One Soldier’s War in Chechnya

By Arkady Babchenko
(Excerpts)

1994-2000

Image1

The Chechnya conflict started in the early 1990s, soon after General Dzhokhar Dudayev came to power. In 1991 Dudayev expelled Russian army forces from the territory of Chechnya. When the army withdrew, a huge amount of ammunition was left behind. Lawlessness and chaos set in after Dudayev had announced a 100 per cent amnesty for all criminals, without exception, which led to a huge influx into Chechnya of all kinds of people who were in trouble with the law. The immediate result was an outbreak of banditry, and before long murder and robbery had become commonplace; more often than not, non-Chechens were the victims…

It would be wrong to say that the genocide of the non-Chechen population was a state policy, but Chechens, whose society is based on a system of clans known as teips, were certainly better protected. Since Russians have no teip system they found themselves completely defenceless: no-one was going to avenge their deaths, and this made them easy prey…

I was drafted into the army as a second-year law student in November 1995, a year after the war began…

This book is largely an autobiography – everything in it is true…

Image2From Russia: Making Justice Count in Chechnya 

The first time I really got beaten up was on 9 May… All hell was let loose in our barracks that time. The reconnaissance boys kicked us out of our beds and beat us the whole night… From that day onward I got beaten by everyone, from privates to the deputy regiment commander, Colonel Pilipchuk or Chuk, as we called him for short…

Fourteen members or our company are AWOL, absent without leave. Young conscripts flee in their droves, heading straight from their beds into the steppe, barefoot and wearing only their long johns, unable to withstand the nightly torment any longer…

We can’t chew and we can’t breathe in properly because our chests have been so battered by the fists of the dembels – the recruits in their last six months before demobilization – that they became one huge bruise. We inhale carefully, taking only quick short breaths…

Boxer hits Andy over the head with a stool; he groans and falls to the floor, foam bubbling from his mouth…. Boxer screams and kicks Andy in the stomach with his boot. Andy doesn’t react and it seems like Boxer will beat him to death. He’s capable of it. They all are. They have already tasted killing and they are stronger in spirit than we are. Our lives are worth nothing to them; they have seen many others like us lying dead in the dirt, ripped trousers handing in threads from blue legs, mouths gaping, and they don’t doubt the same will happen to us. What does it matter where we die, here or there? …

dedovshchinaFrom Dedovshchina

We are on muster. We stand there being dressed down by the regimental commander as he tells us about bullying. “You are supposed to be soldiers,” the commander says. “All of you are soldiers, why do you beat each other up?… I warn you now, stop beating the young ones!… Next time I’ll press charges, I swear on my honour as an officer. I’ll start locking people up… : ten years behind bars.”

Behind our backs we hear the crash of a broken glass and the splitting of wood and we turn around. A young recruit flies out of a ground-floor window and hits the ground with a grunt, covering his face with arm as bits of glass and wood scatter around him. He lies there without moving for a few seconds, then jumps to his feet and runs out of sight. A drunken face looms at the window and shouts after him: “I’ll kill you, you little shit!” The regimental commander watches the scene in silence and dismisses us with a wave of his arm…

imgFrom Dedovshchina

Strictly speaking, there is no dedovshchina bullying in our regiment. Dedovshchina is a set of unofficial rules, a kind of a code of laws which, if violated, incur corporal punishment…

Every self-respecting granddad (older soldier) has his own spirit (younger soldier), a personal slave, and only he is allowed to beat and punish him. If someone else starts to harass this spirit then he’ll go straight to the granddad and then there are conflicts: ‘You are bugging him so you’re bugging me…’… A spirit is only obliged to rustle up money, cigarettes and good for his own granddad, and he can ignore anyone else’s demands. The only exception is a granddad who’s stronger than yours…

But there is none of this in our regiment….They beat us for completely different reasons. Our older conscripts have already killed people and buried their comrades and they don’t believe they’ll survive this war themselves. So beatings here are just the norm. Everyone is going to die anyway, both those doing the beating and their victims. So what’s the big deal?

Everybody beats everybody. The dembels, with three months service to go, the officers, the warrant officers. They get stinking drunk and then hammer the ones below them…. No one talks to each other as human beings, they just smack each other in the mouth. Because it’s easier that way, quicker and simpler to understand… Because there are unfed children back home, because the officer corps is addled with impoverishment and hopelessness, because a dembel has three months left, because every second man is shell-shocked. Because our Motherland makes us kill people, our own people, who speak Russian, and we have to shoot them in the head and send their brains flying up the walls, crush them with tanks and tear them to pieces. … Because the one thing that everyone knows is how to get drunk and kill, kill and kill some more…

Army
From Kasparov.ru

Once, back in training, we all had to be checked for venereal diseases. They lined us all up on the parade ground and ordered us to drop our trousers. We stood there naked and a female doctor made her way down the rows, examining us. Each one of us had to display his goods to her for a close-up. None of us had ever stood waiting for a date with his heart missing a beat, or kissed a girl in a doorway… And here we were, standing naked in front of a woman, among hundreds of other stinking, dirty soldiers being examined like cattle…

‘Loop, have you ever been with a girl?’ Osipov asks.

‘Of course I have,’ mumbles Loop, offended… I don’t really believe Loop; it seems he is making it up…

‘What about you?’ Andy asks me.

‘I dunno’

‘How come?’

‘It was at a party. I was pissed out of my head and I don’t remember anything. Maybe that counts?’

‘Sure that counts,’ says Osipov. He is the only one of us who had been with a woman properly, and his authority in such matters is unshakeable…

image4From vk.com

‘How are we supposed to fight, lads?’ Zyuzik asks.

It’s a rhetorical question and no-one is about to answer. We don’t know how to dig trenches, or take cover from machine-gun fire, and we don’t know how to set a tripwired grenade without it blowing up in our hands. No-one teaches us any of this stuff. We don’t even know how to shoot; the guys in our company have only ever handled weapons twice…

‘We’ve got to get out of here,’ says Zyuzik…

It seems nothing could be simpler. The camp isn’t guarded, you just leave and go wherever you want. The great shame of it all is that there is nowhere to go. Run off home? All that awaits us there is prison, since we’ll be branded deserters. And we’d still have to get home. Plenty of soldiers have been murdered or kidnapped on the way, getting whisked straight off to slavery from the station. And there are patrols everywhere. So it’s safest of all in the regiment…

Conscripts

Yakovlev vanished towards evening… No-one looked for Yakovlev… They listed him as a deserter, wrote off his rifle as lost in combat and closed the case.

It was the OMON (paramilitary police) who turned up our missing man during the night, while their were mopping up in the first line. In the cottage cellar they found a mutilated body. Yakovlev. The rebels had slit him open like a tin of meat, pulled out his intestines and used them to strangle him while he was still alive. On the neatly whitewashed wall above him, written in his blood, were the words Allahu akbar – God is great…

knife

I start to sort out the jackets and hang them in the cupboard. The sergeant-major is coming soon and everything has to be in order. I find a letter in the pocket of one of them. It’s to a guy called Komar, written by a girl. I unfold it and read.

My darling Vanya, sunshine, my beloved sweetheart, just be sure to come back, come back alive. I beg you, survive this war. I will have you however you come back, even if you lose your arms or legs. I can look after you, you know that. I’m strong, just please survive! I love you so much Vanya, it’s so hard without you. Vanya, Vanya, my darling, my sunshine, just don’t die. Stay alive, Vanya, please survive.

Letter
From Chitalnya.ru

Several burial detachments are formed in our regiment and they stick our company in one of them.

The bodies keep on coming, a steady stream of them, and it seems it will never end. There are no more of the pretty silver bags. Bodies torn to pieces, charred and swollen, are brought to us in any state, in heaps. Some bodies are more than half burnt – we refer to these among ourselves as ‘smoked goods’, to the zinc coffins as ‘cans’, and to morgues as ‘canning factories’. There is no mocking or black humour in these words, and we say them without smiling. These dead soldiers are still our comrades, our brothers. That’s just what we call them… We heal ourselves with cynicism, preserve our sanity this way so as not to go completely out of our minds…

So we unload bodies, again and again… We stop noticing living people, in fact we hardly see any. Everything that’s living seems temporary to us… They simply have no other choice. They’ll be starved of food and sleep, tormented by lice and filth, be beaten up, have stools smashed over their heads and be raped in the latrines – so what? Their suffering is of no importance; they’re going to get killed anyway…

One day there is a girl on the helicopter, a Chechen of no more than fifteen. Her face is serene as if she is asleep… There’s a hole of the size of a fish in the side of her head where a stone hit her, driving her brain out of her skull like a piston…

‘Fucking war,’ says Zyuzik. ‘What had the girl done to deserve this?’…

There are dead soldiers, dead women, dead children. Everyone’s dead…

Shorn-headed boys, beaten up in our barracks, with broken jaws and ruptured lungs, we were herded into this war and killed by the hundred… We hadn’t yet seen life or even tasted its scent, but we had already seen death. We knew the smell of congealed blood on the floor of a helicopter in a forty-degree heat, knew that the flesh of a torn-off leg turns black, and that a person can burn up entirely in lit petrol, leaving just the bones. We knew that bodies swell up in the heat and we listened every night to the crazed dogs howling in the ruins. Then we started to howl ourselves, because to die at the age of eighteen is a terrifying prospect.

We were betrayed by everyone and we died in a manner befitting real cannon fodder – silently and unfairly…

bodies
From
vk.com

In Mozdok, mothers start to descent on us in their droves. They are looking for their lost sons, and before setting off on foot to Chechnya with their photos they have to look through a mountain of corpses in the refrigerators at the station and in the tents. Constant shrieks and moans can be heard from there and the women have aged ten years when they are led out. Many of them are unable to speak for some time…

I watched an inspection like that once. A relatively young cultured-looking woman, a bit like a teacher in a grey cape, with a black scarf round her head, stood near the tent and they carried bodies out to her. I remember how they brought one of them, burnt to death in a tank, nothing left by bones and a left leg still in a boot. The medic took off the boot in case the woman could identify the body from the toes, and a brown foot slithered out.

You won’t find any smart, handsome boys in these tents. They were got out of the war by their rich daddies, leaving it to us ordinary folk to die in Grozny, the ones who didn’t have the money to pay our way out. Heaped in these tents are the sons of labourers, teachers, peasant and blue-collar workers, basically all those who were made penniless by the government’s thieving reforms and then left to waste away… Truth and nobility in heart are no longer virtues in our world – those who believe in them are the first to die…

Russian Mothers
A group of Russian soldier’s mothers who had taken the initiative to travel down to the Caucasus to bring back their sons.
from World Press Photo

They take Zyuzik to hospital after Boxer broke his finger by beating him with a stool… I ask Zyuzik to talk to the doctors to see if there isn’t a place for me here. They don’t discharge the boys if they can help it; they try to keep them here as long as possible, even get the decommissioned. The doctors care for us more than the commanders and they hide us from this war as best they can. They understand very well that to discharge them from the hospital means to send them straight to the front. The healthy ones die, and the sick ones live… I’m not allowed to stay in the hospital, not even spend the night there…

Image5A man wounded in the first Chechen war adjusts to a prosthesis. Yevgeny Stetsko, photographer.

I go into town more and more often and just wander round the streets, observing civilian life… It’s a peculiar town. Life and death exist side by side here; routine work by day, robberies and shootings by night. After nightfall you can’t set foot outside because of the risk of being abducted into slavery or gunned down. Being killed here is as natural as being late for work. But still people leave their homes every morning and go about their business, as if the worst that can happen to them is that they miss the bus…

An elderly woman comes out of a house.

‘Where are you from, soldier’ she asks.

I answer.

‘What are you doing sitting our here? Come on, I’ll make you tea.’…

I live at her home for five days. Her name is Aunt Lusya. There were many soldiers who lived with the Chechens and Ossetians, who found temporary shelter in their homes from the horrors of war. There were plenty of good people among the Chechens. Auntie Lusya is Russian. She used to live in Grozny, but when they started to slaughter the Russians she moved to Mozdok to stay with her daughter-in-law. If it weren’t for this flat she probably would have got killed, just like they killed her youngest son – Chechens broke into her flat and stabbed him to death right in front of her eyes, then they cut off his head and dumped it in the dustbin.

Her eldest son died in an air raid when he was taking his mother out of town in the winter of 1995. All Aunt Lusya has left of him is the bundle of bloody clothes they had given her at the morgue…

‘I survived the Second World War. I was five.’ Say Aunt Lusya. ‘A German gave me a loaf of bread. And a Russian killed my son.’…

Grosny
From Chechnya

Fighting rages on in Grozny. No-one collects the bodies anymore and they lay on the asphalt and on the pavement, between the smashed trees, as if they are part of the city. Carriers rumble over them at speed, they get tossed around by explosions. Blackened bones are scattered around burnt-out vehicles.

When it gets dark, strange silhouettes in skirts appear on the streets, lots of them, wandering from kerb to kerb, stopping at the corpses. They turn them over onto their backs and study their faces for a long time…

We finally realize that these are the mothers of soldiers; they have come here to find their missing sons and are searching for them among these mangled bodies…

The mothers have it worst of all in this war. They don’t belong to either side, they get the brush off from the Russian generals; our soldiers don’t let them sleep in the battalions and shoot at them from the block posts. And as one priest we freed from captivity told me, the Chechens take them off into the mountains and rape them, kill them and feed their innards to their dogs. They have been betrayed by everyone, these Russian women, they die by the dozen, yet still they wander round Chechnya with their photos, searching for their sons…

The next night our side brings up a bulldozer and pushes all the bodies into a crater. No-one bothers them and they bury them all during one night.

Mum
From Truthmedia.org

Then Chechens start killing our guys they took prisoner. They shout from the end of the street to get out attention and show a few soldiers, badly beaten and with their hands tied behind their backs. The Chechens laugh and shout something at us in their language and then quickly put one of the prisoners on his side on the asphalt, pin his head with a foot and stab him twice in the throat with a knife. The boy jerks his tied hands and whimpers, and a black trickle spreads from his slashed throat onto the road. The Chechens go back round the corner, leaving him to die on the asphalt.

He lies a long time on his side without moving, and then he starts to twitch. He jerks his bound hands and tries to turn over as if he is uncomfortable, then he falls quiet again. It is painful for him to move and he obediently lies on his side, with a gaping throat that keeps pumping a black trickle When we think he is already dead he starts to twitch again and tries to crawl, then goes still again. This goes on a long time…

‘Bastards!’ says Murky, unable to bear it any longer. He jumps up and shouts of the blocks, ‘Just kill him you fuckers! Shoot him you bastards. Bastards!’…

The boy soon starts to choke; he can’t breathe and blood sprays from his mouth as he coughs… When he stops moving altogether the Chechens shoot him in the back with tracer rounds… They also kill the rest of the prisoners…

prisoners
Russian prisoners of war in central Grozny, January, 1995.

A friend of mine told me how their battalion entered some village or other. It didn’t get shelled much and was almost intact, but round the main square were large crosses upon which Russian soldiers had been crucified. They’d been nailed up by their hands and each had a few bullet holes in his chest. They had all been castrated.

The commander ordered them to do a sweep through the village. All the men who could be found were herded into the square. They were thrown down in piles and then our soldiers started to hack them up. One guy pinned a Chechen to the ground with his foot while another pull off his trousers and with two or three hefty slashes severed his scrotum… In half a day the whole village was castrated, then the battalion moved out…

Tank
A Russian Army tank passes by a destroyed house in Bamut, a village in western Chechnya, during a battle between federal forces and Chechen separatist guerrillas in May 1996. Alexei Balabanov

No-one returns from the war. Ever. Mothers get back a sad semblance of their sons – embittered, aggressive beasts, hardened against the whole world and believing in nothing except death. Yesterday’s soldiers no longer belong to their parents. They belong to war, and only their body returns from war. Their soul stays there…

Image3
From 
Dedovshchina

* * *

Human Rights Watch Reports:

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19 thoughts on “One Soldier’s War in Chechnya

  1. I am not sure I can like this post as it tells a disturbing story. There are some terrible things that happen to people by other people who have little or no compassion nor connection with humanity.
    If your point is to bring an awareness of this awful situation you have done well. What a human being can do to another with no suggestion of recognising them as a fellow human is beyond comprehension.
    To kill any person in cold blood because you believe them to be non human is a the result of years of teaching that those who are not like you are not human at all. Sadly the history of the world keeps repeating itself over and over.
    I hope you see the world as a place of love and compassion rather than the view of helplessness that this story suggests.

    • Otrazhenie says:

      This post is not aimed at comforting the disturbed – it is aimed at disturbing the comfortable, Michael. I felt that this story is particularly important for my Hell on Earth page at https://otrazhenie.wordpress.com/hell-on-earth/ as the soldiers in this story are boys of my generation, who were sitting next to me at school, who were living next door to my flat… I was living in Russia almost till the end of Chechen war so I know so well everything this story tells … 😦

      You are lucky to know only the world of love and compassion. Unfortunately, I’ve seen both worlds in my life 😦

      This story has a number of points, which are also expressed in other posts on the Hell on Earth page (including stories from Afghanistan and Bosnia), particularly the following three:
      • “Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.” In a war either you kill or you’ll be killed. There is no choice. War degrades everybody to a wild beast without exceptions.
      • “War does not determine who is right – only who is left.”
      • “There is only one thing that arouses animals more than pleasure, and that is pain” and unfortunately we still see lots of examples of that with people tortured in various part of the world.

      • Ok, now I know the context I react differently. Firstly I am sorry if i came across as uncaring as I didn’t know your context for the story.
        I can well appreciate your response to this story. The reality is foreign to me, I make no pretence at knowing nor understanding what you have seen and experienced. Yes I live in a world that has been spared such experiences, but I am very much aware of man’s inhumanity to man.
        You are right about the nature of war, it does have those features you have listed.
        And you have succeeded in disturbing this uncomfortable.

      • Otrazhenie says:

        It is hard to understand how it feels in a ‘Hell on Earth’ until you experience it on your own skin. I wish so much such stories would disturb the generals and politicians – all those people at the top who are keen to start wars without ever experiencing all war horrors on their own skin. 😦

      • That’s the never ending point about war isn’t it that those who start them do so without any understanding of the fury they are unleashing. Thanks for sharing all this with the world O.
        And for a person living in affluent Australia in 2013 it is ‘hard to understand’ or relate to the situations you raise in your blog. but I read with an open mind, moved very much by what I read.

      • Otrazhenie says:

        I know, Michael. Surprisingly, lots of people back in Russia who were not personally affected by those events, also find it ‘hard to understand’ those, who went through that hell. Kayla Williams, American female soldier who served in Iraq, expressed that point very well in her book ‘Love my rifle more than you: “I was incredibly happy to be back in America. But … I kept having feelings of wanting to be back there (in Iraq)… When you come home … you feel this guilt for not being with your brothers. For not being with your people… There was culture shock. Everyone in America was fat. Everyone was on some stupid diet… I felt like people didn’t understand anything. That they were selfish and didn’t appreciate what they had.” I feel the same with most Russian people I meet – they are so obsessed with small superficial things that do not really matter, because they don’t understand… 😦

      • This is such a good point O, and most of us in the western world where we have it so good, would fit into the category of the blissfully ignorant. There is so much in this world hat I don’t know and that I learn about each day. Thank you for enlightening me.
        I wish I had a more adequate answer.

  2. I have read this book before. It was very well written and eye opening to the types of abuse that still take place. Definitely a suggested read for anyone reading this post.

    • Otrazhenie says:

      Very well written book, though I would not say that it was ‘eye-opening’ for me as I was living in Russia almost till the end of Chechen war so I knew so well everything this story tells … 😦

      This book is so true, so painfully true… The soldiers in this story were the boys of my generation, who were sitting next to me at school, who were living next door to my flat… The mothers in this book were my neighbours, teachers, nurses…

      I wish so much such stories would disturb the generals and politicians – those who are keen to start wars without ever experiencing all war horrors on their own skin. 😦

  3. Man’s inhumanity to man, a powerful writing on this topic

    • Otrazhenie says:

      It is a very painful topic. When humans are put into inhumane conditions, they do become inhumane in their fight for survival. Unfortunately, we still see that all over the globe. 😦

      I hope such powerful writings will bring the change and will stop all wars and violence on this planet.

  4. Willy Nilly says:

    Otrazhenie, I appreciate what you do here. We are a species genetically wired to conflict, always restless to conquer and vanquish an invented foe. We will repeat history; each time thinking it will end as we intend it. The egos of great men feed on the blood of innocence, insatiable in their appetite. The currency of war is blood and it never seems to be in short supply. I found my heart aching for those young souls as they fought their own wars. I befriended Russian soldiers in Bosnia and found that we shared a common bond. I began to dream of world peace; if only three or four great nations joined hands. But, the appetite for blood and power has no need of peace. At least here, one can come to understand the truth and not pay for their understanding with the taste of blood and bile in their mouth, the stench of burning hair and flesh in every breath, and the screams of the injured and dying ringing in their ears. Keep writing until your heart is happy and the images and sounds of this dark side of mankind has faded, resurrected no more.

  5. […] One Soldier’s War in Chechnya […]

  6. […] Russia, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya… – this can happen to anyone […]

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