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Ethnic Discord : CHECHNYA : Russian Troops Struggle With Ill-Defined Mission

March 14, 1995|MATT BIVENS | Special to The Times

GROZNY, Russia — Some mornings the Russian troops patrolling this war-wrecked city will stop a man on the street because they know he has spent the previous night shooting at them.

"You can see from his face, and from his walk" that he's a resistance fighter, said Vadim, a major in the Russian Interior Ministry. "So we ask him to open his shirt, and invariably we see bruises on his right shoulder from the kick of firing a Kalashnikov day and night.

"So we ask him, 'What's this from?' " Vadim continued. "And he says, 'I walked into a cupboard.' And we have to let him go, and he saunters off. The alternative would be to arrest him, based on what we think his face looks like and on a bruise--but we can't use such Gestapo methods."

Few Russian soldiers in secessionist Chechnya have such scruples. In three months of war, Russia's military forces have shamed themselves irredeemably. They have killed thousands of civilians in aerial bombing raids. In those areas that have come under their occupation, they have murdered and looted. Interior Ministry troops have tortured unarmed civilians.

But not all Russian soldiers in Chechnya are that way. Two days and two nights spent in the company of ODON, an elite Interior Ministry division, found some who are more or less upright.

Interior Ministry troops actually are heavily armed police forces brought to Grozny to "mop up" and restore order after the regular Russian army's advances. Their assignment--like so much about the Russian assault on the self-declared independent republic--is poorly defined. It is an incompatible mix of humanitarian relief, police work and all-out war.

By day, the Interior Ministry soldiers are besieged with requests for help by those few citizens still left in Grozny. These desperate people, exhausted by weeks of hiding in basements, shower ODON officers with simple pleas--a cup of water, a blanket, some news from the outside world.

The troops share what they have, and so large bands of "soldier groupies" await them eagerly each morning, to thank and praise them and to tell them whatever they want to hear. "I fall on my knees and beg the soldiers to stay!" wailed pensioner Alexandra Staruseva, 58. "We can't live without the soldiers now!"

An Interior Ministry lieutenant colonel assured Staruseva and others on the street corner--mostly elderly, ethnic Russian women--that food and newspapers would be distributed soon, and promised to post letters to Russia for them.

"The Chechen people support us," said Alexander, 34, a battalion commander who, like other officers interviewed, withheld his last name to protect his family in Russia from revenge. "Chechen women tell us where snipers are located."

At night, however, the soldiers retreat to their bases. From dusk to dawn they fight off determined bands of Chechen guerrillas who move through the city's sewer systems.

In a bunker dug into frozen mud, Igor, 25, a senior lieutenant, bitterly summarized his routine.

During the day, children and the elderly come to ask for food and water. "We help them out all day long . . . ," he said. "But we know some of them are doing reconnaissance work to help snipers at night."

While he and his men--bleary-eyed from a full night of combat--spend their days trying to patrol the city and help civilians, the average Chechen guerrilla "has a good rest," Igor complained. "Then he puts on a white arm band (the sign of a neutral civilian) and goes to pick up his humanitarian aid, and to scout out our positions."

There are other frustrations. Interior Ministry troops say they are appalled at the Russian air force's indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Grozny and by the army's incompetent and failed New Year's Eve tank assault on the city.

More personally shameful is the looting done by the Russian army, often with approval by high-ranking officers. ODON officers say they fight a lonely but determined battle against uniformed looters.

Indeed, unannounced visits to several barracks of the 5,000-member ODON division turned up little that might be considered loot. Instead, officers showed off a few small gifts, including an "I Coffee" mug given to Alexander, the battalion commander, by a local Chechen woman whose passport he helped dig out from the rubble of her bombed apartment.

The grateful woman also gave ODON officers a collection of Russian literary classics, which Alexander and his men read at night. They like to point out that the books came from a chechenka . "Most Chechens like us," they assure each other.

Vadim likes to tell anecdotes that reflect on his men's honesty. For example, when Russian special forces killed a Chechen fighter in battle and searched the body for documents and weapons, they came up instead with a thick roll of 5,000-ruble ($1.10) notes--a lot of money for a draftee earning 10,000 rubles a month.

"My men just threw that wad of money on his chest and left it there," said Vadim with approval. "It lay there for hours, and no one even thought of touching it. Eventually the wind took it away."

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