Issue 4.1 | February 2000 | Information in this issue may be outdated. Click here to link to the most recent issue.
The Republic of the Wolf
Margaret S. Busé
In a state of
humanitarian crisis, Chechnya, the poorest of states within the Russian Federation,
continues to strive for independence. The pre-war arsenal of landmines consisted
primarily of PMN and OMZ mines. Stocks of PMs were moved to secret bases in
the mountain regions during the war. There is also a considerable black market
The Russian army
and the Chechen rebels have used mines in the previous and current war, laying
mines around their bases, checkpoints, militarily significant towns and roadways.
Mines have continued to be used as booby traps in houses and schoolyards,
and littered around corpses. AP mines, while used by the military on both
sides, are also used by various armed
groups and robbers in attacks against political figures.
1994 to 1996, the Russian Federation waged war against the people of Chechnya
in an attempt to halt the country's growing independence. The number of civilian
dead as a result was estimated between 40,000-100,000. At the start
of the war, mines were still being cleared from WWII. HALO Trust said it had
seen new minefields laid even after the previous peace agreement had been
signed in 1996. The intensity of Russian bombardment of Chechnya is said to
have exceeded Stalingrad. Serbian bombardment of Sarajevo reached 3,500 per
day, Grozny experienced 4,000 shells per hour. The Russian Federation blanketed
Chechnya with 1,200,000 landmines during the 1994-1996 war and estimates of
the cost of damage may be as high as $150 million. Despite Chechnya's high
landmine count, Chechnya still remains unlisted on the UN landmine list. Even
though a peace agreement was signed on August 4, 1995, bloodshed has again
found this country escalating the landmine crisis as landmines are laid indiscriminately
and as the front line shifts.
During the previous
war, as control shifted from one side to the other, territories were repeatedly
mined and re-mined. Landmines may affect as much as 80% of Chechnya. Because
of the current fighting and because no mine field maps have been made available,
a comprehensive survey is nearly impossible. Before the current war, there were
600,000 people in Chechnya living beside over 1.2 million landmines. HALO Trust
estimates that 20,000 hectares of farmland cannot be used because of the presence
of landmines. This has severe consequences for communities that must rely on
farming for sustainability.
In the first
three months of fighting, from October-December 1999, a force of up to 100,000
Russian troops had taken almost total control of Chechnya's lowland valleys
and steppes. The remaining areas had been held by the guerrillas. Parts of
Grozny itself and the steep gorges in the mountains to the south, are much
more difficult military targets for a conventional army. Despite heavy fighting
in early January, neither side appeared to make significant gains in the south
of the city. Both forces occupied high points on the outskirts of the city
for a considerable time. There was constant fire from mortars, cannon and
light arms. At night, tracer fire lit up the sky. It was impossible to know
how many residents were still trapped in the city, but there were clearly
thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, living in dark cellars with little food.
"The city has been heavily mined by the Islamic guerrillas Russia invaded
Chechnya to uproot," General Kazantsev said. If his troops tried to storm
the city, large numbers of people would certainly be killed and wounded.
Commander, General Viktor Kazantsev felt his forces have been too "tender
hearted" in Chechnya. The Russian army then formulated new policies in
an attempt to gain a better foothold with the rebels. Use of fuel air explosives,
pressure on the Moscow media not to give "air time to terrorists,"
and the alarming new policy to round up all Chechen males between the ages
of 10 and 60 are some of the Russian army's tactics to bring about some resolution.
Many of the Chechen males are expected to be sent to filtration camps (prison
camps). Human Rights Watch has reported unspeakable acts of torture on the
men and women held in these camps.
is full of precedent for this type of military action. The Czars and Stalin
had also attempted ethnic cleansing of the Muslims because the Muslims had
wanted independence from Russia. The attempt to prevent Chechnya's independence
by Russia may only result in a long, bloody and continuous war. Sergei Koualyev,
a deputy of the Russian State of Duma, predicts the Chechen war is likely
to turn into an Afghan-type guerilla war that will last for years. The Chechens
may continue to fight slowly, patiently and without rest until they have their
had encouraged a cease-fire, but Russia has refused, stating that a cease-fire
would only allow the rebels to regroup. Secretary of State Madeline Albright
encourages Russia to seek a political solution to Chechen independence. France
and Britain have hinted at the possibility of sanctions on Russia. "One
cannot take a civilian population hostage, threaten to treat an entire population
as terrorists, and ask us (European nations) to show understanding,"
said spokeswoman Catherine Colonna. The International Monetary Fund announced
that the release of funds to Russia had been delayed until Russia implements
legal and administrative changes though some sources deny that the delay is
related to the current situation in Chechnya.
action funding, mine clearance and mine awareness are completely non-existent
in the current state of crisis in Chechnya. The few NGO's that have operated
there can only spend limited time in the area. The ICRC withdrew after
the assassination of 6 workers in 1996. MERLIN, (Medical Emergency Relief
International) did distribute mine awareness posters from 1996-1998, but
withdrew later that same year.
HALO Trust withdrew
in December 1999. HALO trust may have been one of the last NGO's operating
in Chechnya. When the fighting got too severe for mine clearance work, HALO
switched its efforts to moving medical supplies between hospitals and maintaining
generators for the civilians. Recently, when the Russians bombarded a mine
field that HALO had been clearing, three of HALO's staff were killed. "There
are no distinctions between civilian and military targets. If it moves they
strike it with aircraft, and if it does not move they shell it," says
HALO director Guy Willoughby. Many feel that HALO was doing instrumental work
in Chechneya, clearing mines and aiding in humanitarian relief efforts.
The Chechen civilians
are caught in the middle of the fighting. Many want to leave through the "safe"
corridors the Russians have provided. They can't trust the roadways. There
are numerous stories of the Russian soldiers demanding bribes and looting
belongings at checkpoints. "To the north are Russian guns, to the south
villages are being hit. They are afraid of becoming targets on both sides
of this war," says Willoughby.
and victim assistance data is not reliable. Estimates from the previous war
cite 800 casualties in 1996, half of which were children. 10% of Children
suffer from acute posttraumatic stress disorders as a result of landmine accidents.
Victim assistance was nearly impossible prior to the current fighting. The
health care system in Chechnya was inadequate before the war because of severe
shortages of equipment, medicine and water. If medical care is available,
the victim must pay for any prosthesis and crutches.
Social and economic
problems were and will continue to be staggering. Lack of financial support
from other countries, information blockades and the absence of humanitarian
relief are all devastating to this tiny mountain country. Only a peace settlement
and mutual cooperation will allow humanitarian organizations to safely begin
the seemingly insurmountable task of rebuilding the lives of the Chechen people.
situation for the Russian Rebels is dire. While multiple rocket launchers
are still being fired at Grozny, the brunt of the fighting has now moved to
the highlands, the last rebel stronghold. Russian forces have launched an
intensive military attack in Alkhan-Kala village where their have been many
rebel casualties to include prominent rebel commanders.
forces have asserted that the attack on Alkhan-Kala was an ambush. The Chechens
were lured there. The fighters were deliberately given a "corridor"
to escape Grozny. This "corridor" was actually a minefield and several
hundred rebel fighters were killed when they entered it. The few dozen who
successfully crossed and reached Alkhan-Kala found the Russians waiting for
At the beginning
of the new millenium, Russia is once again faced with defining its future,
as it did in the early twentieth century. Former president Yeltsin, chagrined
by the comments of leaders in the European Union and the United States over
the aggressive assault on Chechnya, has made the comment, "They must
have forgotten for a moment what Russia is. It has a full arsenal of nuclear
weapons." This may be so, but there is also a rampant black market operating,
severe food shortages, and republics in their federation breaking away from
the motherland. While none will dispute the need for a country to remain strong,
unified and prosperous, these are not the conditions of the current Russian