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19 March 2018 10:55 (South Africa)

Chechnya, a story written in blood and tears

  • Greg Marinovich
    Greg Marinovich

    Born in South Africa in 1962, Greg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and is co-author of The Bang Bang Club, a nonfiction book on South Africa’s transition to democracy. He has spent 25 years doing conflict, documentary and news photography around the globe. His photographs have appeared in top international publications such as Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, The Guardian of London, among others.  
    He is chair of the World Press Master Class nominating committee for Africa, and was a World Press Photo judge in 1994 and 2005. In 2009 he was the recipient of the Nat Nakasa award for courageous journalism. Marinovich was Editor-In-Chief of the Twenty Ten project and responsible for managing over 100 African journalists’ work in all forms of media.
    Currently, Editor-at-Large for IMaverick and Daily Maverick, doing freelance photography and making a film about the former militants in Thokoza township, South Africa, and writing a non-fiction book about an infamous murderer who just happened to be married to Marinovich’s mother.

  • World

While the US authorities hunt for links explaining the actions of the brothers who bombed Boston, GREG MARINOVICH remembers the days he spent in Chechnya during mad days of war with Russia, when the Tsarnaev's ancestral homeland decided it had enough of Russian domination. They may have been born in Kyrgyzstan, but the the blood spilled by Chechens through centuries must have shaped them immeasurably.

I went to Chechnya on assignment for an American news magazine that no longer exists in that form. The brief was pretty broad - I was to photograph what was happening in Chechnya six months after the destruction of its capital, Grozny.

These days, America is reeling, trying to come to terms with why two young men, the brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who had grown up in multicultural suburban Boston, would decide to commit an act of terrorism against their adopted nation.

Chechnya hit world headlines in 1994 when the brutal winter battle for the capital Grozny saw thousands die. Grozny was the prize for Chechen separatists who wanted to be free of hundreds of years of living under Russian rule, be it under the guise of the Tsars, the Soviets or modern Russia.

This militancy came as a surprise to many, but a couple of years before, Chechen militants had made their presence felt in the heart of Europe during the Bosnian war. Volunteer Chechens joined other ‘Jihadists’ to help the outgunned and overwhelmed Bosnian Muslims fight both Serbian and Croat forces in Europe’s first major conflict since WWII.

It was after the Second World War that Chechen anger and resentment really began to grow, when Stalin saw fit to use collective punishment against a nation for their supposed Nazi collaboration. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims from Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia were forced out of their homes to other, less idyllic parts of the Soviet Union – Siberia and Central Asia. Thousands were executed.

The Tsarnaev family was among those deported by Stalin and eventually allowed back under Nikita Khrushchev’s more permissive rule.

One can image the family and national stories that were fed to the children, generation by generation. And then came the Nineties, and open war with Moscow. While the brothers were born in Kyrgyzstan, in today’s world of global Jihad, it is little wonder how the children Tsarnaev grew up to be influenced by their history; they are heirs of a generation of battle-hardened and brutalised men. It is little wonder they would prove to be perfect models of universal sleeper terrorists.

Here is a tale of a nation that was formed in the perfect crucible of violence, and unfathomable courage:

Chechnya, the summer, 1995

The tiny Chechen republic to the south of the former Soviet Union is home to Russia's worst mafiosi. They have threatened to detonate an atom bomb in Moscow. The Chechens are criminals, and Muslim fundementalists to boot. Well, that is what the Russians say. A journey through these badlands in a series of thrice cursed vehicles gave a different view, one of the brutal repression of a nation wanting to be free.

A walk through the capital Grozny makes it even more difficult to believe anything will dislodge the occupiers. Despite closely following the televised drama of the heroic Chechen resistance to the Russian assault, the degree of physical destruction wrought on Grozny is a spectacular shock when first seen in the flesh. It is a technicoloured version of Dresden after the February 1945 carpet bombing. Buildings are skeletal fragments of their former selves. Apartment blocks look like sieves. Next to the bustling market, where young widows come to sell their wedding rings to feed the children, are apartments built during the Soviet Sixties. There are many who might say that reducing the ugly buildings to rubble is an act of architectural euthanasia, but hundreds of people called it home. Still do.

Razyet Uspanova, 37, and her five children, live in the shell of their sixth-floor apartment. After shrapnel and bullets gouged the walls and ceiling, after incendiary ammunition had scorched it, Russian troops looted everything inside. The family has collected a few pieces of furniture from friends and relatives. The husband is dead and they live off the charity of those slightly less hard hit. Razyet is lethargic, depressed and slips into nostalgia often. She keeps a creased old black and white portrait of herself propped up behind the kitchen sink, perhaps to help her get through the pile of unwashed dishes filling the porcelain.

In the rubble-strewn streets, pimply Russian boy soldiers strut, shirtless and arrogant. They are dressed in an array of mismatched pieces of uniform and non-uniform. Not much of a resemblance to the disciplined Soviet soldiers who used to parade every May Day through Red Square. It is in Grozny that the Russians and Chechens are holding negotiations to find a political and military solution to the war. The opposing bodyguards occupy the street outside the nondescript house where the talks are going on. Dark haired fighters, mean eyed with lack of sleep, stand side by side with blonde Russian conscripts. The Russians wear helmets and flak vests, their armoured vehicles close by, just in case. The Chechens laugh off body armour. Their looks alone are enough to turn bullets away. Beyond the barricades, a sweating, shuffling circle of Sunni Muslims grunt and sing ancient chants. The loping shuffle and rhythmic utterances are hypnotic, the participants edging towards ecstasy. Fierce women make another circle and shriek in Arabic.

This is the Chechen cheerleading squad. It is also where mothers and sweethearts wait for a glimpse of the fighters they have not seen in months. When, at the end of a negotiating day, the Chechens stand on the back of a truck to report on progress, proud and tearful mothers call to sons standing on the back of trucks. "What have you done to your hair?" one mother asks her shaven-headed son. He smiles back, unsure how to respond, more than a little embarrassed. Other guerrillas take a minute from duty to pose stiffly for Polaroid pictures alongside their moms. Polaroids are big business in Grozny. There is one snap being circulated showing a Russian soldier holding up a bloodied youth by his hair. They claim the Russians had beaten him. True? Who can tell, but it certainly is in keeping with the belief that everyone hisses at me in explanation of the country’s problems: "Ruskie schwein!"

One of the fighters, Shamil, says it is a phrase he often heard while serving with the Soviet army in what was then East Germany. He enjoys the irony. To let you in on a little secret, this is the password for access to the Chechen side. Just hiss "Ruskie schwein!" and a way to slip through the impenetrable ring of Russian tanks into free Chechen territory is miraculously found.

Another way to escape from Russian territory may be when a former police detective appears at the door of the friend's apartment you are staying in, as there are no hotels left standing in the city and ushers you into a Volga. The Volga is one of those archetypal Soviet cars that are built like tractors; these cars go forever, they say. But like all other Soviet vehicles, the starter motor is not meant to last more than six months. I never came across one that worked. You either push or crank the motor with the hand crank that, no surprise, is standard issue. Imagine Stalin executing his driver as he tries in vain to push start the Zil stretch limo on a frosty Moscow morning. For a country that can invent the Mig 29, the planet's best helicopters, put the first man in space and who have kept the remarkable Mir space station in orbit for years - something even the U.S. has not been able to do - they sure make bum cars.