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Friday, July 15, 2005

Chechnya revisited

I was glad to see that National Geographic is running a piece on Chechnya this month. Chechnya, as brutal as it has been, falls off the public radar unless prompted by events like the Beslan school massacre (Chechnya: Separatism or Jihad). However, tens of thousands of people on both sides of the conflict, which has remained more or less ongoing since 1994, have been killed, injured, displaced, kidnapped, or come up just plain missing.

Of all my travels, Chechnya was by far the scariest--and I was there during the "peaceful" interwar years 1997-1998. At the time, my cameraman and I were staying with Shamil Basayev and his guys in the Vedeno Rayon. We were moved every night from location to location, and had two body guards assigned to us 24/7. We usually slept on a big bed, us in the middle, guards on the outside, AKs and PKM on the floor--fully dressed but shoes on the floor--ready for quick reaction if necessary. From what I wasn't sure.

I remember one morning waking up in the village of Tousand and, anxious to get outside and take a look around, went up the hill from the village to watch some children sledding over abandoned Russian positions. I was out about an hour when Ruslan, one of our body guards, came up the hill and chewed me out. Salembek, another guard, told me that it was their job to protect us and if we were killed or kidnapped while in their care, Salembek claimed Shamil would kill them for failing their duty. It greatly clarified the situation for me. We were moved every night--not for fear of the Russians but other Chechens.

Shamil was perhaps the baddest of the Chechens and respect for him was immense in Chechnya at the time. I couldn't imagine any other rival group messing with Shamil's guys. In fact, there were a couple of times that we were stopped by other armed Chechens and when they saw we were with Shamil's soldiers we were not hassled in any way.

Rival clans and armed units are, of course, just a fraction of the instability in Chechnya.

Here is that Nat Geo link: (http://www7.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0507/feature4/index.html)

Dodge Billingsley

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