Spoon-feeding in Chechnya

The federal press centre's trips to the warzone are expertly stage-managed - and utterly unenlightening

Spoon-feeding in Chechnya

The federal press centre's trips to the warzone are expertly stage-managed - and utterly unenlightening

Friday, 13 October, 2000

The Russian army's official press tours of Chechnya are reminiscent of a second-rate stage-show that has run too long. The cast is simply going through the motions and the audiences have long since melted away,

The loss of interest is hardly surprising -- the chances of a journalist coming back with sensational or exclusive material are practically nil. And this, as far as the Russian military is concerned, is the object of the exercise.

The trips are organised by the office of Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the Kremlin's official spokesman on Chechnya. They come as a tired response to Western accusations that Moscow has imposed an information blockade on the embattled republic. In reality, of course, they only serve to reinforce that impression.

On this occasion, five foreign journalists and two Russians have signed up for the ride. The itinerary includes Grozny, Gudermes and the southern mountains. Transport comes in the form of a helicopter gunship, flying out of Khankala.

Staff at the Combined Army Group headquarters are at pains to explain to the journalists that all limitations on freedom of movement are "in the interests of security". They tell horror stories of reporters stepping on mines, setting off booby-traps or being kidnapped by Chechen bandits.

They also mention, apologetically, that this is the last time army air transport will be laid on for free. In future, helicopters will be hired out to journalists at the rate of 23,000 roubles (just under $1,000) for two days.

The soldiers fling open the helicopter doors as Grozny's shattered cityscape hoves into view. Whole districts are obscured by palls of black smoke; parks and squares are covered in livid bruises. The ruins of the apartment blocks look like palaeolithic artifacts half-submerged in lakes of muddy water.

The photographers and cameramen cluster around the doorway as the helicopter completes its graceful sweep across "Putingrad", then the doors are slammed shut "in the interests of security" - emphatically drawing the curtain on the first act.

The next port of call is Gudermes - "a city where peaceful, civilian life has been restored". Thanks to the intercession of the Yamadaev brothers at the beginning of the war, Chechnya's second largest town was spared from federal artillery and air bombardments.

Now Gudermes is a "show-town" - gas and electricity have been restored. There are soldiers everywhere, on foot, riding on BTRs. Even the mayor of Grozny, Malika Gezimieva, carries a Makarov pistol at her hip.

Here, in Gudermes, attitudes towards the Chechen separatists are uncompromising.

"Why do you feel sorry for the Chechens?" demands Gezimieva. "You don't know these people. When a fighter gets tired of running around in the mountains and returns home, his neighbour rushes off and reports him to the authorities. That's the way they are. You shouldn't feel sorry for them."

In Gudermes, we are allowed to mix freely with the federal servicemen. They are surprisingly welcoming and even heat up the "banya" (Russian bath) for us. Of course, they can't resist regaling us with more cautionary tales. Particularly popular is the apocryphal story of the team of foreign journalists who fell foul of General Vladimir Shamanov - notorious for his dislike of the Western press.

Shamanov, legend has it, discovered that the journalists had come to federal army headquarters without the proper accreditation and summoned them to his office. He then handed them spades and ordered them to dig a row of ditches outside the army base.

Watched by grinning Russian soldiers, the journalists wretchedly dug the holes, convinced they were digging their own graves. Shamanov allowed them to labour under this illusion for several hours, before marching them off to a helicopter and sending them back to Mozdok.

Then there is the ongoing dispute between NTV and the Russian military who allegedly prevented the correspondent Vadim Fefilov from broadcasting a live report from Khankala.

The TV station accuses a Lieutenant-Colonel Vladimir Chekalin, of the federal press centre, of attempting to cover up the lens of the camera during the transmission. Chekalin claims that the crew was two hours late with its broadcast and that Fefilov himself was drunk. Fefilov subsequently refused to take a medical test to support his own denial - and NTV dropped the case.

The anecdotes underline the fact that, when the federal press pundits invite journalists to Chechnya, they dictate their own terms. And, as the list of journalists killed, kidnapped or imprisoned in Chechnya grows longer, finding a risk-free alternative to the official press tours is a tough proposition.

At the end of the second day, the press centre in Khankala received a telegram from General Valery Manilov, first deputy head of the Russian high command, informing us that our week-long visit had been prematurely terminated. No reason was given. The Russian high command sees no need to justify its actions. Which is perhaps the greatest tragedy of the Chechen war.

Erik Batuev is a regular contributor to IWPR

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