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Inside the war in Chechnya

ONE MONTH AGO, I was in Grozny, the war-torn capital of the breakaway republic of Chechnya. To get there, I disguised myself as a Chechen woman in a headscarf and long skirt with the hope that I would pass through checkpoints without being discovered as an American.

Having studied the Russo-Chechen conflict for a few years, I wanted to see for myself what life is like for ordinary civilians in Chechnya.

I imagined myself going as an outside observer, but once in Chechnya I found that I had stepped into Chechen shoes. Like every other civilian, I was vulnerable. This tiny place the size of Connecticut seems completely cut off and forgotten by the outside world. It is a place of total lawlessness, where men with guns rule and human life carries little value.

There are no human rights in Chechnya. One Grozny resident told me, "We don't know if we'll be alive tomorrow or even five minutes from now." Contrary to assertions by the Russian government that the situation is stabilizing ahead of the Kremlin-organized presidential election, on Oct. 5, my experience convinced me that life is not returning to normal at all.

It is inconceivable that a fair election can take place in this climate of fear, where shooting and forced disappearances happen on a daily basis.

In the upcoming Bush-Putin summit, the reality of the crisis and the need for negotiations toward a genuine political solution must be made a priority.

Civilians continue to be the main victims of this conflict. It is possible that as many as 200,000 people have been killed in the two Russo-Chechen wars combined; 350,000 people have been displaced from their homes, many fleeing their villages after Russian soldiers conducted brutal "cleansing operations" and detained or killed villagers. I talked with internally displaced Chechens living in a camp in Ingushetia. They spoke about pressure from Russian and Ingush authorities, including threats that several camps will be closed by Oct. 1, presumably to force the internally displaced back into Chechnya in time for the presidential election.

Many Chechens I spoke to believe that Akhmad Kadyrov or another leader hand-picked by the Kremlin will win. They see the election as little more than window dressing for the West. All the while, the military operation continues with 100,000 Russian troops fighting 2,000 to 3,000 Chechen guerrillas.

I spent one night in a home on the outskirts of Grozny listening to machine-gun fire and explosions in the hills only a few miles away. I kept remembering the words of a resident, "Not a single night goes by without someone disappearing. Masked men come into homes and take people away." I wondered if I would see the morning.

On my second day, I went with guides on a tour of Grozny. I concealed a video camera and filmed the ruins of the city, taking care not to catch the attention of soldiers or police. Every building bears the marks of bullets or gaping holes from aerial bombardment. Many buildings -- including high-rise apartments that once housed ordinary families -- have been completely leveled to piles of rubble. A handful of buildings associated with oil companies are undergoing renovation. The only building in good shape is the presidential palace.

There is no running water for residents. People must buy water daily. They depend on generator power for electricity. I walked around the market, which was full of shoppers buying fruits and vegetables. This same market was attacked by Russian missiles at the beginning of the current war, killing more than 100 people. A few days after I visited the market, two Russian soldiers were killed nearby.

As we were leaving Grozny, a single shot was fired across the road behind our vehicle. My guides and I braced ourselves in anticipation of return fire, but there was no more shooting. Up the road my taxi stopped at one of the many checkpoints. Spray-painted on the concrete barrier of the road block was: "At this checkpoint I shoot without warning."

A Russian soldier eyed me in the car. For the first time in my life I felt what it is like to be utterly without rights, at the mercy of men with guns. Fortunately, I did make it home. Many Chechens are not so lucky.

Catherine S. Osgood is a graduate student at the Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

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