Monday, 25 June 2012

An Account Of A Visit To Modern Grozny

Early in the morning, on a freezing cold winter's day, I found myself standing on the edge of a snow covered field in the middle of the Chechen countryside. Before I started my journey here, I failed to check the weather forecast and unfortunately I left Moscow without my military grade jacket and also without my breakfast, a big mistake.

Now the only thing standing between me and the icy winds blowing off the Caucasus mountains was a highly inadequate coat. But things were about to get worse.

As I turned around, Staring back at me were two huge black stone lions standing guard on either side of an imposing gateway, the entrance to a sprawling luxury compound with its own private zoo of exotic animals such as bears and wolves, that is home to Chechnya's warlord in chief and President Ramzan Kadyrov.

A group of Mr Kadyrov's personal militia constantly looked me up and down suspiciously, their fingers were uncomfortably tight on the triggers of their automatic rifles, making the situation tense.

I was about to talk to the man who is now regarded as Chechnya's new president.

Running the war destroyed republic isn't a job for the faint-hearted. But then again, Ramzan Kadyrov is no ordinary man.

In the early 1990s at the age of 16 he was already commanding a band of Chechen separatist fighters in the first Chechen war.

After the second Chechen war in 2002, Kadyrov's father, Akhmad Kadyrov, changed sides, leading a pro-Moscow government of former rebels. Two years later the elder Kadyrov was dead, blown up by an assassin's bomb in Grozny.

Desperate to find a replacement, Moscow turned to his then 28 year old son, who was then head of the secret police. The former rebel then became Chechnya's prime minister.

The problem for me was that the man now about to be promoted to president had disappeared.

As I stamped my feet trying to stay warm a man in a tweed overcoat emerged from the gatehouse. In perfect accented English he apologised for his boss's failure to appear.

Either he didn't want to tell me, or more likely, he didn't know that Mr Kadyrov was in fact in Moscow. 

While I'd been heading south towards the Caucasus, Ramzan was heading in the opposite direction, called to the Kremlin for his meeting. I would not be able to speak with "the Lion of the Caucasus" this time.

A few minutes later amid a lot of shouting, police sirens and revving engines I was packed into a car. We were heading straight for Grozny, Chechnya's decimated capital.

As we lurched down the potholed road our convoy gathered speed. Soon the speedometer on the old Volga saloon was reading 160 km/h, that's 100 miles an hour, on a bumpy two-lane Chechen road. Ramzans militia were keen on hanging out of the sunroof and letting off bursts of rounds from their automatic rifles causing the car to swerve on the icy road, Becoming nervous I reached for my seatbelt, to find it did not have a buckle.

The Grozny I had expected, the one I'd experienced, resembled Berlin in 1945. Just four years ago the United Nations still called Grozny the most destroyed city on earth. Ravaged by two brutal wars, it had not a single building left undamaged by the brutal urban warfare fought to take the city

But now right in front of me, on either side of Grozny's main street, stood rows of freshly painted blocks of flats. At the far end the soaring minarets of a huge new mosque, the largest mosque in Europe and Russia.

Grozny is being rebuilt at a frenetic pace... and it's being paid for by Moscow. For the Kremlin the sooner the scars are erased, the sooner the outside world will forget the two brutal wars it fought and the war crimes it committed, to keep the rebel republic under Russian control.

The way I see it, the more young Chechen men working on building sites, the fewer that will be tempted to pick up a gun against Russia.

But while Moscow pays the bills, running Chechnya is today left to Ramzan Kadyrov and his band of former rebels.

In many ways the policy has been a success. The war does seem to be over because thousands of rebel fighters have been absorbed into Mr Kadyrov's new Chechen army.

But under his rule thousands of other Chechen men have disappeared without trace.

In the middle of Grozny I am surrounded by a group of women holding scratchy photographs of young men. They are the mothers of the disappeared. Their stories are eerily similar, of sons, brothers and husbands who left home one day to go to work, to the shops, to apply for a new passport, and never came back.

A woman with bright green eyes looks at me. I just want to know what has happened to my son, she said. Where is he? Is he alive or dead? People say life is better now, that the war is over, but for us the war will never be over until we find out what has happened to our children, I fear I will never see my son again.

The Wolf Of The Caucasus

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