Published: July 2005
How did it come to this?
By Andrew Meier

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—an area slightly larger than the state of Connecticut. Groznyy has suffered the worst destruction in Europe since World War II.

Chechnya is the bleeding heart of the Caucasus, which stretches 750 miles from the Black to the Caspian Seas. This has been coveted ground since the days of Genghis Khan: Warriors have sought the sanctuary of its mountains; traders have jockeyed for access to its ports; and, most recently, oilmen have converged on the petroleum fields of the Caspian. Its Russian name, Kavkaz, conjures a potent genie—not only a crossroads of tumult, but a realm of romance. These are the perilous lands where brides are still kidnapped, blood feuds are fierce, and a centuries-old struggle for sovereignty rages on.

In the post-Soviet era the mountains have separated Russia from the countries of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan to the south. The lands north of the massifs, a linguistic and ethnic maze known collectively as the North Caucasus, comprise seven Russian republics: Adygeya, Karachayevo-Cherkesiya, Kabardino-Balkariya, North Ossetia, Ingushetiya, Chechnya, and Dagestan.

Among this profusion of ancient peoples, amid the labyrinth of ethnic and religious traditions, one group always seemed to stand apart: the Chechens. Few have yearned more fervently, or more militantly, for freedom. Since their first skirmish with Peter the Great's cavalry in 1722, Chechens have struggled to escape Russian domination. During a journey across the Caucasus in 1858—a time when the Muslim mountaineers were waging holy war against tsarist rule—the writer Alexandre Dumas noted their martial spirit: "All these mountain fighters are fanatically brave, and whatever money they acquire is spent on weapons. A Chechen . . . may be literally in rags, but his sword, dagger, and gun are of the finest quality."

Even in the gulag, the Soviet Union's prison labor camps, the Chechens stood out. Dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in Gulag Archipelago, wrote of them with envy: "There was one nation which would not give in, would not acquire the mental habits of submission—and not just individual rebels among them, but the whole nation to a man. These were the Chechens."

The roots of the present trouble, like so much of the tension across the Caucasus, began with Joseph Stalin. When the Bolshevik army finally wrested control over the region in the 1920s, Stalin, then nationalities commissar, hatched a scheme to subjugate the restive population: Embed enough ethnic, linguistic, and religious contradictions into the political geography so as to preoccupy the locals and ensure that Moscow's firm hand would be required to maintain order. In the case of the hyphenated republics Karachayevo-Cherkesiya and Kabardino-Balkariya, natural enemies were forced to live side by side. "It wasn't just divide and conquer," Ali Kazikhanov, editor of the newspaper Severny Kavkaz, told me in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkariya. "It was divide, conquer, and tie up in trouble."

On February 23, 1944, Red Army Day, the entire Chechen and Ingush populations were forced into exile. Stalin had wrongly accused them of collaborating with the Nazi invaders, and they were rounded up and packed off in freight cars to Central Asia and Siberia. The true toll may never be known, but historians believe hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children perished en route or in exile.

In 1957 Stalin’s successor, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, allowed the Chechens and Ingush to return home. Slowly they reclaimed their towns and villages from Russian settlers, and for nearly half a century there followed muted acquiescence to Moscow. Yet in the final years of the Soviet Union, the Chechens were among the first to test their bonds. As independence movements sprang up from the Baltics to the Russian Far East, cries for freedom in Chechnya ignited a rebellion. On the final day of 1994 Yeltsin responded to Dudayev’s declaration of an independent Chechnya by launching what is now referred to as the first Chechen war.

It would be a long, dismal campaign that pitted blundering Russian generals and teen-age conscripts against a few thousand resolute Chechen guerrillas. For Moscow, the war soon devolved into a costly and deeply unpopular quagmire. For the Chechens, however, it was a war of infinite passion and pride. "Those who fought in the first war were driven by one goal," says Timur Aliev, a Chechen journalist. "The rebels pursued a dream inherited from our ancestors: freedom."

It was a time of ascendant heroes, men who rose from obscurity to find fame in the bloodshed. Men like Shamil Basayev, a Chechen commander named in honor of the Caucasus’s most fabled warrior, Imam Shamil, leader of the mountaineers' 19th-century campaigns against the tsars. In 1859 Shamil was forced to surrender to the Russians, but his holy war would live on.

Under Yeltsin, the first war ended neither in victory nor defeat. Rather, in August 1996, after the Chechen rebels swarmed back and recaptured Groznyy, both sides agreed to a cease-fire. For the next three years the republic languished without a functioning legal or economic infrastructure. Islamic jurisprudence, replete with sharia courts and public lashings, was introduced. Yet with the republic cordoned off from the rest of the Russian Federation by an economic quarantine, trade in kidnappings and bootleg gasoline boomed. The Chechens had won the day, but their homeland had degenerated into a lawless enclave, a magnet for Islamist extremists, and a time bomb in the center of the North Caucasus.

If in the first war the Chechen rebels were freedom fighters in an archetypal struggle of decolonization, the war that began anew in the summer of 1999—the "second war," which continues to smolder—marked a sharp turn. It began when some 1,200 Chechen militants invaded neighboring Dagestan in an implausible and short-lived attempt to unite the Islamic states of the North Caucasus. Then came a series of apartment bombings in Moscow and two other Russian cities.

Under the command of Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer who succeeded Yeltsin on New Year's Eve 1999, the Russian response would be even more brutal than the first. "Our strategy is simple," said Gennady Troshev, one of Putin's top generals. "If they shoot at us from a house, we destroy the house. If they shoot from all over a village, we destroy the village."

By late 1999 hundreds of thousands of Chechen civilians had fled their homes. Most went west, to neighboring Ingushetiya. Many, however, had no choice but to head south across the highest mountains in Europe, trekking for days through deep snow, often under threat from Russian warplanes. In Duisi, at the mouth of the Pankisi Gorge across the border in Georgia, I met with one group of Chechen refugees. Crowded into a long-abandoned hospital ward, its bare concrete rooms windowless and without heat, even the young ones had no trouble recognizing the Kremlin's change of tactics.

"In the first war," said Roza, a nine-year-old girl with tightly braided red hair, "we'd sit in the cellar and count the bombs. But this time there are so many bombs we can't even count them."

Soon more than 300,000 Chechens had flooded into Ingushetiya, where they lived in squalid camps. Those who remained in Chechnya, now occupied by 100,000 Russian troops, struggled to survive. By the time of Putin's inauguration in early 2000, Groznyy lay in ruins for the second time in a decade. Amid the devastation, the dream of sovereignty gave way to the urge for revenge, and among the most militant the insurgency took on a new name—jihad.

Wahhabism, the most austere form of Islam, which emanates from Saudi Arabia, has held great allure for young Chechens raised on war, Russian brutality, and little else. The insurgency has long attracted foreign Islamist militants, who see the breakaway republic as both a cause to support and a potential center of global operations. But many Chechens argue that Wahhabism and other imported strains of Islam run contrary to their traditions and true identity.

"We are in danger of losing our young people to militant Islam," says Kuri Idrisov, a Chechen psychiatrist who for five years worked with refugee children in the sprawling tent camps of Ingushetiya. He and most other Chechens have watched the stream of terrorist attacks, allegedly undertaken on their behalf, in despair.

"The war has taken an unimaginable toll," says Libkhan Bazaeva, founder of a center that provides legal and medical services to Chechen women. "The extreme circumstances have radicalized society. Not only have our houses been destroyed, but our national soul is also in ruins. This is our greatest task, to rebuild it."

In Groznyy today, much of the rubble has been cleared, but the city remains far from its prewar state, when it was home to 400,000 residents, many of whom worked its vast petrochemical plants. Still, life has regained a rhythm. Kebab vendors are again grilling at their roadside stands, fruit markets are open downtown, and on occasion city residents—who now number some 250,000—even find traffic jams. Russian troops are still there, but many of their checkpoints have been removed, and the soldiers rarely venture from their fortified bases. At the state university, teachers such as Katya Sokirianskaia, an ethnic Russian from St. Petersburg, no longer have to lecture over bursts of gunfire outside. But Sokirianskaia has no illusions. "Very little has been done by way of real reconstruction," she says, "let alone revival of a civic life."

Worse still, the mass murder at Beslan brought the Caucasus to a new precipice. In the aftermath of the school massacre, Chechen commander Shamil Basayev, in communiques signed 'Abdallah Shamil Abu-Idris, leader of the Riyadh as-Salihiin"—the Gardens of the Righteous martyrs brigade—took credit for the raid. He has also vowed to carry on the terror campaign until Russian forces leave Chechnya.

Now Chechens no longer talk of the sovereignty they struggled for in the first war. In Groznyy talk has turned to basic needs, to personal and economic security. "They're tired of Russian soldiers staging raids on their villages," says Katya Sokirianskaia of her students. "They're tired, too, of Chechen fighters taking over the same villages. They're tired of the criminal bureaucracy, of corruption and chaos. They're tired of the disappearances, the gunfire at night, the uncertain future. They're tired of it all. They want only a moment of peace."