Edgy Soldiers, Villagers in Fear

With morale sagging, Russian generals have begun to turn on the local populations: now almost every Chechen male is a potential guerrilla, while Ingush villages are being fired on.

Edgy Soldiers, Villagers in Fear

With morale sagging, Russian generals have begun to turn on the local populations: now almost every Chechen male is a potential guerrilla, while Ingush villages are being fired on.

Friday, 14 January, 2000

With the generals admitting heavier losses and the spectre of guerrilla warfare looming, federal troops are reportedly teetering "on the brink of nervous collapse". Last week's surprise raids by Chechen fighters on Shali, Gudermes and Argun have fanned a growing paranoia in the federal ranks and, consequently, relations with the civilian population are becoming increasingly strained.

The reaction of Russia's general staff has been predictably heavy-handed. On January 10, its spokesman, Col. Vadim Timchenko, announced on Russian NTV that troops would be stepping up house-to-house searches in Chechen settlements.

Federal forces are particularly concerned about the possibility of rebels infiltrating the civilian population and carrying out nighttime attacks from behind the Russian lines. On January 12, Col.-Gen. Victor Kazantsev declared that all Chechen males aged 10-60 would be denied refugee status and regarded as rebel suspects. The decree has met with a storm of criticism from human rights groups at home and abroad.

But Russian fears are by no means groundless. It is likely that the rebel forces involved in last week's counter-attacks were already in place - fighters who had simply melted into the civilian population after the towns were captured by Russian forces in November.

Until now, police checks on local civilians have been largely cursory. Rumours abound that Interior Ministry troops are accepting cash payments from villages wishing to be left in peace. A standard price has even been fixed: $10,000 per street. Chechen sources claim that bribes were paid by the settlements of Novie Atagi, Mairtula, Novaya Zhizn and Bachi-Yurt.

Certainly, attempts to win the hearts and minds of the local population have largely been abandoned. "As our police units started to take control of these villages from the military, local attitudes changed noticeably," explains Sergei, 27, an officer in the OMON special police unit stationed in Gerzel, a village in the Gudermes region, west of Grozny.

"The villagers are no longer friendly and polite - as they were when they promised they had chased all the 'bandits' away from their settlements and begged the federal army not to bomb them," he says. "But these 'bandits' are their own relatives. They just hide their weapons and pretend to be peaceful civilians. I never trusted them."

"We always walk about in groups," adds Dmitri, a fellow officer, "When we run into local men, they just smile at us knowingly and their teenage kids have the look of wolf-cubs. Sometimes they even have the nerve to spit into the road in front of us. We try not to react to these attempts to provoke us."

Asked if he is afraid of the Chechen rebels, Sergei pauses for a moment, then sighs, "To tell you the truth, yes, we are. We are constantly on the brink of nervous collapse. Sooner or later, someone will crack - and I hate to think what might happen then."

Morale is further undermined by divisions within the Russian armed forces. Army troops and Interior Ministry (MVD) personnel are constantly at loggerheads - largely due to persisting allegations that police units are cashing in on their peace-keeping duties by extorting money from the civilian population. In the Gudermes region, army commanders openly accused MVD officers of taking control of black market-oil refineries and operating a lucrative trade in contraband petroleum.

Recent reshuffles in the general staff have also caused unrest. Soldiers were bewildered by conflicting reports that the popular Gen. Gennady Troshev had been dismissed, then reinstated. Meanwhile, Chief of Staff Gen. Anatoly Kvashnin is said to be plotting the downfall of airborne commander Gen. Georgy Shpak - his main opponent in a bid for the top seat at the Ministry of Defence.

Worse still, the Russian military seems determined to alienate its existing allies. In Ingushetia, tension has been growing over alleged crimes committed by Russian soldiers stationed near the Chechen border. On January 11, two servicemen were arrested on suspicion of murdering an Ingush shepherd while, in Nazran, an Ingush woman shopkeeper was reportedly beaten to death by drunken Russian troops.

The situation in the Ingush village of Dattykh, 20 kilometres from the Chechen settlement of Bamut, is typical. Here Interior Ministry troops built a concrete blockhouse near the local cemetery, uprooting dozens of headstones in order to clear the approaches. Villagers claim they also dismantled a stable for fire-wood, turning the horses loose in the surrounding countryside.

When one resident lost two cows and found nothing but their severed heads, suspicion immediately fell on the soldiers. "They're badly fed," explained the man. "They come to us every evening and beg for bread."

Dattykh villagers say the soldiers are Ossetians from Vladikavkaz who harbour bitter memories of the 1992 Ossetian-Ingush war. The troops fire at the village every evening, they claim, although there is no danger of Chechen incursions in this part of Ingushetia and Bamut has long been under federal control.

Dattykh has no electricity - the village generator broke down 30 years ago - and villagers use torches to find their way home at night. One Sunday, as villagers returned from evening prayer, the garrison opened fire on them, believing they were Chechen fighters on a cross-border raid. Fortunately, there were no casualties. Magomed Pidiev, deputy head of the parish council, claims soldiers took pot shots at him in broad daylight, solely to force him to lie flat in a muddy road.

Erik Batuyev is a freelance Ingushetian journalist. Nabi Abdullaev is the political editor of Novoe Delo in Makhachkala.

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