Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
In the early months of the second Chechen war, the Federal Security Service summoned me to their Moscow headquarters for "an informal chat".
I must admit I was terrified. I thought they would interrogate me about what I'd seen in the rebel lines - the number of tanks and machine-guns, the whereabouts of the most notorious field commanders. As a journalist, the last thing I needed was a reputation as an FSB informer.
But I was wrong. The "Chekists" didn't ask me a single question about the rebels. They simply told me something I will remember for the rest of my life: "When you go and do your professional duty," they said, "never lose sight of the fact that you are a Russian citizen. Always remember that."
As far as they were concerned, it was a simple choice: either you work in the interests of the Russian state or against it. And the second Chechen campaign in particular has shown that the Russian journalistic community is split irreconcilably into these two camps.
Back in August 1994, when President Dzhokhar Dudaev's troops clashed with the Chechen opposition, one of the Russian news agencies sent two journalists to Grozny to cover the fighting.
One of the correspondents worked with the opposition while the other followed Dudaev's men. Both sent their dispatches back to Moscow where they were combined into a single report and the agency was satisfied that its version of events was evenly balanced.
In practice, however, the two journalists were merely publishing the conflicting lies of the two opposing camps. The truth wasn't "somewhere in the middle" - it was completely lost. And, as a result, the public in Moscow was led to believe that Chechnya was in a state of civil war, with serious losses being incurred on either side.
This approach to war journalism set the tone for the years to come.
Since 1994, most Russian journalists travelling down to Chechnya have found themselves emotionally involved in the conflict - and their loyalties severely put to the test. War, as the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev wrote, is not fought only in the trenches - it is fought in the hearts of the journalists who see the suffering for themselves and struggle to understand it.
They too see nightmares. A journalist who has been in a war-zone comes home a different person. A friend of mine who went through the whole of the first Chechen war found himself unable to re-adapt to civilian life and went into a monastery.
After I returned from Chechnya for the first time, I found it impossible to go through the motions of an ordinary existence - I couldn't bring myself to go to discotheques or concerts. I thought about nothing but the war. It was a kind of fixation, a drug that kept drawing me back.
And yet I could never write about what I really saw. Paradoxically, this was the most compelling thing about it, the secret knowledge that I could never share, that set me apart.
At the beginning of the second campaign, I passed through the village of Dattykh, on the Ingush border. The Russian troops stationed in the village were building machine-gun emplacements. Without asking the villagers' permission, they demolished a stable building and turned the horses out into the steppe. Then they tore up the headstones in the village cemetery and used them to clad the embrasures.
I remember writing an article which concluded that the Russians were turning the civilian population against Moscow and soon the federal army would finding itself fighting the enemy on two fronts. The Moscow newspapers refused to publish the article on the grounds that it was pro-Chechen and that public opinion supported the Russian invasion.
Then I wrote an article about the infamous "zachistki" - the federal clean-up operations aimed at flushing out rebel fighters who had taken refuge amongst the civilian population. In the town of Shali, with a population of 20,000, a house-to-house search conducted by interior ministry troops lasted just 90 minutes. It unearthed one sniper's rifle, one mortar and one AK-47. "Zachistki" in Argun and the village of Kurchaloy were equally cursory.
Again my article was turned down by the newspapers because it "betrayed pro-Chechen sympathies". But two days later, Chechen fighters swooped on these very same settlements and forced the Russian garrisons to retreat. Then the newspapers were all clamouring for my story. You see, it was no longer perceived as a warning but as a post script to an actual event.
I have to say that some Russian journalists often succumb to the temptation to shape the course of events. On a simple level, I have seen them accept invitations to take pot-shots at the rebel lines. Some even ask to have a go.
But on a professional level, the pen can be mightier than the machine-gun. On November 10, 1994, the Megapolis Kontinent newspaper published an article entitled, "Ingushetia is Stockpiling Arms."
Hiding behind a pseudonym, the author stated that President Ruslan Aushev had ordered government agents to buy up vast quantities of contraband weapons - from handguns and sniper's rifles to armoured cars and tanks.
The article was published at a time when tensions on the Ossetian-Ingush border were reaching breaking point and President Aushev was incensed. He instantly threatened to sue the paper, demanding a billion roubles in compensation.
Megapolis Kontinent quickly published a complete retraction and gave Aushev the name of the offending journalist - who was summarily dismissed.
But the reporter himself was clearly unmoved by the scandal. He went straight to President Aushev and offered to write a similar article claiming that the Ossetians were buying arms with a view to launching a new pogrom against the Ingush in the Prigorodny region.
For every Russian journalist who attempts to understand the paradoxes of war, there are a thousand more who see armed conflict as a chance to pursue a personal agenda. And before we can expect to see objective reports coming back from the battlefields of Chechnya, there are enemies we all need to face inside ourselves.
Erik Batuev is a regular IWPR contributor
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