RUSSIA. Chechnya. Alkhan-Kala. February 2000. An injured Chechen fighter in a hospital.
Chechen fighters had left Grozny after several month of fighting the Russians. Two groups of about 2000 fighters left Grozny through a mine field and several hundred where killed or lost their feet.
Photograph: Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos
Grozny was once again the epicentre of fighting after the outbreak of the Second Chechen War, which further caused thousands of fatalities. The Second Battle of Grozny lasted from late 1999 to early 2000.
During the early phase of the Russian siege on Grozny on October 25, 1999, Russian forces launched missiles at the crowded central bazaar and a maternity ward, killing more than 140 people and injuring hundreds. A massive shelling of the city followed.
Supported by a powerful air force, the Russian force (around 50,000 soldiers) vastly outnumbered and out-gunned Chechen irregulars, who numbered around 3,000 to 6,000 fighters, and was considerably larger and much better prepared than the force sent to take the Chechen capital in the First Chechen War (1994-1996). In addition, the tactics of both sides in this second campaign were drastically different.
The Russians met fierce resistance from Chechen rebel fighters intimately familiar with their city. The defenders had chosen to withstand the Russian bombardment for the chance to come to grips with their enemy in an environment of their choosing. In stark contrast to the ad-hoc defence of 1994, the separatists prepared well. Grozny was transformed into a fortress city. The Chechens dug hundreds of trenches and antitank ditches, built bunkers behind apartment buildings, laid land mines throughout the city, placed sniper nests on high-rise buildings and prepared escape routes. In some instances whole buildings were booby-trapped; the ground floor windows and doors were usually boarded-up or mined, making it impossible for the Russians to simply walk into a building. Relying on their high mobility (they usually did not use body armour because of lack of equipment), the Chechens would use the trenches to move between houses and sniper positions, engaging the Russians. Well-organized small groups of no more than 15 fighters moved freely about Grozny using the city’s sewer network, even sneaking behind Russian lines and attacking unsuspecting soldiers from the rear.
The majority of the city’s civilian population fled following the missile attacks early in the war, leaving the streets mostly deserted. However, as many as 40,000 civilians, often the elderly, poor, and infirm, remained trapped in basements during the siege, suffering from the bombing, cold, and hunger. Some of them were killed while trying to flee. On December 3, about 40 people died when a refugee convoy attempting to leave the besieged areas was fired on. Around 250 to 300 people who were killed while trying to escape in October 1999, between the villages of Goryachevodsk and Petropavlovskaya, were buried in a mass grave. On December 5, Russian planes, which had been dropping bombs on Grozny, switched to leaflets with a warning from the general staff. The Russians set a deadline, urging residents of Grozny to leave by any means possible by December 11, 1999:
“Persons who stay in the city will be considered terrorists and bandits and will be destroyed by artillery and aviation. There will be no further negotiations.”
The Russian commanders prepared a “safe corridor” for those wishing to escape from Grozny, but reports from the war zone suggested few people used it. Desperate refugees who got away were telling stories of bombing, shelling and brutality. Russia put the number of people remaining in Grozny at 15,000, while a group of Chechen exiles in Geneva confirmed other reports estimating the civilian population at 50,000. Russia eventually withdrew the ultimatum in the face of international outrage. But the heavy bombardment of the city continued.
The Russian ground troops advanced slowly. Russian ground forces met stiff resistance from rebel fighters as they moved forward, using a slow, neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood advance. Both sides accused each other of launching chemical attacks.
The final seizure of the city was set in early February 2000, when the Russian military lured the besieged militants to a promised safe passage. Seeing no build-up of forces outside, the militants agreed. One day prior to the planned evacuation, the Russian Army mined the path between the city and the village of Alkhan-Kala and concentrated most firepower on that point. As a result, both prominent separatist leaders and several hundred rank-and-file militants were killed or wounded. Afterwards, the Russians slowly entered the empty city and on February 6 raised the Russian flag in the centre. Many buildings and even whole areas of the city were systematically dynamited. President Putin announced Grozny was “liberated” and said that military operations had come to an end.
On February 3, the day after the breakout, the Russians began “mopping-up” in the ruined city. Many serious crimes were committed against civilians, most notoriously the Novye Aldi massacre in which at least 50 civilians were killed when the neighbourhood was looted.
A month later, it was declared safe to allow the residents to return to their homes. The United Nations workers who entered the city with the first convoy of international aid discovered “a devastated and still insecure wasteland littered with bodies”. There were some 21,000 civilians still in Grozny. The city’s losses were never counted.
In 2003 the United Nations called Grozny the most destroyed city on earth.