Empire Of Ruin
The corrupt Russian Army can’t think of giving up its mines.
In Chechnya their legacy of fear could last for decades. Olivia Ward reports.
BENOIT GYSEMBERGH /
It’s one of those sweltering Grozny days when the dust catches at the back of your throat. But Magomed and his friend Ruslan are puffing fiercely on cigarettes as they squat in the doorway of their crumbling apartment building. The smoke helps to muffle the stench that is coming from the shattered basement gaping behind them.
‘Corpses,’ says 15-year-old Magomed matter-of-factly. ‘There are still a few of them down there. But we leave them because it’s too dangerous to try and clear them away.’
The danger comes from some of the unexploded bombs that pounded into the Chechen capital during the savage 21-month war with Russia. It also comes from antipersonnel mines set by Russian forces against Chechen separatist fighters and by fighters forced to abandon their territory to the Russians.
At night, explosions cut through the heavy summer darkness from buildings like these, claiming new and uncounted victims. But while teenagers like Magomed and Ruslan rebuild their shattered city homes on the ruins of the war – risking future disaster – villagers are stymied by mines that prevent them from regaining their livelihood.
‘This is a poor spread, I’m afraid,’ apologizes Fatima Umarova, a small farmer in the pummelled village of Goiskoye, south of Grozny, as she lays out bread, soup and pickles for visiting journalists. ‘We have just put our house back together after the bombing. But we couldn’t do any planting or harvesting because of the mines.’
She looks out over the flat fertile plain that fringes the foothills of the Caucasus mountains. To a visitor it seems inviting enough. To a war survivor with one neighbour dead and five others injured less than a kilometre away, the untended land is a killing field.
The Umarov family have lost their cattle in the war, and so are not forced to venture into the dangerous territory. But others, who still have the remains of their herds, reluctantly let their sons follow the cows into pasture land they know is mined.
‘There is an urgent need for demining in Chechnya,’ says a report by the HALO Trust, a British charity dedicated to ridding hazardous areas of their unwanted explosive debris. ‘Currently there is no form of humanitarian mine clearance, and indeed at the moment very little humanitarian aid at all.’
Those who are new to war, and new to Chechnya, would be excused for wondering why this tiny territory, scarcely bigger than Luxembourg, should be a target for deadly antipersonnel mines on top of the thousands of tonnes of bombs thrown down by the Russian military.
‘Mines are defensive weapons,’ explains Paul Castella of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Moscow. ‘They’re cheap and simple to use, and they’re a vital part of former Soviet military doctrine.’
The ICRC has an active campaign against antipersonnel mines in Russia. Its graphic and gut-wrenching video advertisements of limbless victims make millions of viewers aware of the devastation they cause. But this is a country where exhaustion has overtaken activism, and even the most egregious environmental crimes scarcely cause a ripple. Mines dating back to World War Two continue to kill and incapacitate but, when millions of people are struggling for their daily bread, there is little interest in campaigning.
Russia’s military, surrounded by countries that it has at one time or another subdued by force, not surprisingly has a siege mentality. When trouble looms on its borders it sees mines as the most efficient protection.
The war in Chechnya turned the spotlight on the weakness of the Russian Army – poorly trained and undisciplined, half-starved and under-equipped. And it showed that huge forces can be defeated by shrewd guerrilla tacticians willing to fight to the death.
In the absence of military reform, using mines to protect their positions against the enemy makes sense to Russian military commanders. The same tactics have been used by former Soviet troops fighting in separatist wars in Abkhazia in north-western Georgia and the largely Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karabakh in Azerbaijan.
Russia is a party to a protocol of the 1980 United Nations convention restricting the use of antipersonnel mines, although it has so far avoided supporting a blanket ban on the mines.
But the original protocol said nothing about the use of the mines in ‘internal conflicts’ like those in Chechnya and the former Soviet Republics, and a new provision to include them will not come into force until 1999. The ban would in any case be virtually unenforceable in wars that are in Russia’s territory and sphere of interest – regions it jealously guards against outside influence.
ROBBIE KING / CAMERA PRESS
During the war in Chechnya, human-rights activists provided ample evidence that Russia used anti-civilian weapons such as ‘needle bombs’ that violate the spirit of the Geneva Convention. But there was no international outcry or investigation.
Mapping of minefields, stipulated by the 1980 protocol, is also lax or non-existent in the former Soviet Union, and those maps that do exist quickly disappear after the troops disband. Even guerrilla forces planting mines on their own territory forget where they were set, and those who set them are often killed before the conflict ends.
In Chechnya Shamil Basayev, one of the separatists’ senior military commanders, was among the few who returned to the Chechen-planted minefields after the war to remove the threatening weapons. But without special equipment he has been unable to clear more than a handful.
The problem is likely to linger for decades, if not centuries, prolonging the agony of war. In the Chechen Republic’s few threadbare hospitals, bleeding victims with shattered limbs continue to be carried in, their future prospects blighted in a territory where life for the very fittest is a daily struggle.
More victims are expected. The Russians dropped thousands of ‘leaf’ mines from the air in cluster bombs in wooded and mountainous areas where unsuspecting civilians live and work. Other mines were planted by troops.
But given the humiliating defeat suffered by the Russian military, and the deep ethnically based nature of the conflict, it is unlikely that Moscow will send mine-sweeping aid to Chechnya any time soon, or support international efforts.
The HALO Trust recently sent a team to Chechnya to draw up a plan for clearing the land. Although the Chechen Government is willing to mobilize people to help, the Trust found a complete lack of equipment, training, organization and management. Their conclusions: 12 months of intensive work, costing slightly less than one million dollars would be needed to make the Republic safe.
Even while the team members did their survey, Russian troops were laying new mines along Chechnya’s borders, in the troubled neighbouring republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan.
Money to clear mines, it seems, is always in less plentiful supply than money to buy new ones that shatter civilian lives. Russia, one of the world’s biggest producers of antipersonnel mines in Soviet times – and sometimes a ‘good will’ donor to its Cold War allies – has spread death far beyond its borders.
Today, says a spokesman for the official Russian arms seller Rosvooruzheniye, Moscow subscribes to an international export embargo, and mines are no longer sold outside the country. But the gradual privatization of Russian arms dealing makes the ban dubious and, although the relatively cheap weapons are not a money-maker on the scale of tanks and fighter jets, they may be attractive products to small-time dealers. Corrupt or financially desperate military personnel also run their own ‘biznyes’ doing backdoor deals on popular weapons, many of them relics of the Cold War stockpile.
‘All you have to do is order what you want,’ said Rosa, a Chechen nurse who doubled as arms buyer for the fighters during the war. ‘The Russians will even deliver it.’
For Chechnya, and other former Soviet conflict zones, the short-term prospects for doing away with antipersonnel mines are bleak. And the most optimistic observers say nothing is likely to change as long as Russia is caught in its vicious circle of corruption, nostalgia for its old empire, and economic and military collapse.
‘Why don’t they stop using mines?’ says a Western military expert. ‘They don’t stop because they can’t stop. Mines are their last line of defence and they have nothing else to replace them with.’
And, he added, ‘In the West, diplomacy is replacing mines. Once Russia’s policy changes, and relations with its neighbours are no longer hostile, there is hope. But that will be some time in the future.’
Olivia Ward is the Moscow bureau chief of the Toronto Star newspaper and a frequent contributor to New Internationalist.
Copyright New Internationalist Magazine 1997