Is Chechnya Part of the War Against Terrorism?

Reported by Kristin McHugh, co-host, Common Ground

WALTER CRONKITE: Long before the United States declared its war on terrorism, Russia launched its own campaign against terror in Chechnya. But unlike the US, Russia did not have global support for its military action in the breakaway republic. Russian President Putin is trying to change that in the wake of the September 11 events. He claims Osama bin Laden and his followers are also responsible for the Chechnya conflict. But as correspondent Kristin McHugh reports from the Chechen border, the war in Chechnya is far more complicated.

[Sound of baby chicks]

TIEMPIEVA HASAN: (Via Translator) We left when Gudermes (Guud-er-mez) was bombed. Gudermes was one of the first places hit. On that very day we happened to be in the center of town when the planes started to bomb.

KRISTIN MCHUGH: With tears in her eyes, Tempieva Hasan (Tee-meera Hah-san) recalls the day she and her family fled their home in Chechnya for this makeshift tent in nearby Ingushetia (In-gOO-shetia).

HASAN: My jaw was injured and I lost my teeth in the explosion. I am only 39 years old and I don't have one tooth.

MCHUGH: Tiempieva is one of the estimated quarter of a million Chechens displaced by two wars in the past seven years. She now lives with her eight children, son-in-law, and two grandchildren in a tattered tent in Sputnik (Spuht-nick) of several camps in Ingushetia (In-gOO-shetia) set up by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

[Water pumping]

MCHUGH: Chechnya, a predominately Muslim area of southern Russia, declared its independence in 1991 in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia responded in 1994 by waging a brutal war.

[Helicopter and 30mm cannon firing]

A peace agreement granting Chechnya de facto independence ended Russia's military campaign in 1996. Chechens quickly elected war hero Aslan Maskhadov (Maahsk-hah-dov) president. But his weak, secular government was unable to control criminals and fundamentalists. Muslim fundamentalists here are known generically as Wahhabis, although they're not necessarily connected to the Saudi Arabian Islamic movement of the same name. The Wahhabis want to establish a strict Islamic state, but their views are rejected by much of the local population.

AZA: (Via Translator) For our Chechen society it was unacceptable.

MCHUGH:This is Aza, a petite 41 year-old Chechen who fled her homeland for neighboring Ingushetia.

AZA: They were demanding the women wear very strict hijab (hee-jab) outfits and they were also saying that people could not smoke. For centuries and centuries our women didn't wear the hijab, and we didn't have such strict rules. We were free people. We had pure Islam. We prayed five times a day.

MCHUGH: Russian President Vladimir Putin claims the Wahhabis are terrorists with ties to Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network. Putin blames the Wahhabis for masterminding a brief 1999 invasion into the Russian territory of Dagestan and a series of Russian apartment bombings that killed nearly 300 people. Dr. Vyacheslav (Vashi-slav) Nikonov is a former deputy chair of a state Duma committee on Chechnya and supports Putin's policies.

VYACHESLAV NIKONOV: There was a lot of proof bin Laden was supporting them financially. So now, I think Americans understand a little bit more the complexity of terrorists and probably the Russians are not that evil in what they are doing in Chechnya because that is the place where they faced the same problems America faced on September 11.

MCHUGH: In years past, the United States was quick to criticize Russia's alleged human rights abuses in Chechnya. But in the days following the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration abruptly reversed its policy and said Russia was fighting its own battle against terrorists and Osama bin Laden in Chechnya.

[Small child and sounds in tent camp]

MCHUGH: Here in the tent camps, Aza and other refugees firmly deny the independence fighters are terrorists and scoff at the bin Laden connection.

AZA: It's stupid to link these rebels with bin Laden. I don't link the attack on the two buildings in America with Chechnya and the Chechen children. It's a shame if Bush believes Putin when he says there is a link between the Chechen rebels and the terrorist act.

MCHUGH: While Chechens say bin Laden isn't a player in their war, many are afraid of the Wahhabis. This refugee didn't want to identify herself.

UNNAMED REFUGEE WOMAN: The Russian soldiers make people suffer during the day. During the night, the Wahhabis burst in and they treat us in the same way.

TRANSLATOR: After she said that the crowd said, 'Why did you mention the Wahhabis?'

MCHUGH: Other camp residents immediately stopped the conversation. Criticizing the Wahhabis can be dangerous.

[Argument ensues]

MCHUGH: The refugees agree that Aslan Maskhadov (Maahsk-hah-dov), who is now a separatist leader, enjoys widespread support in his drive for a secular, independent state.

AZA: Maskhadov is our president. He protects our motherland.

MCHUGH: But experts believe Maskhadov controls less than 20 percent of the armed resistance. The Wahhabis have more men with guns, but far less political support. And, some Wahhabis do engage in terrorist acts. Ruslan Badolov is Maskhadov's (Maahsk-hah-dov) former sports minister.

RULAN BADOLOV: (Via Translator) There are so-called Wahabbis who are pure criminals. They kill and kidnap people. So there are terrorist groups here in Chechnya. But the Russian government doesn't conduct antiterrorist operations by killing civilians in other parts of Russia.

MCHUGH: And there's the irony. Brutal Russian tactics drive many Chechens into the arms of any independence group—even the extremist Wahhabis. Lawyer Sasita Muradova, who works in the Ingushetia office of Memorial, a Russian human rights group, says Russian troops are very corrupt. She has documented numerous cases of soldiers kidnapping people, and even dead bodies, for ransom.

SASITA MURADOVA: (Via Translator) Soldiers and tanks can approach any food market and just take everything. And now, it's even, we know the cases when they, not only sell people—kidnap people—sell people—but they also sell corpses. This is awful.

[Balalaika music with no singing]

MCHUGH: Ordinary Chechens, like this balalaika player, are caught in the middle of a tug-of-war between Russian troops and rebel extremists. Representatives of President Putin and Aslan Maskhadov have met in an effort to end the conflict. But experts question whether either side is ready to seriously negotiate a lasting agreement. For now, daily armed clashes between Russian troops and rebel soldiers continue with mounting losses on both sides. With the territory still in turmoil—Chechens, like Tiempieva Hasan (Tee-meera Hah-san), can only dream of the day she and her family can safely pass through this border checkpoint and return home.

[Sounds of Kavkaz Checkpoint]

HASAN: We want to lead a normal life. If we were guaranteed today that there would be no more bombing, today, with my entire family, I would walk to Chechnya. I would not have spent a night here otherwise.

[Balalaika music with singing]

MCHUGH: For the Russia Project, I'm Kristin McHugh, Kavkaz checkpoint, on the Chechen border.

© 2001 by The Stanley Foundation
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