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Bitter Days for Chechnya
JULY 2005
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Bitter Days for Chechnya @ National Geographic Magazine
By Andrew Meier
Photograph by Ivan Sekretarev, AP/Wide World Photos
The mountains of the Caucasus separate Europe from Asia. Religion, politics—and a decade of war—separate the region's embattled people.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Malika—not the real name of a young Chechen doctor and mother of two—has lost nearly every member of her family to a vicious war of secession that has turned her homeland into a hell that would stretch Dante's imagination. A Russian bomb killed her mother in 2001. Her father survived the blast but couldn't withstand the horror surrounding him and soon succumbed to illness. Russian forces hauled off her brother and held him at a grim makeshift jail for five months. Through the help of the Red Cross he was released, only to die of a heart attack a short time later. 

The worst blow came on a spring night in 2002. At one o'clock in the morning, heavily armed men in masks and helmets broke into Malika's apartment in Groznyy, the capital of Chechnya, and took away her husband. "To this day I don't know if he's alive or dead," she says. Local officials have offered no help. At the Groznyy prosecutor's office, her husband's file is but one of thousands that bear a single heading: "Disappeared."

Malika carries her grief with quiet dignity. But the despair that hangs like a pall over this war-torn enclave has driven some Chechens—including women—to commit desperate, horrific acts. On the first day of September 2004, 32 Chechen-led terrorists seized Middle School Number One in the town of Beslan in the nearby republic of North Ossetia. The 52-hour siege that followed marked a new low in the annals of terrorism. Some 330 people died, more than half of them children. 

As Western news anchors struggled to pronounce the unfamiliar place-names, their viewers watched in disbelief, unable to grasp how human beings could descend to such depravity. Russians, too, watched the tragedy in horror, yet they understood the roots of the terror unfolding in the Caucasus, the mountainous region on their country's southwestern flank that includes Chechnya and other predominantly Muslim republics within the Russian Federation. 

For more than a decade the war in Chechnya has been a bloodbath in which both Russian soldiers and Chechen separatists have paid little attention to the niceties of the Geneva Conventions. In 1991, buoyed by the tide of nationalist movements rising across the U.S.S.R., Chechen Dzhokhar Dudayev, a little-known former Soviet air force general, mounted a secessionist campaign and by year's end declared his ancestral home independent. Moscow condemned the move, fearing that if Chechnya were allowed to secede, other republics would follow suit. "We cannot stand idly by as a piece of Russia breaks off," declared Russian President Boris Yeltsin, "because that would be the beginning of the collapse of the country." 

On New Year's Eve 1994, Yeltsin sent hundreds of tanks into the center of Groznyy, launching a conflict that continues to this day. The fighting has taken between 100,000 and 300,000 lives and displaced upwards of half a million Chechens in a republic that spans just 5,800 square miles (15,000 square kilometers)—an area slightly larger than the state of Connecticut. Groznyy has suffered the worst destruction in Europe since World War II.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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