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War Has No Rules for Russian Forces Fighting in Chechnya

SUNDAY REPORT

Troops admit committing atrocities against guerrillas and civilians. It's part of the military culture of impunity, they say. But many now have troubled consciences. "I remember a Chechen female sniper. We just tore her apart with two armored personnel carriers, having tied her ankles with steel cables. There was a lot of blood, but the boys needed it."

September 17, 2000|MAURA REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — They call it bespredel--literally, "no limits." It means acting outside the rules, violently and with impunity. It translates as "excesses" or "atrocities."

It's the term Russian soldiers use to describe their actions in Chechnya.

"Without bespredel, we'll get nowhere in Chechnya," a 21-year-old conscript explained. "We have to be cruel to them. Otherwise, we'll achieve nothing."

Since Russia launched a new war against separatist rebels in its republic of Chechnya a year ago, Russian and Western human rights organizations have collected thousands of pages of testimony from victims about human rights abuses committed by Russian servicemen against Chechen civilians and suspected rebel fighters.

To hear the other side of the story, a Times reporter traveled to more than half a dozen regions around Russia and interviewed more than two dozen Russian servicemen returning from the war front. What they recounted largely matches the picture painted in the human rights reports: The men freely acknowledge that acts considered war crimes under international law not only take place but are also commonplace.

In fact, most admitted committing such acts themselves--everything from looting to summary executions to torture.

"There was bespredel all the time," one 35-year-old soldier said. "You can't let it get to you."

The servicemen say atrocities aren't directly ordered from above; instead, they result from a Russian military culture that glorifies ardor in battle, portrays the enemy as inhuman and has no effective system of accountability.

"Your army is based on professionalism," said a 27-year-old paratrooper who served alongside U.S. troops as a peacekeeper in Bosnia-Herzegovina. "Our army is based on fervor."

Russian officials, including the Kremlin's war spokesman, Sergei V. Yastrzhembsky, have criticized the human rights reports, saying they are riddled with rumor and rebel propaganda. Officials have sometimes blamed reported atrocities on what they describe as rebel fighters dressed as Russian soldiers.

But they acknowledge that some human rights violations do occur and say they are taking steps to curb them.

"[Chechens] are Russian citizens, for whose sake the operation was undertaken in the first place," Yastrzhembsky said in an interview. "They should be treated according to the same laws as in the rest of Russia. Any violation, regardless of who commits it, must be reviewed by the procurator [investigating magistrate] and the guilty parties should be punished."

That may be the Kremlin's official position, but servicemen say things are different on the ground. In part because of media coverage of Chechen slave-trading, torture and beheadings, the soldiers believe that the enemy is guilty of far worse atrocities. Although they know that executions and other human rights violations are wrong, they also consider them an unavoidable--even necessary--part of waging war, especially against such a foe.

In their view, human rights workers and other critics are simply squeamish about the real nature of war.

"What rules? What Geneva Conventions? What difference does it make if Russia has signed them?" said a 25-year-old army officer. "I didn't sign them, none of my friends signed them. . . . In Russia, these rules don't work."

Perhaps most important, the servicemen described a pervasive and powerful culture of impunity in the Russian armed forces. They believe that authorities say one thing in public but deliberately turn a blind eye to many war crimes. A few even said investigators helped cover up such atrocities. Right or wrong, the soldiers are confident that authorities will make no serious effort to investigate war zone misconduct.

"You don't make it obvious, and they don't look too hard," another 21-year-old conscript said. "Everyone understands that's the way it works."

Many of the servicemen admitted having troubled consciences. But like a mantra, most repeated what they had been taught--that whether one likes it or not, going to war means acting bespredel.

"What kind of human rights can there be in wartime?" said a 31-year-old police commando. "It's fine to violate human rights within certain limits."

*

"The main thing is to have them die slowly. You don't want them to die fast, because a fast death is an easy death."

--Andrei

*

Andrei's pale eyes glow against his tanned skin. He's been home only 10 days. He opens and closes kitchen cabinets, searching confusedly for sugar for his tea. "I still haven't gotten used to domestic life," he apologizes. He has just turned 21.

During basic training, he recalls, Red Cross workers came to his base to teach about human rights and the rules of war.

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