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WEB EXCLUSIVE
Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from Grozny

By MARK MacKINNON
Globe and Mail Update
Friday, January 31, 2003
FROM THE FIELD
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PICTURES FROM MOSCOW AND GROZNY

Troops enter the theater seized by Chechen rebels in Moscow. Photo: Dmitry Lovetsky/AP


With scenes of devastation flanking both sides of the tramway tracks, a resident walks through the deserted scene in the Chechen capital of Grozny. Photo: AFP


A young child thumbs through a magazine on the doorstep of a destroyed building in central Grozny while a cat sits on his lap. Photo: Igor Mikhalyov/AP

Major-General Anatoly Kriachkov was just warming to his topic when the first bomb went off.

Chechnya is becoming extremely normal, he was telling a group of foreign reporters assembled in his headquarters near the centre of downtown Grozny. So much so that local Chechens are lining up to join the Grozny police force. So much so that the Chechen war is effectively over.

The blast shook the building and rattled the windows of Gen. Kriachkov's office.

He smiled a weak smile and tried to regain his derailed train of thought.

“What was that?” one of the journalists finally asked. “I don't know,” he answered, the smile never leaving his face.

A true professional, Gen. Kriachkov finished his monologue on the good works the Russians are doing in Grozny by encouraging his audience to look past the shattered buildings to the progress being made in the “normalization” of Chechnya.

As a group we walked outside to the parking lot, where Gen. Kriachkov -- the top Russian officer in Grozny -- made a few final points. Chechnya, he said, was well on its way to once more becoming a functioning part of a “multinational Russia.” Peace and harmony would reign. Just then a second blast shook the city sending journalists ducking for cover.

We found out later -- from wire services, not Gen. Kriachkov's office -- that what we had heard was the sound of bombs going off in Grozny's central market. Three Russian soldiers had been killed, but there was little hysteria. In spite of the Gen. Kriachkov's soothing words, this kind of thing still happens every day in one of the world's bloodiest war zones.

The previous day, wire services reported that eight more soldiers were killed in another part of the breakaway republic. Whatever Chechnya is three years after this latest war began, it isn't pacified.

The capital city remains an absolute mess - nearly every building has been reduced to rubble by rocket fire and tank shelling. You're literally surprised to see a building without any major battle scars on it. Collectively, it's a breathtaking tribute to mankind's capability to destroy what it has built.

This much I and the group of foreign reporters I was travelling with knew already. We'd seen the pictures. What we wanted to find out by going into Grozny was how the residents were surviving and how many of them privately cheered when Movsar Barayev took the fight to Moscow by taking a theatre audience hostage and threatening to blow up all 800 people inside.

But going to Grozny these days isn't easy. You need permission from the Russian government to travel in the region. And you need armed babysitters. Reporters caught in Chechnya without such accessories risk expulsion from Russia - not an appetizing thought for those of us who live here.

So there we were - perhaps a dozen or more reporters crammed onto a bus as it slowly drove through Grozny, peering out the windows like tourists driving by Niagara Falls but afraid to step outside and get splashed.

Except in this case it was our tour guides who wouldn't let us off the bus. We would see Grozny, but only the Grozny they wanted us to see.

Several times, when the bus was stopped, we tried to interview ordinary people and ask them what life in Grozny was really like. After a short discussion - the answer was always something akin to “hellish” - our armed minders always ended our conversations and put us back on the bus.

Given our surroundings, we had little choice but to comply.

After Gen. Kriachkov's office, they took us to a college that had recently received donated computers, a hospital that had received a fresh paint job to cover the bullet holes, a radio station that was still broadcasting and a bread factory that was still making bread.

The paucity of sites on the Kremlin tour spoke volumes on its own. So did those who worked there, especially at the hospital, where they'd grown numb to the screaming casualties brought into their wards every night. Their stories were terrible enough to make us wonder even more about what we weren't being told.

From the Russian army's point of view, the highlight of the trip and of the planned reconstruction for Grozny, was the brand-new administrative headquarters of the Kremlin-installed government. The beige-walled structure was the only building in the city that was fully intact, and that perhaps wouldn't have looked out of place in the centre of Moscow.

Exactly a month after we were there, two trucks drove up to the front door and detonated one and a half tonnes of TNT. The administrative building was reduced to smouldering rubble.

The next batch of journalist-tourists will have to spend a little more time on the bus, I fear, gazing out the window. The Kremlin's “Chechnya is fine!” tour is one stop shorter.

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