A small corner of hell

Posted in Russia | 13-Oct-03 | Author: Michael Binyon| Source: The Times (UK)

Book review

From Russia with hate

Few books start revolutions or halt wars. Anna Politkovskaya's dispatches from Chechnya -"a small corner of hell" -are as terrible and bleak as anything written about Algeria, Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda or any scene of atrocities and barbarism. But the killings in Chechnya are still going on. And though the poison from this intractable conflict has already infected the Russian Army and is now spreading through all politics in Russia, Politkovskaya has few hopes that her eyewitness accounts will end the suffering.

A lone, courageous Russian journalist who has repeatedly defied the Kremlin's attempts to suppress coverage of this vicious war, Politkovskaya has been visiting Chechnya since the start of its struggle for independence, and especially since the devastating Russian onslaught in 1999, the start of the second Chechen war.

What she saw was truly appalling -a country systematically bombed, pillaged and brutalised. Villages have been sealed off, houses set ablaze, provisions looted and the inhabitants left to fend for themselves in the ruins. Hospitals, stripped of equipment and medicines, have become charnel houses for the putrefying bodies of civilians caught up in the bombings. Feral children, who have seen their mothers raped and fathers tortured, roam the streets nursing a hard small knot of hatred that will one day take fearful revenge.

As the introduction says, "reading such a book requires moral labour". It tells the story in a series of snapshots: incidents that Politkovskaya witnessed, histories, conversations, impressions and the occasional biting political comment.

It begins with her cowering with others as helicopter gunships rake civilians with fire. Vakha, a resilient and generous civilian, relieves the fear with jokes. His last act is to shelter a terrified boy in his
minutes later he steps on a mine and is blown to pieces.

Each snapshot illustrates another dark corner of this blasted land: the mother, desperately trying to collect money to ransom her kidnapped son; the drunken soldiers, hooting with laughter as they blow a boy to pieces on an outside toilet; the smell, torture and humiliation of the "filtration camps", officially set up to filter out terrorists and their supporters but in fact centres for extortion and sadism, where men and women are held until their relatives can pay enough to get them out. Ransoming the corpses costs even more, as Russians know that Chechens will pay anything to give their dead the funeral rites.

Politkovskaya notes that "the Chechens are rapidly losing their soul as a people".

Sometimes she cannot check her sarcasm at the Kremlin spokesman's mendacious assurances that order is returning or Putin's indifference to the abuses. But mostly her rage is directed at the breakdown of values and
civilisation: the corruption of an entire army, the kidnappings and rapes, the capriciousness of officers brutalised by fear and violence, the criminalisation of Chechens themselves, who bribe the Army to roam the streets at night, looting and terrorising their own people.

Politkovskaya, accused in Moscow of partisan sensationalism, is unsparing in her contempt for the Chechen militants who have pushed their countrymen into this morass. Often on the edge of despair, she comes to the weary conclusion that too many people -Chechen Islamists, Russian Army officers, ambitious politicians and, above all, profiteering criminals -have an interest in keeping this war going.

Putin has been praised in the West as a realist, a reformer and a skilful manager.

But he rode to power on the Chechen war. And until he can end the abuses and horrors that fuel this vortex of violence, he cannot claim to have brought Russia peace, dignity or long-term stability.