At least they could have given warning, thought Lena Baisayev as the windows of her kitchen blew in, the plaster cracked all around and shrapnel crashed through the wall in the room where her 4-year-old usually sleeps.
It was Oct. 26 in Samashki, a town in western Chechnya. For three weeks, it had been battered by Russian artillery, tanks and jet bombers. Most of the time, Baisayev and her extended family of 23 men, women and children counted on the whisper of a jet or the distant booming of artillery to give them a few seconds head start on descending to the basement. But not this time. The thunderous explosion from a rocket shook Cooperative Street before anyone had a chance to move.
Down the road, the town soccer team's goaltender and an old man named Ramzan were dead. Baisayev's family survived, but it was time to leave. They fled by bus to Ekazhevo, a small town here in Ingushetia, the slender Russian region west of Chechnya where about 200,000 Chechens have taken refuge.
"We had been bombed before, but we saw [now] there was not even the illusion of safety. The basement was not a choice," said Baisayev, a Russian woman who married into a Chechen family.
The war in Chechnya as seen through the eyes of refugees from Samashki is a daily horror of sudden attacks from unseen artillery and tanks, jets dropping bombs and rockets launched from afar.
Dozens of civilians in the town have been killed or wounded. Residents spend days and nights in basements. Commerce is at a standstill. Even tending cows, which often grazed in the hills above the town, has become prohibitively dangerous.
The refugees' stories match those from towns and hamlets across Chechnya, few of which seem to be spared bombardments. Residents say damage in this war is worse than during the first conflict over Chechnya, which lasted from 1994 to 1996 and ended with the separatist region effectively independent from Moscow.
"It is hard to think of this as anything but revenge. The last war, the Russians would send messages, 'Get the [Chechen] fighters out or else we come in.' This time, there are no warnings," said Usam Baisayev, who is Lena Baisayev's nephew and a journalist for a local newspaper.
Moscow's use of force against civilians has drawn criticism from the Clinton administration and other Western governments. U.S. national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger said Friday the United States and other countries will press Moscow on the issue when President Clinton attends a summit meeting of the Organization for Security and Development in Europe in Turkey this week, where senior Russian officials also will be present.
But Russia has strongly rejected the criticism, and Washington and others cushion their comments by acknowledging that Chechnya is part of Russia. Berger noted that Russia "has a right to protect its territorial integrity."
In addition, domestic criticism of the war has remained submerged in Russia. The offensive has popular support, largely because Moscow blames Chechens for terrorist bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow and elsewhere.
Yet, the assaults on Samashki have reached such a scale that even Russian observers have questioned the bombing. "Present tactics in Chechnya imply that war crimes are committed on a daily basis," said Pavel Felgenhauer, a defense commentator for the Moscow newspaper Segodnya, writing about Samashki. "The Russian army in Chechnya is rapidly becoming an army of war criminals."
Conversations with refugees prompted Human Rights Watch, a New York-based observer group, to express special concern that attacks on Samashki "may have been conducted without appropriate precautions to avoid grossly disproportionate harm to civilians."
Samashki lies south of the Sunzha mountain range about 20 miles west of Grozny, the Chechen capital, and just six miles from the Ingush frontier. Russian forces hold the Sunzha range and use the vantage point to blast towns in the valley as well as Grozny.
Refugees from Samashki said there are no military targets in the town and that Chechen defenders have set up positions only in fields to the west. But Chechen militants frequently pass through towns, even if they are not welcome by the inhabitants.
The refugees' assertions that Samashki's plight is more desperate now than during the first Chechen war is striking. In the first conflict, Samashki, which then had a population of 14,000, was the object of two horrific attacks by Russian forces. In April 1995, Russian soldiers invaded and randomly tossed grenades into basements where Chechen refugees took shelter. Russian reports said that the troops did not fight their way into the town; defenders had long fled. They simply terrorized civilians and killed 100.
In March 1996, the Russians again attacked with artillery and tanks, leveling houses after giving residents moments to escape. The Russian troops avidly looted homes.
In the current war, Russian tactics have changed. Since blasting their way across Chechnya's northern plains in the early days of the seven-week ground war, the Russians have moved more slowly. The Russians have focused on taking strategic heights. Troops are sent in only when a town or village has submitted by negotiation or is virtually empty.
Chechen defenders are reluctant to counterattack and expose themselves to Russian fire. They are waiting, refugees said, for Russian forces to venture into Grozny or mountains to the south. There, guerrilla ambushes will be more effective than on the bald hills or arid flatlands where most Russian forces are situated.
Chechen officials put the total civilian death toll at more than 4,000, a figure that cannot be checked independently. Refugee accounts, in interviews with reporters and human rights observers, suggest the civilian toll is substantial.
Refugees said the main bomb assaults on Samashki began on Oct. 14 and continued until at least Oct. 29. Sporadic bombardments took place beginning Oct. 4, five days into the Russian ground offensive.
On Oct. 24, Sultan Halbasiyev was tending his vegetable garden when a shell exploded. The elderly man's right hip was fractured. "Day or night, you never knew when something would hit," he said.
On Oct. 27, Hava Artahamov and her 22-year-old daughter, Madina, emerged from a basement shelter at 10 a.m. At that moment, a shell exploded in front of their home. Shrapnel pierced and shattered Madina's two arms and broke her left leg below the knee. In the first war, an artillery shell broke her right leg, which had since healed. "Are they aiming for my daughter's heart? The Russians are razing Samashki to the ground," Hava Artahamov said. "Why do this? It is senseless."
Halbasiyev and Madina Artahamov lay in the trauma ward at Sunzhensky district hospital in the Ingush town of Sleptsovskaya. A dozen rooms were crammed with civilian wounded from across Chechnya. Victims with broken limbs lay awkwardly, their legs and arms kept in place by pins and traction. Movement made the patients moan. Several were amputees. Three victims lay on cots in the hall because there is no space in the rooms.
Some patients were wounded fleeing Samashki. Russians have been bombing the roads, witnesses said.
In a men's ward, Ruslan Isayev lay silent, a blanket covering the stumps of his legs. The truck driver had tried to flee Samashki by foot on Oct. 29, a day of particularly heavy bombing and shelling. A group of 10 headed south toward Novy Sharoi when rockets crashed around them. Shrapnel mangled both of Isayev's legs. An ambulance took him to a hospital in Urus-Martan, 15 miles to the southeast. Gangrene set in after four days, and on the fifth, doctors amputated. "They didn't have enough medicine to fight infection. I would have died, they said, if they didn't cut," Isayev said. "It was all for lack of medicine."
Last week, he was evacuated by bus to Ingushetia.
Also on Oct. 29, Ruslan Mitsayev fled in his car and joined a convoy of refugees on the main road from Grozny to Ingushetia. The convoy included trucks with Red Cross markings. It was turned back at a checkpoint and as the vehicles headed east, jets bombed and rocketed. Mitsayev's car flipped into a ravine, and his legs were crushed. He woke up in Urus-Martan hospital. His legs had been cut off. "The planes are hunting from the air. They hit whatever moves," he said.
A few residents of Samashki did not wait for disaster to strike. Alihazhi Saitov, a fuel salesman, and his family fled on Sept. 29, just as the Russians invaded Chechnya. "I was in the last war. I wasn't going to wait out this one," he said. They live in a tent city near the border.
For the first few weeks, no humanitarian aid arrived. Saitov drove back to Chechnya to buy fuel to sell in Ingushetia. The Chechens refine their own oil in backyard refineries. "Every time I went back, more houses were ruined, more people killed or leaving," he said. Tightened border controls have ended his itinerant employment.
These days, refugees from all over Chechnya wait on the Ingush side of the frontier for new arrivals and word of their hometowns. "Anyone from Grozny? Anyone from Achkhoi-Martan? From Argun?" they call out to buses and pedestrians.
On Friday, in midafternoon, the danger was palpable at the border. Artillery struck a nearby unseen target in Chechnya and shock waves rattled cars at the Ingush checkpoint. A few moments later, a pair of jets streaked in an arc near the same area and fired rockets.
CAPTION: A refugee carries his daughter as he crosses the Chechen-Ingush border.