It was exactly 2:40 p.m., time for tea, so Shudi Tuchiyu strolled out into his garden in the hazy afternoon sun. He couldn't have chosen a better moment, because just then a Russian 122mm Grad rocket ripped through the roof of his farmhouse, blowing out windows and walls.
Tuchiyu's home here in rural Chechnya was leveled by a round from a multiple-rocket launcher deployed in the mountains just across the border in the southern Russian region of Dagestan. Dozens of rockets fired by the same battery chewed up corn fields all around this farming village, splintered trees and killed a farmer who was baling hay--part of what Russian officials say are pinpoint attacks on "terrorist" positions in Chechnya.
But here, the assault was clearly indiscriminate. Grads are unguided rockets used to saturate an area quickly with lethal high explosives, and these landed all over the place. The bombardment bore out charges by Chechen officials that Russian forces are using armored, artillery and air attacks on border villages and bombing larger targets deeper inside Chechnya to terrorize civilians. Tens of thousands have fled Grozny, the Chechen capital, and other towns that have come under Russian attack--many heading west into the Russian region of Ingushetia, where local officials say they can neither feed nor house them.
The two-pronged Russian offensive--clearing the Chechen frontier of opposition while striking at oil depots, power stations, roads and bridges across the territory, is part of a strategy to contain guerrilla forces that invaded Dagestan last month with the stated aim of creating an Islamic republic there. The guerrillas, led by a resolute commander named Shamil Basayev, are part of the same rebel force that outmaneuvered, embarrassed and defeated Russian troops in Chechnya in 1996, leaving the territory nominally under Russian rule but virtually independent.
Massed artillery was a main component of Russian battlefield tactics in that brutal two-year war and appears to be again in the present conflict. In western Chechnya, and here in the east as well, artillery and rocket barrages seem to have mainly a psychological goal--to keep guerrillas in the area off balance and to upset and intimidate their supporters.
In Dargo, a hamlet of 2,000 people, farmers are confused. They say they thought the war with Russia was long over, and they are beginning to resent self-styled Islamic rebels they once thought were heroes for bringing on their troubles. "The Islamists used to come around here, but we don't let them in," Tuchiyu said defensively. "Does this look like a terrorist base to you?"
Reporters visited Dargo today as part of a tour arranged by the beleaguered Chechen government of President Aslan Maskhadov, which denies it has any connection with Basayev's guerrillas. When the Grad attack took place, the journalists were being shown the nearby village of Benoi, which was hit by Russian artillery more than two weeks ago.
The screech of the rockets echoed across the mountain range, and a few seconds later, explosions peppered Dargo. Several of the rockets hit along a riverbank. One exploded in a corn field, shredding dried stalks and sending frightened farm women and cows fleeing. One struck five yards from a truck where Umar Mantsegov, 27, was baling hay; he was killed instantly.
At Mantsegov's home, women wailed as relatives and friends came to view the body and pay their respects. Naidan Tevayeva, an aunt, expressed a common disorientation. "What is the point of all this? Is it just to kill Chechens? I thought the war with Russia was over. If that's it, here we are. We'll try to defend ourselves," she said.
The Chechens in Dargo think the Russians probably selected their village for attack because it was once a base for Basayev. In August, Basayev led his guerrillas across the border into Dagestan, where they seized several towns and villages and proclaimed their support of a local Islamic sect, called Wahhabis, who had declared themselves unbound by secular law--Dagestani or Russian.
Dargo residents have no praise for Basayev. "We are not responsible for what he does," said Ramzan Tuchiyev, a teacher. "We shouldn't be blamed for his acts." But he stopped short of suggesting that the Maskhadov government should arrest him. "We can't get him; it would mean violence among us. We certainly can't stop him while Russia is bombing us."
In Grozny and other urban areas, some Chechens have even harsher words for Basayev and the Wahhabis, whose fundamentalism grates on many. They also hold Basayev and his followers responsible for a wave of ransom kidnappings that have driven foreigners out of Chechnya and made the territory a pariah in the region.
"Bandits and Wahhabis are the same," said Shayip, a local Chechen military commander. "We are Muslim in our own way, and we don't need to be taught by anyone how to pray or how to fight."
It is unusual for Chechens to speak ill of one another, especially when under threat from Moscow. In that sense, the Russian assault has succeeded--the vaunted Chechen unity credited with helping drive Russian troops from Chechnya in 1996 appears to be cracking.