"It's very dangerous where we're going," said Musa, the official guide for an unruly group of reporters as they stood at the border of Chechnya. "So, if anyone gets out of line, I'll shoot."
He was joking, of course.
About the shooting.
When a busload of reporters traveled into Chechnya last week to glimpse Russia's war on the rebellious republic, it was sometimes hard to tell who was more worried about the journalists' well-being--the reporters or the guards who stuck close to them at every step.
This was not a trip like many these days in the world of war reporting, where official guides, be they from the Pentagon, the court of Saddam Hussein or the opaque bureaucracy of Slobodan Milosevic, aim to show reporters as little as possible. The Chechens, under a punishing assault from their giant next-door neighbor, Russia, want everyone to see everything. There's one problem: For three years, the breakaway republic has been caught up in a lawless nightmare of kidnapping for ransom.
It's big business. Millions of dollars changed hands to recover both Russian and foreign hostages. Sometimes victims are traded among kidnappers like potatoes on a commodities futures market. So a busload of journalists from all sorts of wealthy countries and companies rolling into Chechnya could have presented an inviting target.
The government here, headed by President Aslan Maskhadov, speaks up against kidnapping but has been powerless to stop it. The country is full of clans and warlords who answer only to themselves. One, Shamil Basayev, launched an invasion of next-door Dagestan, helping to provoke the current conflict. In addition, the Chechens stand accused by Russian officials of blowing up apartment buildings in Russia, killing nearly 300 civilians.
To get reporters in, and the word out about Russian bombs, Maskhadov arranged a high-security press visit.
In the best of times, it is hard to turn around in Chechnya without bumping into somebody with a rifle, but this was exceptional. There was a gunman on the bus that came in from Ingushetia, gunmen in the escort cars, gunmen surrounding the barracks where the group spent four nights.
A young man with a rifle provided an escort to dinner, others stood guard in the hall while the journalists slept, and for a while, one accompanied people to the bathroom.
The Chechens, so long deprived of the company of visitors, are eager to talk. Their main point is this: The Russians say they're fighting terrorism, but the Chechens see it as the latest chapter in a centuries-old Russian effort to dominate the Caucasus region, within which Chechnya has been the hardest nut to crack. It won de facto independence in 1996 after a two-year war, but Moscow is reluctant to let go.
Considering the force Russia is willing to bring to bear on them, Chechens are sometimes remarkably lighthearted about their predicament. They often joke to make a point. At a welcoming news conference, someone asked Maskhadov about signs that the Russians were going to resuscitate a puppet government Moscow had set up during the earlier war. "Perhaps they forgot that Boris Yeltsin sent me a congratulatory telegram when I was elected three years ago," Maskhadov answered.
Chechens treat visitors to long-winded speeches on national unity, but the place is fragmented by rival clans. Even for Chechens, moving from place to place inside the country requires delicate diplomacy.
For instance, to escort the reporters from Grozny to the mountain village of Benoi near Dagestan required a change of escort because the central government guards were not local.
When reporters got to Benoi, the Russians fired rockets on the village of Dargo, no more than three miles away. The visitors wanted to view the damage right away, but that required yet another change of guard. A runner who knew someone in Dargo sprinted ahead to make sure outsiders would be welcome. Moreover, Benoi residents knew that Dargo is sympathetic to Islamic fundamentalists who are Chechnya's most avid kidnappers. The messenger had to make sure none of the militants was around.
At Dargo, a teacher welcomed the group. Chechens often put such a respected figure out front to greet visitors formally. He could not resist a joke. "You can stay as long as you like. In fact, some of our hostage takers would like you to stay forever."
In close quarters with the defenders, long nights were spent in conversation. Perhaps because bombs were falling nearby or perhaps because Russian troops had invaded, frankness came easily. Many of the guards were veterans of the last war. Despite pride at having won, the tales they told were inevitably sad.
Mustafa, a redhead from near the Terek River that bisects Chechnya, was part of a 30-member guerrilla group that fought the Russians. By the end of the war, after months of hit-and-run attacks in the hills and door-to-door fighting in Grozny, 28 of his mates were dead. The two survivors were adopted into another unit. Mustafa plans to fight again, if necessary.
These are men who have learned little else in their lives but to shoot, and this limits their thoughts about their future. Many share a pessimism about Chechnya's prospects and dream of getting to other places. Nurlan said he wants to be a policeman. "I could do a good job for the Washington police. I hear there's a lot of crime," he said. Hasan wants to join the French Foreign Legion. "They make you a French citizen, don't they?" he asked.
"I could be your personal guard. You need protection," Adan offered. "I could get you more money from your bosses."