War in Chechnya: the beginning

Sorry, no medieval stories today. I found a blog of a man who lived in Grozny, Chechnya, in 1994, when the war started. He posted his recollections about the first days of the war. I was so impressed that I asked for his permission to translate his article, which he kindly granted. Timur Aliev is the editor-in-chief of the newspaper 'Chechen Society'. His has a blog at LiveJournal and the Russian text of the article is here. I tried hard to do my best, but I wanted to finish the translation as soon as possible and I apologize for any errors I could make in the translation.

12 years ago

For me, just as for many others in Checnnya, the war started on November 26. Now, many people say that the war started on December 12, and the November attacks are called the storm of the opposition, but for many people that November day was the beginning of the war.

The official version, accepted today, calls the tanks which entered Chechnya and Grozny a reinforcement sent to the forces oppositional to Dudayev. Then, it was on the contrary: the opposition were just guides, and the tanks -- the beginning of the aggression.

I was ill in those days and was at home. I only remember that November 26 was a sunny and, maybe even warm day. It made the events even more disturbing. People spoke about fights against tanks, how one tank got to the city centre and another to Gudermesskaya street, and both were shot. Somewhere in the clouds an airplane was flying and I went to the yard to listen. It was unclear what to do.

In the evening, the local TV shown captured tanks' crew -- there were about 20 men. All they named their detachments and said that they took days off to make some money in this tank invasion. Or something like that.

On the next day I felt better and went to work. I went through the city centre. There were the remains of two tanks on Lenin square. Idlers were climbing them. There were few people in the city and there was nobody at work.

I won't bet I will be exact in the chronology of the following events. I only remember that for some more days we kept going to work. Then we were offered to go home for an uncertain period. We argued with friends if everything will be over by the New Year, so we could celebrate it at the office. What this "everything" was, few of us understood.

The same was with my study. We were on the last year, so we had few lectures, but even the last ones were canceled.

And the same was happening everywhere. I couldn't find a doctor who would visit my mother. The hospitals replied that one or another doctor had left and they didn't know when they would be back. Actually, it was the war already. And some people felt it's coming even earlier.

Now, when I recall that time, I am amazed by how careless we were. We didn't see the most obvious things. In summer, the Chechen strongest football team was disqualified from the championship. They had chances to make it into the higher league, and, perhaps, for this reason they were disqualified. In August, the train to Moscow was canceled. People spoke about an outbreak of cholera in the North of Chechnya. And to leave Chechnya, we had to get some documents in these Northern districts. Only later I learned that the opposition, kind of loyal to Moscow, was concentrating in these regions and understood that by November Chechnya was already in a blockade. But I could think only about computers and science fiction and didn't noticed anything.

The first half of December I spent at home, playing computer games and writing a book. Sometimes we went for a walk with a friend. A couple of times I visited our office, another couple of times I went to talk about my computer. Youth from villages and other parts of the city was always on a demonstration to support the defense of the city. Many of them had no money and buses gave them a free ride. I don't remember any weapons, they probably hoped to get it in the city. But all of them went to the square in front of the president's palace to demonstrate. And since summer the crowd didn't get any smaller. The local TV explained how to make bottles with Molotov cocktail and how to use it to burn tanks. Approximately on December 20, the centre of Grozny was bombed. After the first explosion the glass in our windows broke and my mother hid under the table in the next room, covering her head with a pan.

After that, mother was always uneasy and kept telling that we should leave. We opposed. Every night she went to the cellar of our neighbours. Grandmother also used to go with her. Because of this, I could sleep still. My nerves were still good then and I didn't care about the artillery fire.

In the end of December, my friend with whom we used to play Warlords, left the city. Then the electricity was gone and I couldn't turn the computer on and read books. The water had gone even earlier. We got used to melting snow. To bring water from other parts of the city was difficult -- we were not rich enough to get taxi and we had no car. The New Year night we spent in the basement.

At last, mother felt she couldn't bear the bombings any longer and on January 8 we left to the village. Grandmother refused to leave the home and stayed. I wanted to stay, too, but someone had to go with mother and I went.

It was calm in the village. Youth gathered self-defense detachments to defend the village. Some went to fight to the city, but there were few of my friends among them.

Somehow, it turned out that almost noone of those who studied and worked with me or lived nearby, went to war. Rusik left to Vedeno in the end of December. He told us later funny stories about self-defense troops. Pashka also left and came back to Grozny only in April. Sanya stayed at home. Zhenka spent the whole period of fighting in the basement, and when he decided to go to Stavropolye, where his sister and her husband lived, he has hardly escaped execution by soldiers. They thought he was a Ukrainian mercenary, because his last name ends in '-o'. Only a miracle saved him.

With a great reservation, only Aslanbek fought. Till December 31, he was at the president's palace. On the New Year's Eve, he decided to go to home to celebrate with his family, to sleep. When he came home, he learned that the full-scale storm of the palace had started. The parents didn't let him to go back.

Another friend of mine, Rashid, on the New Year's Eve was a bit drunk and he and his friend wanted to walk to the downtown. When they got to the palace, the storm started and they had to spend two days there. As he recalled later, they didn't even understand then, how serious it all was. Both wore suits and white shirts, and the seriousness of the events struck them when they had to fall onto the dirty floor, but it was too late. Only on the second day, they managed to get out from there.

In January, I came home for one day. It was even worse then before. It was too dangerous to spend nights at home because of the frequent bombardments. The neighbours, mostly Russians and Armenians, used to go to the basement of a nearby two-storey building for the night. The gas was gone and people cooked in the courtyards. Some people started making metal ovens (it was a novelty then). I brought water for the grandmother and left with a firm resolution to come back soon and then to leave to as far as possible. Life in the village was also difficult. So many our relatives fled there that we slept on the floor. We simply felt ill at ease for giving inconvenience to our relatives.

But it turned out that I came back too late. The frontline was moving towards Minutka and it was dangerous to go through Chernorechye. The road along the dam near the oil refinery was well seen. The federal artillery was shooting the passing cars. We took another road. There were no people there to be seen. The roads were deserted, too.

When passing a street market on Okruzhnaya, we saw a woman hiding behind the stalls. She was selling Pepsi and Fanta in two-litre bottles. On this very morning the airplanes bombed the bus station, located only a half kilometre from Okruzhnaya. So, she would hardly sell anything.

Our house was empty. The window glasses were all broken out and there was a hole in the roof. And the grandmother was not waiting for us... She was killed on the day before, when a shell struck the neighbouring house and the shell fragments hit her and a little boy who lived in the house. Grandmother was in the courtyard. It was this boy's birthday (his name was Sasha, if I remember correctly). She wanted to cook a birthday dinner for him, fired the oven, put a pan with meat-balls on the fire (I brought the meat when I visited her earlier). The shell's fragments hit both of them. She died from bleeding in just some minutes...

My grandmother was a saint woman, she never wished any harm to anyone, often suffered herself (mostly, because of her own kindness). In spite of her age, she was very active. Maybe, more lively than me. But she died. Died at war... And I hate the bastards who say that a war can resolve some controversies or that the victory is more important than the war itself. I'd like to wish their own last years were spent under bombs, not in the trenches, but between the trenches of the two sides. I could wish that, but I will not...