ON AUG. 28, 1995, a Serb mortar shell landed in the marketplace of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. Three dozen civilians were killed instantly. CNN broadcast devastating images of the carnage, and millions of people around the world were outraged. The marketplace attack helped push NATO finally to intervene to end the war.
On Thursday of last week, Russian missiles landed in the marketplace of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. A nearby maternity hospital also was reported hit. More than 140 people were killed, including children and teenagers, new mothers and their infants. But there are very few television crews or foreign correspondents in Chechnya; images of carnage were not beamed around the world; outrage is decidedly muted.
Russian leaders and military brass at first denied the attack; then said their troops could not have been responsible; then admitted responsibility but denied there were civilian casualties. The target had been an "arms bazaar," they said, and only criminals and terrorists could have been killed. Or maybe the Chechens had blown themselves up to make Russia look bad; some officials tried that one, too.
It should come as no surprise that the Russian government would lie in such a blatant way. It lied just as brazenly during its previous war against Chechnya, back in 1994-96, even though at that time a sizable Russian and foreign media presence in Grozny routinely debunked the official version of events. Now, with a diminished media presence, no fiction is too ludicrous for Moscow to put forward.
Something else has changed since the last war, too. The Russian public is eager for a military victory and ready, at least for now, to believe that success can be achieved at little cost. Many Russians do not flinch at articles like the one in the official newspaper Rossiskaya Gazeta that talks about the "criminal scum" in Chechnya and concludes: "To wipe the terrorist rabble off the face of the earth and rid life of fear and violence seems like the only solution."
Such yearning for simple solutions is understandable, if not pretty. Chechnya is, or was, a province of Russia on its southern border. Much of its Muslim population, having resisted Russian conquest for more than a century and then been nearly wiped out in Stalin's terror, never accepted Moscow's domination. Its government declared independence in 1991 and eventually fought the Russian army to a humiliating defeat, with President Boris Yeltsin agreeing to live with an autonomous, if not formally independent, Chechnya. But attacks from Chechnya into other parts of Russia, and terrorist bombings that Russian officials blamed on Chechens, led Mr. Yeltsin to renege on his agreement and launch a new war.
It is understandable, too, that Russian officials want to hold their country together. But the only apparent strategy of this latest war is to kill many Chechens and force many more to flee. Officials count at least 170,000 refugees having crossed one border alone, almost certainly an understatement. This is not an "anti-terrorist operation," as the Russian government maintains, but a crime against humanity. The Clinton administration was eloquent in its condemnations of Slobodan Milosevic's attacks against civilians. It was reassuring to hear Secretary of State Madeleine Albright beginning yesterday to express similar criticisms about the Russian operation.