Chechnya: What You Don't Know

E-mail Steve

Sept. 9,  2004 4:31 a.m.

Chechnya has been in the news lately. I think many people who follow the news don't know much about the place, although I don't think anything can really explain what has happened lately in Russia.

Chechnya is a small place, mostly hills, farming, goats and cattle. Most news wire articles will tell you it is the size of Connecticut.  It is about 1,000 miles straight south of Moscow. Under the Soviet Union it used to be called Checheniya-Ingushetia, linked to the neighboring republic of Ingushetia. When a war began there in 1994 I remember many journalists laughed about the name, how obscure it was and how no one had ever heard of it.

Most people pronounce Chechnya wrong. The accent is on the second syllable.

Chechens and Russians have been fighting for a long time, on and off for more than a century. Some of the famous Russian writers of the 19th century fought around Chechnya in the Caucasus Mountains and wrote about their experiences.

If you listen to news reports now asking Russians what should be done, many will say what Stalin did was the right thing to do. Stalin forced the entire Chechen population onto train cars and exiled them to Siberia. He suspected them of collaboration with the Nazis. They were eventually allowed back to their land.

The current war has been going on and off since 1994. Boris Yeltsin started the war after he concluded Chechen demands for independence grew excessive. It has been reported the Yeltsin team wanted "a good little war," like Grenada, to boost the Yeltsin's ratings before elections.

The fighting ability of the Chechens has been grossly underestimated by Russian forces since the beginning of the conflict. Before the fighting began, Russia's defense minister, in a famous remark, said he could take the capital Grozny in two hours. Ten years later the fighting continues.

One more point. Chechnya in 1994 was a little bit of a wild place. Grozny seemed like a Wild West town with a lot of smuggling and weapons on the street. Grozny ten years later looks like the moon. It has been bombed to smithereens. There is no electricity, no phones, no jobs. People, old people, Chechens and Russians who live there, are camping on the moon. I've been to Chechnya a lot and one thing I remember is it never really being warm there. It is wet, cloudy, and cold all the time. Someone told me the other day that Russia ought to put the hammer down in Chechnya, to use force. I guess people don't know about what has happened there because journalists don't go there — it is too dangerous.

You could live with a Chechen family ten years ago, a normal Chechen family where maybe the husband was a policemen or a schoolteacher with a wife and children, a man who did not want to see Russian troops in Chechnya, who may have lost family members under Stalin's deportation. Today you could not do that without the high risk of being kidnapped or killed. Even aid workers have had their throats cut there. The point is that with each year of war in Chechnya the population and the behavior has gotten more extreme. Each of these attacks against Russia, too, has gotten more extreme. And now they are coming fast together. With little prospect for any change in position on either side it seems more serious and sophisticated attacks may come.

I remember I bought a tape from a Russian colonel of the Russian military using a weapon called a Pinocchio. It fired a shell into a village then the shell turned into a fireball, burning everything. I kept asking him why was it called Pinocchio. Finally I learned it was because Pinocchio was terrified of fire.

Dear Steve & All:

Thank you for being there to allow us to see what horrible things are being done.  I don't think I could do your job.

— Andrea


I am afraid we are not awake as a nation.

— Steve in CA

I read your story on Hostage takers: ‘these bastards’ and I thought of my little three year old red haired daughter running back to give me a kiss and a hug as I drop her off at her daycare... and my heart weeps for those Russian parents.

— Kert (Hilton Head, SC)

Dear Steve:
As an amateur historian and media enthusiast, I'm listening to an historic D-Day radio broadcast as I read your latest report from Moscow about the crisis in Chechnya.
Your no-nonsense, straight reporting of the facts is a breath of fresh air in this era of spin, bias and rumor-mongering.  Rest assured, there are those who still recognize fine reporting in the tradition of Murrow, Bob Trout and Bob Edwards.  Keep up the good work.  
— John (Cleveland, Ohio)


I began to read the many encouraging e-mails you've received from all of us in the States. I was most impressed and proud to realize that there is a true newsman out there!  I'd like to add my good wishes and caution to keep your head down and butt low!  As any Marine will tell you that is the most embarrassing war story to tell - how your butt became target number one.

— Larry (Richardson, TX)

My heart broke when I saw the images of small children running, half naked for their lives while "terrorists cowards" tried to shoot them in the backs. What a world we live in. If somehow you could let any of those folks know on my behalf we are thinking and praying for them and that the world does care.

— Mike

I just read your report. I have (2) little boys and I am devastated by what happened to those people. Does the Russian community have the resources to help these people with their grief? I have prayed for them, I wish I could wrap them all in a warm soft blanket and hold them and tell them it will all be ok.
Please provide an update on the aftermath, I am sure that many people want to know how they are at this time.
Annette (Nashville, TN)

Steve Harrigan currently serves as a Miami-based correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC). He joined the network in 2001 as a Moscow-based correspondent.