Once-safe town leveled by Russian barrages

After rebels' stay, two days of bombing leave a smoking ruin

February 18, 2000|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

KATYR-YURT, Russia -- During more than four months of war, this town of 10,000 people seemed to be one of the safest places in Chechnya. Russian troops encircled the community and controlled the roads leading in and out. As federal forces bombed the city of Grozny 22 miles to the east, refugees fleeing the destruction found a haven here.

But all that changed Feb. 4 when a band of several hundred rebels arrived in Katyr-Yurt in the dead of night, wet from crossing the icy Sunzha River to escape from the Chechen capital.

The rebels told residents they would stay only a few hours to dry their clothes. An hour later, the Russians began bombing and shelling the town. The intense bombardment lasted two days -- ending long after the rebels had left carrying their dead and wounded.

Today, Katyr-Yurt is a smoking ruin with a few residents. At least 170 civilians were killed in the assault, and dozens more might be entombed in the rubble, residents said.

An estimated 80 percent of the town's buildings were destroyed, and the rest are too severely damaged to be habitable. What were once trees are now mangled stumps. There is so much debris that it is hard to tell where the streets were.

The bombs not only destroyed the people's homes but killed most of their cattle, sheep and chickens -- their principal source of food. It has even become dangerous to gather firewood in the forest because Russian helicopters flying overhead shoot at anything that moves.

Russian officials previously acknowledged that hundreds of civilians have died in the war. Chechens contend that the figure should be perhaps tens of thousands and say the fighting has caused more damage in towns and villages than resulted from the first Chechen war, which lasted from 1994 to 1996 and killed an estimated 80,000 people.

In this war, besides nearly leveling Grozny, the Russians have destroyed about 40 percent of the towns and villages, Chechens say. The higher degree of devastation might result in part from the Russian military's greater reliance on bombing and artillery in an effort to keep its own casualty count down -- despite the cost to civilians.

After the destruction of their town ended, the people of Katyr-Yurt were left to bury their dead, gather a few meager possessions and ask why it happened to them.

"I don't understand it," said Mutush Khamidov, 62. "Federal troops entered our village long ago. They had their positions all around us. There were a lot of Russian soldiers, and they were all well-armed.

"Why did they let the rebels enter? Did they do it on purpose to destroy this town?"

In a similar case, Russian television reported Monday that federal forces recently attacked the town of Gekhi-Chu after retreating rebel fighters had stopped there to rest overnight.

Once the rebels departed, residents said, Russian forces demolished hundreds of houses and killed at least five people.

Among those who had found refuge in Katyr-Yurt was Matusa Batalova, 85, who had been a nurse for the Soviet army during World War II. A resident of Grozny, she fled with her daughter, traveling from town to town until she reached Katyr-Yurt.

"We were running and running away from the war, but it caught up with us here," she said.

When the bombing began, Batalova said, she and her daughter hid in a cellar with 18 other people. The noise of the bombing was so intense, she said, that they all temporarily went deaf.

"The earth shook and shook and shook, and it seemed it would never stop," she said. "The house over us was demolished, and eight people in our basement died. They were sitting closer to the door and shielded us from death with their bodies."

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