Dispatch: On the Train to Chechnya

In February, correspondent Anna Badkhen traveled from Moscow to Grozny, Chechnya by train to report on the simmering insurgency and human rights violations that continue to wrack the region after Russia announced the end of its war against Chechen separatists last year. She hid her identity as a journalist and kept a journal during the 43-hour ride. Moscow The Moscow-Grozny train ambles out of Kazan Train Station in Moscow at 2:37 pm. There are fifty-four passengers in my coal-heated, third class couchette car; my narrow top bunk is in the middle. For the next forty-three hours I will share the lumpy mattress with my jacket; someone else’s duffel bag draped over my legs for the duration of the trip; unidentified ropes I must, per our stern train car stewardess, keep until the end of the journey; a teenage boy unsuccessfully trying to climb onto his own top bunk across the isle as the train gently pitches left and right, throwing him off-balance each time he pushes himself up; and a copy of “Hadji-Murad,” the short novel Leo Tolstoy wrote in 1905 about Russian troops fighting Chechen separatist rebels. I am headed to an old battlefield. Most importantly, I have tucked under the mattress my purse with my notebook, a little Flip video camera, a point-and-shoot photo camera, and a digital audio recorder. I keep the recording equipment and the notebook hidden to avoid getting caught committing journalism. Last April Russia pulled most of its troops out of Chechnya, and declared that its fifteen-year war against Chechen insurgents was over. Now a different war is gutting the republic: a campaign of arbitrary detentions, torture, and summary executions by the paramilitary commandos loyal to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. To prevent dissent from spreading beyond Chechnya’s borders, Kadyrov’s government intimidates journalists who try to report about human rights violations. My colleagues in Russia tell me that if Chechen security forces find out about my visit they will, at best, dispatch a detail of Kadyrov’s commandos to follow me around and hinder my ability to interview their victims. “And what’s the worst that can happen?,” I ask. In response my friend shakes her head in a way that would be fitting if I were gravely ill. The most famous journalist to be punished for reporting from Chechnya was Anna Politkovskaya. She was gunned down in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building in 2006. That’s what tends to happen to perceived or real critics of the iron-fisted way Kadyrov runs his republic. Last July, Natalia Estemirova, a prominent Chechen researcher for the Russian human rights group Memorial, was abducted in Chechnya, shot twice in the head, execution-style, and dumped by the side of the road. One of Estemirova’s colleagues tells me that dozens of Chechens—human rights workers, government critics, former rebels, and ordinary civilians whose wrongdoing is unclear, unknowable, and, often, nonexistent—disappear each week. Moscow—Mozdok All solitude on Russian trains happens outside, beyond the windows frosted with baroque bouquets of ice. The railroad streams past thousands of acres of forests and fallow fields untouched by man; the awesome isolation of these uninhabited swaths of land makes you feel alone even if you only peep at it through a hole thawed in the icy train car window. Inside, by contrast, everything is public. People try each other’s food (boiled chicken; lamb stew with a heavy aroma that clings to the stuffy air for hours; dried fruit; sunflower seeds) and try to solve each other’s crossword puzzles and life problems. Without asking I find out that the two young women who boarded in Rostov are cousins traveling to their grandfather’s funeral in Grozny; that the young man with a splitting headache is accompanying his sister home after a hospital visit in Moscow (hospitals in Chechnya mostly lack equipment for diagnostics); that the college students next to the water heater think there is no future for them in Chechnya’s impoverished, unsteady landscape. The skill of surviving such communality comes with experience. There are no compartments on this train. I marvel at my fellow women travelers who have perfected the art of discreetly taking off their stockings under their skirt; the art of changing blouses in public without anyone noticing; the art of changing their entire wardrobe in the narrow bathroom of a moving train as two days worth of waste and soapy water slosh at their feet. Mozdok—Grozny At 6:30 am it is still dark. Fog rises from the snowy foothills, illuminated softly by a waning, foul yellow moon. A chicken-wire fence patched with twigs clears out of the fog, then an abandoned warehouse, a construction site, a platform. A young man in black civilian clothes steps aboard the train car. In his right hand he carries a Kalashnikov assault rifle, which he holds by the pistol grip, close to his thigh. His forefinger rests on the trigger guard. He walks down the aisle in silence, peering into our faces, studying us. People avoid looking directly at this man. His lack of uniform and his gun tells everyone who he is: a member of Ramzan Kadyrov’s paramilitary police. There have been no border posts, no document checks, no public announcements, but now we know: we have crossed into Chechnya. Grozny: The depot The train disgorges its passengers onto an icy platform in front a new train station. The station building is pale pink and white and looks like rich dessert. The last time I visited Grozny was in 2004, and I don’t recognize a thing. In place of the gaping, ragged basements where people squatted by candlelight there are sushi bars, pizza parlors, Internet cafés. Garlands of green, white and red lamps—the colors of the Chechen flag—swing between young poplars on a boulevard. Women file out of beauty salons. The city looks as though there never was a war. At the head of the train looms the red brick structure of another railroad depot. Half-built, it rises three stories high and holds the promise of lovely arches that would face the city, a few restaurants, a spacious waiting area. But this building probably never will be finished. A giant hole yawns above the second floor, where a tank shell smashed into the northern wall. Tall winter sky pales through a smaller gash, from a rocket or a mortar. Shrapnel scars line the charred brickwork like sheet music of some horrible symphony. This depot is a fragment of the Grozny I do remember, a vestige of the latest war against Islamic separatists that Russia waged here. As many as 300,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed in the campaign—the latest iteration of Moscow’s struggle to control the land that has been trying to break free of Russia’s rule since the czars first conquered Chechnya almost three hundred years ago. Thousands of people, many most likely buried hastily in craters and shallow pits all over the country, are still unaccounted for. Some may lie in the vast, snow-dusted field beneath the exposed brick of this unfinished railroad station. Despite the meteoric revival of Grozny’s avenues, much of the city – indeed, much of Chechnya – remains a mass grave. From these unmarked burial grounds sprouts a new, revamped republic convulsed by new, restyled violence. + Watch an interview with Anna Badkhen on FRONTLINE/World iWitness. + Read Anna Badkhen's reporting in The Boston Globe and The National. Anna Badkhen, the former Moscow bureau chief for the San Francisco Chronicle, grew up in the Soviet Union and Russia has covered the conflict in Chechnya since 2001. Her book about war and food will be published in October 2010. Anna's trip to Chechnya this year was made possible by a grant from CIR's Dick Goldensohn Fund.

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