|By Jeremy Bowen
It seemed a little safer on the low hill on the edge of Grozny. We wanted to avoid a repeat of the day before, when we had been caught in a Russian air strike in the center of the city. I had lain in the lee of a small wall, wishing my flak jacket covered my legs as well as my back, waiting for the cluster bombs to stop exploding. About a hundred yards away the bomb fragments killed the four Chechen fighters I had been interviewing a minute or so earlier. None of us in the BBC team had been feeling very lucky before the air strike. Now we felt like marked men, like everybody else in Grozny in the first few days of 1995.
We stood on the hill, filming, at fairly long range, the fires that the Russian bombardment had started. Then, new explosions, fire and smoke started to pour out of central Grozny. Perhaps I was just knocked back by a surge of adrenaline and fear, but my memory tells me that the earth shook and the blast vibrated through my guts. In the next few seconds the line of flame and smoke moved right along the line of the city’s main avenue that starts in Minutka Square and ends at the Chechen parliament building. It was a massive, coordinated attack by the heavy artillery and multiple rocket launchers I had seen on the Russian side of the lines. It was hard to believe that anybody could survive the inferno. Grozny disappeared under new clouds of flame and smoke and we got out with our tapes.
I went back into the center of Grozny most days that January. There were many more Russian attacks. Block after block of typical Soviet concrete- and-steel buildings were destroyed. In the few weeks after President Boris Yeltsin ordered his troops to end the Chechen rebellion, the Russians flattened the center of the city. Its destruction was more complete than anything I saw in the former Yugoslavia (including Mostar and Vukovar) and six other wars.
The laws of war state that an attacker must attempt to distinguish between military targets and civilians and their property. If he does not, he is guilty of the war crime of indiscriminate attack. If the attack also results in extensive, unnecessary, and willful damage then he is also guilty of wanton destruction. Proportionality is everything. The laws recognize that a legitimate military operation can kill noncombatants or damage their property. But any damage must not be excessive in comparison to the direct and concrete military advantage anticipated.
Despite the laws’ clarity, their application is often clouded by other considerations. At the Nuremburg Trials, Hermann Goering, the German air minister, and all the major war criminals were charged with “the devastation of towns, not justified by military necessity, in violation of the laws of war.” The charges were not pursued, perhaps because they were accused also of a wide range of other crimes and because the Allies did not want to draw attention to their own bombing campaigns in Germany and Japan.
And in Grozny, Russia could cite the fact that small groups of Chechen fighters were moving around the city almost at will, working their way up to the main confrontation line where they were killing hundreds of Russian conscripts. The shelling I witnessed followed the disastrous failure of a force of Russian tanks to break into the city center. Moscow might argue that shelling was the best and only way to take on the highly motivated Chechens.
If Grozny itself is an ambiguous case under the laws of war, there were plenty of examples that were crystal clear. The scene was a crossroads on the road into Grozny. Refugees had been flooding out of the city in the face of the Russian attack, and enterprising traders had set up corrugated iron shacks to sell drinks and food to those who had money. You could hear the noise of shelling coming from Grozny. Sometimes Russian warplanes flew overhead on their way to bomb the city. In the middle distance the silvery shape of a Russian helicopter-gunship hovered almost motionless over one of the outlying villages. Every now and then it launched a missile into the village, where the Chechens were putting up stiff resistance.
The war was all around, but the crossroads seemed like a backwater. I never saw Chechen fighters use it. The closest bridges were three-quarters of a mile away, and the Russian Air Force had blown up one.
But one morning in January 1995, Russian warplanes had attacked the crossroads, bombing and strafing. There were wounded in the hospital and, we were told, about half a dozen dead—all civilians. There were impact craters in the road. All that was left of the food-and-drink stands were a few twisted pieces of corrugated iron. The traders were picking up where they had left off, rebuilding the stands. And the refugees were still moving out of Grozny. The devastation of the crossroads, though on a far smaller scale than the attack on Grozny, was by all available evidence, a pure example of