of the reasons for why the Russian army is still there and pretending to fight the rebels: A bunch of people on both sides are making money off this. Huge amounts of money.


Anyone can pay his way by bribing Russian officers.

Do the Russian soldiers seem disillusioned?

Absolutely. They are completely disillusioned. I did not meet a single one who did not say, "We are here in vain and we know it."

And the Chechen rebel fighters -- what is their greater cause? Do they see themselves as martyrs?

Their goal is still independence. Of course now, after thousands and thousands of people are dead, it's more revenge than anything else. In a way, I don't blame them, having seen what I saw there. That's what makes me very pessimistic for the future. I don't see now how this horror will stop, especially when I see that Putin continues to proclaim that the war is almost finished. Bullshit. No one believes him anymore. He's still refusing to negotiate with the Chechen side and continuing to treat the Chechen people with total disdain. He will never obtain anything good for his country this way. It's completely deadlocked.

Why do you think that the West is, in many ways, ignoring what is going on there?

One reason is the absence of journalists. No CNN, no war. The BBC did sort of a good job; at least they tried. But CNN only dealt with the Russian military headquarters for two or three weeks, covering the war from the Russian side, and then stopped. They didn't manage to do anything good. The New York Times also covered the war completely from the Russian side. The Moscow correspondent, Michael Gordon, doesn't even hide it. He is a friend of mine and he told me that for him it was difficult to do it otherwise. Dan Williams, Moscow correspondent for the Washington Post, is the only one of the Americans, from my point of view, who tried his best. But the fact that he's a man didn't help him.

How so?

He couldn't do what I did. The fact that I am a woman helped me a great deal covering this war. No one pays attention to a woman. Whereas if you are a man, you might be arrested at any time. Also, Dan doesn't speak Russian. The three elements which played in my favor were the fact that I speak Russian, the fact that I am a woman and the fact that I am a part of the written press -- I didn't need microphones. And the fourth element is luck.

In terms of Western involvement, what distinguishes the situation in Chechnya from other regions devastated by war such as the Balkans or the Middle East?

I'm not a specialist with the Balkans or the Middle East, but I've been in the Balkans. I was in Serbia when Belgrade was bombed by NATO, but I can tell you that NATO bombing is nothing in comparison to Russian bombing in Chechnya. The obvious reason for which no one in the West is interested in knowing more about this conflict is because this conflict is happening in Russia. Russia is not Serbia. Russia is still a superpower. Russia is run by a new president who no one really knows anything about, except that he is a former KGB guy. Putin was elected because he convinced the Russian people -- and it was not difficult to do -- that Russia had lost its pride after Yeltsin and that he would re-create that pride.

And Russia is still a nuclear power. Europe and the United States are confused about Russia. The West is still sort of afraid of any kind of change in its relationship with Russia. The Chechens are not stupid; they immediately recognized that the West does not care.

What could the West do? What would be the best for the Chechens?

I'm afraid that the West cannot do a lot now at this level of the confrontation, except to let Putin know that not only it is wrong, but it must stop now. No leaders are telling him that.

The Bush administration seems to be acting as if it shouldn't affect our relationship with Putin at all.

Yes, and that's terribly wrong. For me, it's very complicated -- I love Russia. I came here as a freelancer because I wanted to be here and I'm still happy to be here. I still love this country. My coverage of this conflict is part of my will to understand Russia. Unfortunately, to understand Russia, you have to take into account this war, and not to act as if this war is over. I understand Putin's point of view, but I think there are elements that he doesn't know. He went there only two or three times for a few hours. He doesn't really know about the level of atrocity and inhumanity. There is nothing human left in this tiny territory on the south border of Russia.

Is anyone in control of the war? Who gives the commands?

In Chechnya, no one seems to be controlling anything, not the Russian army, that's for sure. Everyone who went to Chechnya knows that. The rebel fighters are also not controlling it. The point is, in this war, there is no winner. It's only a disaster. Now, the hostility should just stop. There is nothing normal happening in this country anymore.

How are people surviving there now?

After what those people went through during the winter of 1999, they can survive anything. I lived with people who gave me everything they had. They would not guarantee me that we would not die in the night from a bomb falling on us, but they were giving me what they had. These people have no money, they have lost everything, except a minority who are benefiting from the war. The majority have no jobs, no future, and that's what is the saddest to me.

Which countries are taking them in?

Not a single country. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to the neighboring republic, Ingushetia, but that's still Russia. Until the end of the Soviet Union, Chechnya and Ingushetia were administratively together, so for the Chechens it's not a big deal to go to Ingushetia -- they have relatives there. The problem is that Ingushetia is three times smaller than Chechnya and it's a very poor region. But these people can live with nothing. They live in tents with no money, though they have some help from international NGOs in Ingushetia.

It's almost an inhuman life. I went through it. Believe me, for me to leave these people and return to Moscow, it's difficult. When I was with them, there was no difference between me and them. What can be the differences between people who are under heavy shelling? Whoever you are, you are in danger. But in the end, I have the privilege to come and go, I can leave. They are trapped down there.

Will the Russian army realize that there's no "win" to be had in Chechnya?

They already know that. They continue because they probably think that if they withdraw the troops now, the situation will get more volatile than it is. I don't think so. If it is true that they are not able to capture the rebels, then it's time to say that they lost the war. Otherwise, it is true that they do not want to catch them. Why, then, would they be continuing the war? I suppose because they have their own agenda. I think Putin himself does not know what to do. Those Russian soldiers down there are going completely mad, they are not human beings anymore. And there are 80,000 of them! They pretended in January that they withdrew troops and they withdrew only 5,000 men.

If the Russian army were to withdraw, how do you think the rebel leaders would act in Chechnya?

It would depend if there were negotiations or not. The rebel leaders want to stop this war -- that's the main difference between them and the Russian army. The rebel leaders already expressed their will to stop this war, under no conditions, and the Kremlin doesn't even pay attention to what they say.

When did they express this desire?

Recently, Maskhadov again said it. The ball is in the Kremlin's camp. They are the ones in charge! No one understands why they are still there!

Yet Putin is getting popular public opinion from this ...

He was elected for promising the Russian people that he would exterminate the terrorists. That's what he said. You see where we are two years later. The problem is that the propaganda has been so strong that no one knows what's happening in Chechnya. My book is going to be published in Russian. I am fighting for that. My French publisher is giving the rights for no money to the Russian publisher. It will be published in September.

Are you planning on going back to Chechnya?

Of course. As soon as something is happening, I'm there. At least until they kick me out.

By Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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