Perpetual Chechnya

October 26, 2002

IN MARCH 1995, a correspondent for The Sun walked along the streets that demarcated the rubble that had once been the center of Grozny, capital of Chechnya. Whatever had not been pulverized was riddled with bullet holes. One old truck near the Presidential Palace had been remade into fine filigree. The Russian soldiers at their posts wore black bandanas over the lower halves of their faces, like cattle rustlers. In front of one checkpoint, they had left a body out on the street, a warning to others.

This was the first Chechen war. No one was talking about terrorism or jihad then.

The correspondent came upon a family that lived by night in a pitch-black bomb shelter in a park. They came out in the daytime, avoiding the land mines and fresh graves all around, to wash and cook. Indira Bitayeva, her right eye shut tight by an oozing infection, was scooping green water out of the bottom of a bomb crater; her mother needed it for the soup she was making.

Indira was 14. Suppose, for a moment, that she survived the first Chechen war, and the second. She would be 21 today. She would likely have married by now, might very probably be a widow. A Chechen widow with nothing left to lose - could that have been Indira on television this week, wrapped in a black chador and a belt of plastic explosives, ready along with other Chechen widows to take the lives of several hundred hostages at a theater in Moscow?

If not her, they were women very much like her.

It is difficult to convey the devastation that the Russian army has visited upon Chechnya, but not hard to imagine the physical and emotional damage that its people have suffered, and that have pushed some to the extremes.

The Russians may once have hoped they could wipe out a generation of Chechen fighters, but they succeeded only in filling a new generation with hate and bitterness. Those who were barely in their teens when the fighting began are weathered veterans today. The apparent leader of the Moscow hostage-takers is the nephew of an especially vicious warlord of the 1990s.

But the perpetual war in Chechnya is always evolving. No woman would have worn a veil in 1995. Nobody would have flown a banner in Arabic. In 1995, Chechens seized a hospital in nearby southern Russia, and the whole country was transfixed. Now they've taken a theater in the capital, and struck at the heart of the nation.

The Chechens have draped their rebellion in the trappings of holy war. It had to happen - how could it not, in this age when any struggle involving Muslims becomes fertile ground for Islamist warriors? Al-Qaida has been there to lend a hand. The enemies now are not "Russian pigs" - the age-old foes of Caucasian rebels - but "infidels."

It is a sad and fatal step - for Chechens as well as for Russians - because a holy war doesn't lend itself to a negotiated settlement. But peace has little to offer the Indira Bitayevas of the world - their childhood and nation and families destroyed. They become destroyers themselves.

Today, Moscow is in the center of the whirlwind. Russian President Vladimir Putin rose to power and popularity on the strength of his prosecution of the second Chechen war, but now that war has come to his doorstep.

His options are terribly limited. He thought he was ruthless, but his opponents are more ruthless, and in their own minds unconquerable.

"We are more keen on dying than you are keen on living," said one of the hostage-takers this week.

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