Underlying hatreds fueltensions in Chechnya Besieged residents decry treatment over years by the Russians

January 20, 1996|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SERNAVODSK, Chechnya -- Try to approach or leave this small town at the base of the towering Caucasus mountain range and nervous Russian troops fire automatic weapons in the air warning away all movement. Black scorch marks in the snow and burned-out cars near this place on the vast frozen plains that reach to the mountains show what happens to those who don't heed the warning.

For four months, the Chechens of Sernavodsk have been besieged by Russian troops in an ordeal that helps to explain the underlying hatreds that exploded this week in the Dagestan deathtrap village of Pervomayskoye and aboard a pirated Black Sea ferry.

"What's happened in Dagestan and Turkey is the voice of desperation trying to get the world's attention at what Russia has done to us," said Adlan, one of hundreds of residents of Sernavodsk who cannot reach their spouses or children unless they strike out on foot across open fields, posing easy targets for Russian soldiers.

Adlan, who would not give his last name, watched television coverage of the hostage dramas this week from nearby Slepsovsk, just over the border of the Russian republic of Ingushetia. He said he would not be surprised if one of his rebel soldier brothers was involved.

But, he asked, why haven't the television cameras hovering at the Pervomayskoye battle over hostages 50 miles away ever visited this town of 12,000 -- plus 10,000 refugees from the pulverized Chechen capital of Grozny -- to document the Russian troops choking it off from the outside world?

"We want you to open your eyes to what the Russians have done to us," Adlan said.

He didn't mean just the crisis that has gripped Sernavodsk, but the historic treatment of Chechens -- a Muslim people whose land isn't marked on most maps and whose culture of blood feuds, warrior heroes and clannish kinship was ridiculed as "superstition" by officials of the Soviet Union and is still called a "bandit" culture by many Russians.

Exiled during World War II

Adlan's generation -- almost every Chechen between 35 and 55 -- was born outside Chechnya because Soviet dictator Josef Stalin exiled the entire Chechen people to Kazakhstan during World War II.

War has simmered off and on for the past year in this breakaway republic of Russia. In this region west of Grozny and on the edge of the mountainous rebel-held territory of southern Chechnya, the sounds and sights of the Russian grip are common: artillery fire in the mountains, major highways shut down by Russian armored personnel carriers, helicopter gunships patrolling over villages.

Sernavodsk town elders had peacefully -- but stubbornly -- refused to accept a Moscow-appointed local government after Russian forces won the first stage of the civil war last year. Residents set up a "meeting" -- or permanent 24-hour vigil encampment protesting Russian control.

On Oct. 16, when Russian troops set up checkpoints on all roads and railway tracks leading to Sernavodsk, locals said they were nervous but not surprised.

But slowly the checkpoints became harder to pass through. And for at least a month -- since rebel activity in other parts of the country started heating up around the time of Russian elections in December -- no one has been allowed to come or go at all. Locals must clandestinely cross snowpacked fields or go through roundabout mountain passes on foot to bring supplies to their families.

No relief for refugees

International relief agencies have not been able to enter Sernavodsk for a month to deliver food supplies to refugees, said Bashir Ozodev, a local administrator for the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration.

There has been no official Russian explanation for the closure of the town, Mr. Ozodev said.

"But as I understand it, they say [rebel] fighters could be there," he said.

There are no Russian officials in the area to explain the situation, only the adolescent soldiers in charge of the checkpoints who come running forward with Kalashnikovs blazing skyward and cigarettes dangling from their lips at the first sign of movement on the road.

'This is a war zone'

One Russian soldier explained to a visiting reporter, who was instructed to keep hands in the air during a brief conversation, that "this is a war zone, it is not controlled by Russian troops and it is dangerous."

Certainly it is impossible to find anyone in the area who sympathizes with the Russians. On the other hand, rebel sympathies range broadly.

There are those who claim steadfastly to be rebel fighters waiting for call-up orders from their commanders in the hills. There are dozens of locals who seem less likely to fight but proudly recite their blood ties to Chechen rebel leader Dzhokhar M. Dudayev and can produce photos of themselves with him and his older sister, who lives in Sernavodsk. And there are those who would like to see Russian rule end but profess no love for Mr. Dudayev, who led the revolt that began the war with the Russians.

Displaced refugees

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