December 15, 1999
Although Russian authorities have announced a cease-fire for a few hours a day in Grozny and the setting up of 'humanitarian corridors' to allow civilians to 'safely' leave zones and cities that are under attack, the latest information gathered by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) from Chechen refugees in Georgia refutes the reality of these measures.
It appears that the Russian announcements amount to little more than propaganda and do not correspond whatsoever to the reality of the situation. Chechnya is today a trap in which the civilian population wanders around desperately seeking shelter. The refugees' accounts show that:
The intensive bombings prevent any humanitarian action on Chechen territory, preventing assistance to the wounded, the sick, and the most vulnerable. Despite the large movement of population towards Ingushetia, an estimated 500,000 people are still inside Chechnya.
The "fight against terrorism" that Moscow claims to be leading against "Chechen bandits" has every appearance of a collective punishment inflicted on the whole of the population. The intensity of the military operation in Chechnya denotes an internal armed conflict and is therefore under regulation of humanitarian law. Certain practices by the Russian military manifestly contravene these laws and could be qualified as war crimes or crimes against humanity. Included in these practices are:
These issues are the responsibility of the international community. It is imperative that concrete actions be taken to qualify and stop the crimes committed against the Chechen population.
A small MSF team was sent to the region of Akhmeta in the northeast of Georgia from November 24th to 29th. MSF had two objectives: 1) to evaluate the situation of the Chechen refugees who have fled to this region and 2) to collect information from them on the situation of the civilian population within the Republic. MSF organized interviews with twenty refugees and their families. Refugees were asked about the bombings and/or violence undertaken by the Russian forces, the different ways in which they had managed to survive since the beginning of the Russian offensive, the circumstances of their flight to Georgia, and their feelings regarding this new war.
Given the crowded conditions of both the collective centers and the families who have taken in the refugees, we were not able to conduct one-to-one interviews. Generally, people were interviewed in the presence of all their family and their relatives. Therefore, some of the interviews turned into group discussions that prevented retracing the whole story of the person being interviewed. This explains why only parts of the interviews are included in this report.
In addition to these interviews, the latest information that the MSF team in Zinvali, Georgia, has sent is also included. This team has been providing medical care to the refugees transferred from the border by the High Commissioner for Refugees (HCR). On December 11th and 12th, nearly 400 people (mainly women and children) arrived in Georgia after fleeing the bombing of villages in the south of Chechnya by the Russian army. The state of the refugees on their arrival and their description of the conditions in which they left Chechnya indicates that conditions for civilians in the south of the country have seriously deteriorated.
Given that this document has been compiled using the accounts of refugees in Georgia, it does not cover the question of refugees who have found refuge in Ingushetia.
Location of the Refugees
Between 5,000 and 6,000 Chechen refugees live in the region of Akhmeta, mainly in the village of Duisi, but also in the neighboring hamlets of Omalo, Birchiani, and Djokhalo. They have been taken in by families or housed in collective centers that have been made available by the local authorities.
The region of Duisi is one of the poorest regions of Georgia; however there is a sizeable community of Georgians of Chechen descent (the Kistines) who live there. This explains why nearly all the Chechen refugees who arrive in Georgia go there to find refuge.
The Refugees' Origins
The refugees that MSF met came mainly from three regions: Grozny and its outskirts, Urus-Martan, and Chatoi/Itum Kale in the south of the republic.
An Offensive Targeting Civilians
All the individual and family witness accounts collected confirm the indiscriminate, massive, and disproportionate nature of the Russian offensive using long-range weapons.
The immense majority of those interviewed had experienced either directly (because they were there at the moment the events took place) or indirectly (through the loss of a relative, for example) the bombing of civilian targets. Maya, whose witness account is below, was at the market in Grozny on October 22nd when it was bombed. Saidan's two sons, who were also at the market that day, were killed along with dozens of other civilians. Other witness reports tell of indiscriminate bombings in the villages of Kakdoi, Bitchigui, etc., and the resulting deaths and injuries among the civilian population.
The witness reports, particularly those collected on December 11th and 12th, describe systematic and relentless attacks against civilian targets. The last refugees who arrived from the region of Itum Khale report that after the bombings, Russian helicopters came "and opened fire with machine guns on livestock, on the entrance of cellars used as shelters and on houses that had already been reduced to rubble."
These bombings have instilled terror in the civilian population who all consider themselves to be potential targets: they live underground, in cellars or in forests (i.e. Bitchigui); burials and displacements of the population towards the south and the crossing of the Georgian border take place at night.
The MSF team in Zinvali described the refugees they assisted as "terrorized, distraught, and exhausted."
Each of these bombings resulted in a new wave of departures inside the Republic or towards Georgia.
According to the witness accounts, no region of Chechnya has been spared by the bombings. The north and the south, villages and cities are all targets of the Russian bombings. The inhabitants of the north who have fled to the south of the republic to escape the bombing of Grozny, Urus Martan, Atchoi Martan, Cernovodsk, and Samachki find themselves on the move again when the villages in the south are attacked by Russian aerial bombings or missiles. Saidan's, Jemale's, and Almani's stories are all too eloquent: "There is nowhere to find shelter from the bombings. It's persecution."
The refugees also talk of "carpet bombings." When a particular area is targeted it is "showered with bombs," said those interviewed.
The interviews highlight the disproportionate nature of the bombings in comparison to the objectives stated by Moscow (ie. an attack on terrorism). Everyone interviewed, without exception, expressed their incomprehension and anger at the use of particularly destructive weapons by the Russian forces (ground-to-ground missiles, etc.). These weapons cause immense destruction and loss of human life (i.e. the bombing of the market in Grozny, destruction of the village of Notrchkaloi, etc.).
Long-range, Unpredictable Bombings
The use (all over the territory) of ground-to-ground missiles from Russian bases is brought up again and again by all the refugees that were interviewed. It is not that they are ballistics specialists or have a particular fascination for military strategies, but the use of these weapons represents a step-up in the violence and indiscriminate nature of the Russian attacks. The refugees also talk of their helplessness when faced with weapons that strike without warning: no sound of motors (as in aerial bombings), no warning shots. "They fall on you without any warning. You can't protect yourself," explains one refugee.
These four points characterize the military operation led by the Russian forces this autumn. All the refugees interviewed, without exception, underline the significant difference between the first war (1994-1996) and that of today, which is more cruel and unjust to civilians. Some refugees go so far as to say that "the first war was a democratic war compared to this one" or that "the first war was paradise." These comments show the desperation and feelings of injustice that the refugees feel about this new wave of violence.
The Flight of the Civilian Population: The Departure to Georgia
The closing of the Ingushetian border and the fear of arrest
It would have been more logical for the inhabitants of Grozny and Urus Martan to go to Ingushetia: however they explained that they had preferred to go to Georgia for two reasons:
The "filter" camps that were set up by the Russian authorities during the first war, renowned for their violence against prisoners, are still on everyone's mind. Although they have no proof, the men interviewed say that these camps are once again in operation. For these reasons, the families that did not want to split up and leave their men (adolescents, young men or fathers) behind decided to cross the Georgian border.
Within The Borders of the Republic: The Tracking of the Displaced
The inhabitants from the north of Chechnya who have family or relatives in the mountainous regions of the south have generally gone to find refuge in the villages to escape the bombings in Grozny. When the south was bombed they decided to cross the border with Georgia. "The intention of the Russian government is to empty Chechnya of its inhabitants," explains a refugee.
The Passage into Georgia: The Last Hope, Under Enormous Military Pressure
The Argoun/Shattili valley road is the only access to Georgia. For all those we met, and particularly for those from the south of Chechnya, this passage represents the single and last escape route.
The last refugees say that it is "impossible to travel during the day because of the bombings and above all because of the helicopters that come down and fire on groups of fleeing refugees."
The military attacks on this route are more and more frequent and considerably limit the possibility of leaving to find refuge in Georgia.
The refugees in Georgia live in fear for "those that are still on the other side."
The Conditions When Crossing the Border: Only the Healthy and Well-Off Can Cross
The crossing of the border, as well as the arrival in the "refuge zone," are very difficult and limit the population's possibility of escape. The road that leads to the border is in very poor condition and refugees that do not have suitable vehicles have to finish the last kilometers on foot. For the latest arrivals, these last kilometers are spent in the cold and the snow. In Georgia, the road is also in very bad condition and blocked by snow. According to the refugees interviewed only those in good health can reach Georgia. Many of them have left many members of their family and relatives (the elderly, weak and wounded) 'inside' and have no news of them.
Until recently, neither the Georgian authorities nor the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had made vehicles available so that the refugees could reach the refuge zone. The refugees therefore had to take private taxis that cost between $150 and $300. The UNHCR evacuated the last wave of refugees to arrive from the region of Itum Khale by helicopter to Zinvali where they were registered.
Saïdan, age 62
The interview took place on Monday, November 29th in the closed courtyard of a house in Duisi. Saïdan and his relatives are the last to have arrived in the Duisi region from Chechnya. The day before, we saw the truck transporting Saïdan and his relatives. In Duisi's main street, a small crowd gathered around the newcomers. We drew closer to them. Inside the covered truck, about ten people — including women, small children, and elderly people — were sitting, packed closely together, haggard- and exhausted-looking.
"The next day we meet up with Saïdan. He and his relatives spent the night in a private home with Duisi locals. They are waiting to be placed in a public center.
"What's going on right now in Chechnya is not war. War is a confrontation between two armies. That's not the case right now in Chechnya. We are being subjected to an armed attack on the civilian population. We have neither the means to defend ourselves nor the possibility to protect ourselves. The Russian forces are using all the most sophisticated and destructive weapons against us. And they are waging war against us from afar. For us, this war has no face. The Russian government does not respect the rules of the game; it's revolting!." The elderly Saïdan expresses his anger in perfect Russian. He has just come from the eastern part of Georgia with fifteen other people, after desperately fleeing across Chechnya, in the Caucasus mountains which separate the small Republic from this region of Georgia.
"On October 22nd, my two sons, ages 30 and 32, were killed during a bombing in Grozny. They were right there when a ground-to-ground missile struck the market, killing several dozen civilians. My sons weren't fighters; they were there to buy some clothes." That very day, Saïdan and his family decide to leave Grozny, in order to escape the bombings and also to bury the bodies of the two young men in Kakadoï, a village near Itum kale, the region they come from originally.
Like numerous displaced persons who have come seeking refuge in the mountains south of Chechnya, Saïdan and his family are welcomed by relatives. "On November 18th, three weeks after our arrival, a Russian plane dropped a bomb on the courtyard of our house. At that time, there was not too much damage and nobody was hurt because we were hiding in the cellar. After that, the Russian fighter planes continued to fly over the area. Then, they finally withdrew, as if their "mission" were terminated. On the contrary: one of the planes made a U-turn, flew back over our village, and dropped one more bomb. This time it struck our house, completely destroying it and killing the livestock. We moved in with another family. Three days later, November 21st and 22nd, four ground-to-ground missiles launched from Ossetje hit Itum kale. The first three missiles killed two women, one of whom was pregnant, and a six-year-old girl. A little boy had an arm torn off. The fourth missile was different from the others: it contained several cluster bombs which didn't explode until later. Fragments of plastic and glass were found within a 1.5 kilometer radius.
"This is the day we decided to leave Chechnya. We could no longer live like that, hidden away like rats, waiting for death to strike us from the sky. There are still a lot of people in the Itum kale region; thousands of displaced persons come from all over the Republic, because Itum kale is the final point before the Georgian border." Saïdan and thirteen family members take flight yet again, this time heading for Georgia. Two small elderly men are found by the roadside, and also join their rough-and-ready convoy.
"We made it to the border after travelling for many hours. We were very afraid of Russian bombing, because we kept thinking about columns of refugees bombed by planes. Ahead of us there was a car with two or three wounded young men — I'm not exactly sure — and they, too, wanted to cross the border to go to a hospital. We were stopped twice at the border, then five times along the road by the Georgian police. But for me, that was just a detail. The important thing was that we were finally safe.
"The biggest obstacle we faced was the weather. After Chattili, we were caught in heavy snowfalls. We were stuck for two days at an altitude of nearly 2,500 meters. We slept in our truck for two nights. We were freezing — my beard was covered with frost — and we had nothing left to eat. The morning of the second day, some Georgians came to help clear off the road, meter by meter, using shovels. We finally arrived in Duisi. Now, we're here, we are refugees, we have nothing that belongs to us." Saïdan stops speaking, lowers his head, shrugs his shoulders and raises the collar of his overcoat to hide his emotion. Before turning around, he murmurs, "I've lost everything: my sons and my land."
Zuliran (age 17), Zora (age 18, an English and History student), Zaline (age 9) and their mother. Hospital. Duisi.
Zora, Zuliran, and Zaline are three sisters. All three are redheads and they are all dressed in Western-style clothing. When we enter the room of Duisiís former hospital that they have shared with their mother since arriving in Duisi, Zora is making bread. She starts speaking, calmly, in a very quiet voice, "Since the bombing began in Grozny, we have had to move three times. Around September 23rd, we left our home in the Microrayon area, to go to my grandparents' house. They live in the outskirts of Grozny, in the Zavodskoï district. We took a bus. During the trip, a Russian plane flew very low over us, as if it wanted to bomb us. We were terrorized. Actually, nothing happened; the plane went away.
"My father, my brother and the four of us left Grozny October 24th, two days after the market was bombed. Our mother was there when the bomb exploded."
The mother, who just entered the room, explains, "I was unbelievably lucky to have escaped unharmed. There was a tremendous amount of people at the market, and not only those who were shopping. The Grozny market was also a place where you could meet your friends, exchange the latest bits of news, etc. At 4:30 p.m., the merchants were getting ready to take down their stands when the bomb was dropped. In a fraction of a second, the market became a blood bath. Pieces of flesh were strewn over the ground; there was screaming, and wounded and dead people everywhere. The wounded were taken to the hospital. I, myself, helped gather up a few mangled bodies. My neighbor suffered a severed leg and lost her little girl. The following night, the maternity hospital was destroyed. Two days later, we decided to leave. The rest of my family — my brothers and sisters, my parents — stayed. We left Grozny during the night of October 24th-25th."
Zora continues her story: "We all (my parents, my brothers and sisters and me) took the bus to our relatives' home in Nortchkaloï, a village with around 70 houses, near Chatoï. We stayed there for a few days. There were other displaced families in the village, but I'm not sure exactly how many.
"Then, during the night of November 3rd-4th, Nortchkaloï was bombed. Many houses were destroyed. This created a true moment of panic and a large number of people left the village in a hurry, without being able to take anything with them. Once again, we decided to flee too. This time we decided to cross the Georgian border.
"We made up a convoy of 100 people or so, but there were 29 people in our group, in one truck and two cars. We were in the truck. We drove for ten hours to reach the border. It was very cold. Two children, travelling in another truck, died from the cold.
"My father and my brother left Nortchkaloï with us; they didn't want us to drive all by ourselves. However, once we got near the border, they turned around and left. I don't know where they are today. We have received no word from them, nor from the rest of our family and friends.
"We had no difficulty crossing the border. On the other hand, my mother had to give all her money and jewelery to take a Georgian taxi, and it still wasn't enough. Luckily, a Chechen journalist was there. She was so insistent that the taxi driver finally agreed to take us. We arrived in Duisi at 4 o'clock in the morning. We were exhausted."
Silence fills the room. The three sisters and the mother are now staying in this small room measuring around ten square meters. At night, the three sisters squeeze together on the two beds donated by the UNHCR and the mother sleeps on the floor.
Zora continues: "During the first war, we stayed at home in Grozny in spite of the bombings. Since 1994, our house, which is located in Zavotskoï, in the centre of Grozny, has been bombed three times by the Russian forces. In addition to that, during the year 1996, it was regularly hit by bullets. When the ground fighting began between the Chechen fighters and Russian soldiers, we moved into the cellar. We lived with the obsessive fear that the Russians would throw grenades in our house, like they did in Samachki.
"One morning, still in 1996, I had not yet changed out of my nightdress and was starting to get ready for school, when two Russian soldiers forced themselves into our home. They told us that they were looking for our weapons, that we were dirty terrorists. I was alone in the house with my brothers and sisters, who started to cry. I, myself, was scared stiff; I was only fifteen. I told the soldiers that we didn't have any weapons. They eventually left without doing anything to us. The previous day, the same scenario had happened at our neighbours' house, only before leaving, the soldiers threw a grenade into the main room, killing our neighbour's husband.
"For me, this war is just a continuation of the previous one. The Russian government is just finishing what it started a few years ago. The massacre continues."
A woman named Tabarah. Building once housing the sovkhoz offices. Duisi.
"I'm from Nortchkaloï, a village of seventy families, in the Chatoï region. We arrived here on November 6th. I came with my five children, their ages nine months to fifteen years.
"The bombarding of the region started on August 9th, when the war in Daghestan began. We endured air raids and also artillery fire from Daghestan when it was foggy and the planes couldn't fly. In mid-September the first ground-to-ground missiles were launched. In Nortchkaloï, we'd spend the day in our cellars.
"On November 3rd, 4th, and 5th, ground-to-ground missiles pelted our village. It was totally destroyed. That was when we, along with almost all the people in the village, decided to leave. Some of us headed for Georgia, the rest for Chatoï.
"Since the start of the war, in Nortchkaloï, eight had been killed and there were six wounded, who were moved to Chatoï or Grozny.
"We left in a truck around one a.m, when the bombing had stopped. Three hours later we heard it start up again. We took advantage of that brief lull. On the road, I saw quite a number of refugees; I couldn't say how many, but I think that the last bombardments caused a movement of panic among the population of the villages in our region.
"There were 29 of us in the group from my village that crossed the border. Certain families were forced to turn back for lack of money. We don't know what happened to them. Probably they went to stay elsewhere in the Chatoï region.
"We spent one night in Chattili, outdoors. The next morning, we took a taxi to Tbilisi, and then spent the night there. We didn't arrive in Duisi until the following day. We moved into this closed-down building. At first, there were no doors or windows. We're the ones who put plastic on the windows and built some plywood doors.
"Our village was not touched during the first war. We were able to stay right where we were. During the first war, we did not suffer such indiscriminate bombardment. Poutine says that our villages are filled with fighters; that's how he justifies destroying them one by one. But he knows full well that the fighters have nothing to do in those little villages, where there's no ground fighting. The fighters, they dream of doing battle and are awaiting direct confrontation with Russian forces! They 're waiting in cellars, in Grozny."
Maya, about fifty years of age. Duisi
The interview takes place on one of the streets of Duisi. A street that runs by the one-time factory turned into a refugee reception centre. At the start of the interview, we are alone with her. Then gradually a group of woman refugees forms around us. All of them want to take part in the conversation, to tell their own stories, to express their loathing of what is now taking place in Chechnya or to criticize harshly the indifference of Western nations. They shout or they weep silently, and with rapid gestures they use their scarves to dry their eyes. One of the woman comes up to us, pushing in front in front of her a grubby child in rags. She asks: "Do you believe the Russians when they say our children have the makings of terrorists?"
Maya explains: "I am from Chatoï. I arrived here around November 18th. November 14th a bomb fell on Chatoï. The next day, November 15th, four ground-to-ground missiles hit the city, causing five deaths in displaced families, and four among the residents of Chatoï. That very night we decided to leave the scene: you can't protect yourself against ground-to-ground missiles. Around 2 a.m., I left with my husband, my two children, and a neighbor woman, in our car. We drove at night since we were afraid of the Russian bombardments. We managed to get to the frontier post by car. We crossed the Argoun by Vachendaroï, over a half-destroyed bridge.
"At the same time we were crossing the border, so were other families. I can't say exactly how many of them there were, maybe three or four.
"After the border, we walked a while and then we took a taxi to Duisi, and that came to $150.
"Back there, in Chatoï, life was becoming unbearable. The first bombings occurred at the beginning of September: September 4th, the Russians flew reconnaissance over the zone; on the 6th, the area around Chatoï was bombed, and on the seventh, the main part of the city came under attack.
"There are many displaced persons staying in Chatoï, in Itum Kale, and in surrounding areas. People who come from Grozny and from Urus Martan. As for us, we left, but there are still many in the interior: the weakest and the less well off have no way out but to remain there. To say nothing of the wounded who can't be moved. I would say that only 10% of the population of our region managed to depart.
"As far as care available for the wounded, there is still a hospital in Chatoï, with Doctor Issa, and Iena, the nurse. When I left, there were only about ten wounded being looked after in the hospital. This I think is due to the fact that the wounded don't dare leave their dwellings. You have to understand that there is an atmosphere of terror in the region. So the wounded are cared for in their own homes, with whatever resources are available. In Itum Kale, there is no longer a functioning hospital nor a doctor. There's only a nurse still working there. I would say there are many wounded in the region, in villages like Kakadoï, Nortchkaloï, Goukhoï, Bachim Khali, Uchkaloï, Viduci, Cinti, affected by bombardments in early November. Each of these little villages has its share of dead and wounded. My sister, who lives in Kakadoï, buried a neighbour woman's two children. That was in the first days of November. The two little ones were buried at night: for fear of bombardment, burials are carried out at night. And, in Nortchkaloï, five other children were killed in a bombing, the first week of November.
"You want to hear what I have to say? You're going to think I'm crazy, but the first war was paradise compared to this one. During the first war, I was able to stay in Chechnya, at home. That's no longer possible: there's not a single place where we can take shelter; it's as if we are being hunted down. The Russians are bombing Chechnya massively, indiscriminately. Why would Poutine put this strategy into effect except to make us flee or to kill every last one of us?"
Maya is interrupted by another woman, Tahous, she too around forty. The whole time, she's been listening to Maya, patiently. But Tahous can no longer contain herself. She lost her husband in the first war. And her two brothers were recently killed in the Chatoï region in a bombing raid. We don't know where or when, for Tahous does not speak: she howls her anger and despair.
Jemale and Almani. In a private house opposite an abandoned factory.
"We arrived here on November 15th. We're from the Cernovodsk region, near the border with Ingushetia. Cernovodsk was surrounded and attacked on about October 28thwith ground-to-ground missiles, but also bombed from the air, as the aim of the Russian forces was to destroy a bridge close to the village. We didn't live in Cernovodsk itself, but given the intensity of the bombing, we panicked and decided to leave on October 31st.
"At that time we had no intention of leaving Chechnya. We headed south because we had family in Bitchigui, a hamlet of 5 or 6 houses 9 kilometers from Itum Kale. We stayed there for two weeks, in extremely difficult conditions. Because of the Russian bombing of Itum Kale, we went to live in the forest with the inhabitants of the village. We hid during the daytime in makeshift shelters constructed out of tarpaulins and branches and only came out at night to hunt for provisions in our houses and look after the animals. At night we made a fire but were terrified at the idea that it could be spotted by the Russian planes.
"The first ground-launched missile was fired at Itum Kale on November 7th and Bitchigui was bombed several times. The attacks injured four and killed two people, including Almani's sister, who had five children. The wounded were taken to Itum Kale, where a nurse was still working. Then on November 12th, Russian helicopters flew over Bitchigui and slaughtered the livestock. Bitchigui is a tiny village and I don't understand the ferocity of the attack.
"That was when we decided to leave. Sixteen of us left in a lorry: twelve children, including the five orphans of my sister in law, three women, and myself. My widower brother in law, my own brothers and sisters and my parents stayed. They doubtless tried to settle somewhere in the Itum Kale region. I don't know, I've had no news.
"We travelled at night, as far as two kilometers from the border, and did the rest on foot. The Georgian border guards let me through, because they saw that I was accompanied by a whole group of women and children. We went through at the same time as 5 or 6 families.We spent the night in Chattili and the next day took two taxis, at a cost of $300.
"During the first war, I stayed in Chechnya, but sent all my family to Slipstoskaya."
Laïssat and Abdulkhader. Abandoned school. Birchiani (3-4 kilometers from Duisi).
The interview is difficult. The family is settled in a dismal room. Laissat is prostrate and Abdulkadher, a refugee whose family arrived at the same time as hers, is wary and spent a long time apart from the conversation. Four small children are sitting in a corner of the room, eerily quiet.
Laïssat told her story in a strained voice. "We got here in early November, two families, mine (that is my husband my two children and myself) and Abdulkhader's (his wife and two children). We used to live in Progorodnoe, south of Grozny. Before the war, we lived simply, normally, with a few animals and a bit of land. Since the bombing started, life has become extremely difficult and we live in fear.
"The first attack on Progorodnoe itself took place on November 3rd. Two days before, a woman from the village and her child were killed by a Russian plane in the surrounding forest while they were collecting wood. This is the Russian tactic, they first attack around the villages and then hit the center.
"We left on November 3rd, with part of my extended family and that of Abdulkhader. We formed a small convoy and were very scared of being bombed. Whenever we heard a Russian plane we stopped to hide. Part of my family took refuge in the mountains around Chatoï, but we continued as far as Georgia.
"Once at the border, we met up with a group of about 200 people who had been stopped by the Georgian guards, under orders to let no-one through, no women, no children, no men. I don't know where this order came from but we stayed there a whole day. It wasn't snowing yet, but it was very cold.
"Finally, the border guard let us through. Once in Chattili, we found a taxi which cost us $200."
Once Laïssat had finished, Abdulkhader finally began to talk:
"During the first war, we lived north of Grozny. At that time it was still possible to stay in Chechnya, which is no longer the case. We can neither hide nor defend ourselves. What can you do against missiles fired from bases hundreds of kilometers away. The Russians have adopted the strategy of minimum risk for themselves against maximum damage to the population. To say that the fight was uneven would be a serious understatement."
Four young men (aged between 25 and 30). In the streets of Duisi.
The interview was furtive as the men didn't really want to talk to us and refused to come with us to a more discreet place.
"We are originally from Grozny but have just come from Samachki, west of the capital. The Russian attacks on Samachki began on November 2nd and continued intensively until November 22nd, when the Russian troops encircled the village and began checks on the population. In the afternoon of the 22nd, the artillery bombardment began.
"On November 2nd, we saw four young men arrested by the Russian solders at the Atchoi-Martan checkpoint. The Russians put plastic bags over their heads, doused them in petrol and burned them alive. We were unable to recover the bodies until November 19th, when we traded them for a sheep and a bottle of vodka.
"On November 22nd, when the Russians began their "cleaning" of Samachki, we decided to flee to the south as we didn't want to get caught. We left at night, to avoid the bombing, and crossed the border two days later, at the same time as about fifteen other people we met there. The taxi to Tbilisi cost $250. Finally, to register at Tbilisi, the Georgian police asked for a further 50 Lari per person."
Yannah, Hamzah (aged about 30) and their children Ibrahim (3) and Madina (4). Kindergarten. Duisi.
Yannah and Hamzah are from Grozny. They left the capital on October 9th and reached Duisi on the 12th. All the rest of their family stayed in Chechnya.
"On that date, large numbers of people headed for southern Chechnya, following the bombing of the Microrayon area (October 6th or 7th). The Staresunja district was completely destroyed and seven families were wiped out. A large number of refugees from the inner suburbs of Grozny came to live near us.
"We also headed south because the prices in Ingushetia for renting a one or two-room flat were prohibitive.
"So we took a few personal belongings and went to Itum Kale. We left our car there because the region had recently been bombed and the bridges destroyed.
"We crossed the border at the same time as a small group of about fifteen people. In Chechnya we had heard that a bus waited for refugees just across the border. It's not true. We had to pay $150 for a taxi and here we are."
In Chechnya, Hamzah worked in telecommunications. During the first war, Hamzah and his family fled to Daghestan.
Leila (age 35-40), Eva (around 30), Hassan (24-25). Kindergarten. Duisi.
The interview is difficult. Leila doesn't speak much and Eva, with very pale eyes and complexion, exhibits great sadness and despair. Eva's young brother is also in the room with us. In the room next door, Leila's four children are tickling each other. Their bursts of laughter bring a bit of warmth to the mournful atmosphere.
Eva was an accountant at the Ministry of Justice in Grozny. She told us that before leaving the city she notified the ministry that she was taking a leave of absence through next January 3rd. "I hope I'll be able to return in time to go back to work." She says these words in a dull voice and doesn't believe them herself.
Hassan worked in telecommunications, also in Grozny. "The Chechens have a strong capacity for resistance," says Hassan. "That's what makes the Russians crazy and so violent. Despite all the oppression and violence we've experienced, we've never been subjugated. We've kept a very strong culture and traditions that give us great internal strength and form a strong bond among us."
Leila, Eva, and Hassan left Grozny October 9th. "There were three families that left together, 12 people in all." The three families had no problem crossing the border. After arriving in Chattili, they spent the night outside. The next day, they hired taxis at the rate of $150 a car. The Georgian authorities registered the small group at Jinvali. They then travelled to Tbilisi, where they slept in the train station, and finally ended up in Duisi.
Leila had moved to one of her brother's homes in Grozny a month earlier after her house in Nojayurt (near the Dagestani border) was destroyed during a Russian bombardment on September 5th. "I have nothing left," Leila tells us. She never mentions her husband.
Eva's mother, sister and youngest brother found refuge in Ingushetia in the city of Nazran. The entire family stayed in Dagestan during the first war.
"This war is being waged from a distance," concludes Eva. "The Russian forces bomb us with ground-to-ground missiles launched from bases located dozens of miles from Grozny. The Russians don't want a direct confrontation. To them, we don't even deserve the right to defend ourselves. A hundred years ago, a Russian general said of us, "We're not going to conquer them; we're going to destroy them." And that's what's happening today."
Adam and Yare. Kindergarten. Duisi.
Adam and Yare are staying in the former kindergarten of the Duisi sovkhoz (Soviet-era collective farm), which has been unused since the fall of the Soviet Union; it has been transformed into a shelter for about 70 refugees. Adam is 66. While Yare does not give his age, he looks close in age to Adam.
Adam tells the following story: "We are originally from Ourous Martan, one of the places that is being most heavily bombed by the Russian forces right now. We came here with our six children, with our entire family. All our children are adults except for one daughter, who is still small. My three daughters work. One is an accountant, one is a pharmacist and the other one is a teacher. One of my sons is also an accountant. As for me, I grew up and lived under communism. We all lived in a large 200-square-meter house that had 11 rooms. We also had livestock and a large vegetable garden. We were normal people.
"The bombing of Ourous Martan began in September. One day early in the month, 20 houses in the southern part of the village were razed. In late September or early October, the Russians began using ground-to-ground missiles. One of our neighbors had his head blown off by a missile when he went looking for his livestock. He was 32. That's when we decided to leave.
"On October 14th, we left by car around 10 p.m. and headed for Georgia because the Ingushetian and Dagestani borders were closed. We travelled at night because we knew that Russian forces were bombing the road to Georgia. There were 11 other women and eight other children with us. After driving for two hours, we came to the foot of the mountains in the far southern corner of Chechnya. We left our cars and continued on foot; the road had become impassable because the bombing had destroyed the bridges over the Argoun River. That was the first time we had taken that route so we were in unknown territory.
"We walked for 24 hours in the cold and snow with our children and our few belongings. Two of the passages over the Argoun are very steep. Two makeshift bridges were thrown up using two logs placed over the rapids. We crossed with our children on our backs. If one of us had fallen, that person would not have survived; he would've been thrown against the rocks.
"When we finally got to the border, we were exhausted. The Georgians let us pass with no problem.
"However, private Georgian taxis were the only means of transportation. We had to pay $240 for three taxis. We had a little bit of money with us, but some people had nothing. When we crossed the border, one family had been waiting there for five days because they didn't have any money.
"We arrived in Duisi in the middle of the night. A little store was still lit up. We asked if our children could sleep somewhere warm. A family took us in for two days. Then we came to this shelter.
"Here we've gotten help from the UNHCR, which put us on its list. We received mattresses and metal beds for 40 kopeks for half the family, blankets, a frying pan and plastic containers. We got food from a Turkish businessman, who distributed flour, sugar and noodles. We have enough left for 15 days. After that, I don't know what we'll do. We don't have a penny to our name.
"What do I think of this war? As far as I'm concerned, it's just a continuation of the last one, even though it's much more violent. Being in Chechnya today is like being in a tin of food stuck at the bottom with bombs falling on your head. From 1996 till now, we lived through a period that was neither war nor peace. The war never really ended. The Russian troops were stationed along the border and regularly raided and bombed Chechnya.
"The Russian government portrays itself as a democratic government. So it's democracy that's bombing us now? To me, Russia is a terrorist organisation that practices state terrorism.
"I'll use an analogy to help you understand what I think of this war. When my kids come tell me they want to start a family, what am I going to say to them? That I want to kill them, eliminate them? Well, that's how Russia's behaving toward us today. It wants the Caucasus without any Chechens.
"During the first war, we stayed in Ourus Martan, in the cellar of our house. Today, we can't protect ourselves anymore because of the missiles."
Sultan and Mariam. Kindergarten. Duisi.
"We come from Urus Martan. Mariam and the children left with Yare and Adam on October 14th. I, Sultan, went later on November 4th. At that time, there was intensive bombing in Urus Martan. A neighbor of ours was killed whilst trying to take refuge in Nazran the day the Russian planes attached the stream of refugees.
"I also left in the night, by car. During the 110 km journey between Urus Martan and the Georgian border, one of us always kept our head out of the car window, listening out for Russian planes so we could have hide if need be.
"I had no money for a taxi but another family took me under their wing and let me travel with them.
"The bombing of Urus Martan with ground-to-ground missiles started on October 8th. That day, 16 people (a woman, some children, and two men) were killed in the cellar.
"We have 12 children, but we took only the 8 youngest with us (who are between 2 and 12 years old). Our other children went with other families.
"We received food supplies 3 weeks ago but now we have practically nothing left. We made just one proper meal a day, with rice or pasta. The rest of the time, we just live on bread and tea.
"During the first war, we stayed in Urus Martan. We were able to hide in the cellar. We didn't expect a second war to follow so quickly. The Russians signed an agreement in the peace treaty for five years."
Magomet. Kindergarten. Duisi.
"My family and I left by car on October 30th from Urus Martan. There were 5 of us: my wife, my 3 sons and myself. We decided to head south immediately. I wouldn't have been able to get through Ingushetia because of the Russian occupation forces. And I also knew the route between Urus Martan and the border well, as well as the Duisi region, where I go trout fishing every summer.
"We left with some money, made from the meat I got from slaughtering our bull. We arrived in Itum Kale, which had been attacked the night before. For a part of the night, my family stayed there with people we knew. I went off with another man from the village to see how we were going to get across the border. I spoke with a guard who said he would let me cross without paying. I returned to Itum Kale and collected my family.
"I had taken out the seats from the car to make it lighter and to allow us to get through the more difficult parts of the road and those areas more prone to attack, easier and faster. Near the border, I hid the car under some branches. We crossed the border on foot, as the guard had told me, and with no problems.
"On the other side, we took a taxi that cost $120, to go to Tbilissi. There, we were searched thoroughly by the Georgian police. We slept outside in Tbilissi and left the next day for Duisi.
"I have 5 sisters and a brother. I managed to let them know that we had arrived safely. But I have no idea what's happened to them-I've had no news. Before I left, one of my sisters left for Nazran to find a place to stay with her family. The border had been closed at that time by the Russian authorities and my sister was stuck inside the Republic. I don't know if she eventually managed to get out of Chechnya.
"Before the war, I was a locksmith and mechanic in Urus Martan with my own workshop. During the first war, I stayed in Chechnya and, throughout that period, I was one of the few people in Urus Martan to be able to work, since I had a generator. But I wasn't really earning my living -all I earned was spent on food and the upkeep of the workshop.
"During the first war, I had a few problems with my workers, as soldiers would come to me with their weapons to repair. I had to stop business or else there would have been serious problems for our village."
© 2013 Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)