Russian soldiers here on the edge of Grozny's Chernorechye neighborhood were close enough to their Chechen enemies to hear the taunts, and return them. Yet, through a pewter haze, the tin-roofed houses in which the rebels hid were indistinct, mirage-like.
At some points, Russian and Chechen positions were only 250 yards apart, a proximity at once tantalizing and frustrating. Soldiers said the rebels often shout the Muslim cry, "God is great!" to boast of their presence. The Russians return verbal fire, they said, with the Orthodox Easter greeting, "Christ is risen."
The closeness made the entrenched Russian soldiers seem tense and guarded today. The staccato fire of automatic rifles and machine guns produced sharp counterpoints to the constant background noise of thudding artillery, Russia's main weapon in the fight for this city that has become the most heavily contested trophy of Russia's war to regain Chechnya.
In the dense fog, no one was sure what was being hit by either bullets or shells. The situation was emblematic of the near-and-yet-so-far quality of Russia's four-day-old ground assault on Grozny. Troops have pressed from all sides on the capital of this secessionist region. Small units have occupied buildings in several peripheral neighborhoods, including Chernorechye, about three miles south of city center. Yet gaining control of any one district, not to mention the whole city, seems to have barely begun.
Russian officials have issued a string of pronouncements pointing to Grozny's fall. Chernorechye itself has been declared "under control" for several days, after what was described as a lightning attack spearheaded by loyalist Chechen troops under the command of Bislan Gantamirov, a former Grozny mayor who wants to lead Chechnya under restored Russian rule.
No one here at a camp south of Chernorechye had seen any of Gantamirov's troops. "We've just heard about them," said a young infantryman with a chuckle.
Upcoming is the fifth anniversary of the botched Russian storming of Grozny--New Year's Eve 1994--during the first war against this rebellious region. It was a black day for the Russians. They lost scores of men and machines in an attack marked by confusion and misguided confidence against ragtag defenders. Eventually, they took Grozny, only to lose it again, and finally lost control over all of Chechnya.
This time, the Russians have pledged to be careful. Hence their slow assault, which resembles a giant closing its hand around a chicken's neck. "We expect this to end quickly," said an officer at the base camp. "But quickly can be a matter of interpretation."
Taking Grozny would put all the main population centers of Chechnya under Russian control. Only the mountainous south, prime guerrilla country, would remain untamed.
Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said today his forces faced "fierce resistance" in Grozny but have managed to "drastically change" the situation. The Defense Ministry spokesman, Gen. Valery Manilov, told reporters in Moscow that no "time frame for the liberation of Grozny" exists.
"If possible, Grozny will be taken in a week, but this is conditional on preserving the lives of the men . . . and on ruling out or minimizing losses among the civilian population," he said. "We will not hurry.
"Maybe it will happen tomorrow, maybe the day after tomorrow, maybe it will take five, six or seven days. In the north, in the northwest, in the northeast and in the south and inside the city, our troops are steadily, consistently advancing toward the center of Grozny; they are [two to three miles] from the city center."
In the case of Chernorechye, Manilov's words were partly true. The Russians controlled a few blocks, but they were not advancing, at least not today.
"Fog is a friend of the enemy. We can't see them, and they use the cover to regroup," said another officer on the edge of the neighborhood. "In fog, we can hardly move around. We would end up shooting each other. Our goal is to hunt them, but today it's hard."
The Russians have placed snipers in buildings and trenches at the city's edge to target Chechen officers, snipers, machine gunners and drivers. "When we can't see where they are shooting from, we try to guess by the trajectory," said a young soldier, huddled over a fire fueled by broken bits of ammunition boxes.
As he spoke, the tracks of an armored vehicle chewed up mud in a field, heading toward Chernorechye. Russian soldiers rode atop it, some under woolen watch caps, others in hats with ear flaps, one with a baseball cap. Trucks whisked speedily by on the Caucasus road that leads east from the Russian region of Ingushetia toward another Russian region, Dagestan.
The road from Ingushetia, about 30 miles west of here, offered a panorama of progressive destruction. At two checkpoints inside Chechnya near the Ingush border, refugees lined up in cars and trucks, some having endured a three-day wait to cross. Traffic quickly thinned out. Leafless orchards and dormant fields lined the road, and a few clumps of Chechen civilians stood at army checkpoints.
Two burned and twisted military trucks sat on the shoulder near a turnoff south for Achkhoi-Martan. Near Kurali, farther east, five destroyed armored cars lay rusting in a lot. An occasional bus stop, factory or roadside market stall was bent into abstract shapes by cannon fire. A few craters partially disfigured the highway.
Then, the devastated town of Alkhan-Yurt appeared, just at the southwestern edge of Grozny. The Russians conquered Alkhan-Yurt on Dec. 1, after weeks of shelling. Few homes escaped damage. On 60 Years-October Street, a mosque has been battered, and atop the minaret only the skeleton of an onion-shaped dome remains. Houses on the street were mostly empty of inhabitants and, in some cases, goods.
Russian soldiers looted numerous houses in Alkhan-Yurt, according to residents. A Human Rights Watch report released today said 17 civilians were killed by soldiers, in addition to civilians killed by shelling. Several of the victims, although unarmed, were trying to defend their homes from the booty hunters. One victim, Nabitst Kornukayev, was 100 years old, the report said. Also killed was her son, Arbi, 65. The home was looted.
Ruslan Wakhitov, a member of a new town administration set up by the Russians, inspected his house today on 60 Years-October Street. He said it was looted. The front door had been battered in. Most windows were broken. The front veranda was pockmarked by bullet holes.
"I see what Russian officials are saying on television: Nothing happened here. Look at my house. It is empty. They left a sofa and a closet. That's all," he said. He was staying at his mother's home elsewhere in the city during the violence.
Russian officials continued today to maintain that no abuses had been committed in Alkhan-Yurt. "To date, proceeding from reports of investigators, prosecutors and commanders who are investigating this matter, no crime had been committed, as reported by some media outlets," said Manilov, the Defense Ministry spokesman.
Gen. Vladimir Shamanov, who commanded the forces that conquered Alkhan-Yurt, was awarded the Hero of Russia medal today by President Boris Yeltsin. Shamanov received the award along with two other generals leading the Chechen campaign.
Meanwhile, on the Caucasus road, Hazam Edigov was walking in rubber boots toward Chernorechye, two times cursed in her wanderings. She fled Chernorechye in November for Alkhan-Yurt. When that city was bombed, she fled to nearby Alkhan-Kala.
She heard today that civilians could return to Chernorechye to inspect damage and was disappointed when reporters told her it was untrue--or at least that there was too much fighting going on for it to be safe.
"All I have are these clothes," she said, tuging at a drab shawl. "I sleep one night in one house, one night in another. There is nothing to buy in the bazaar, and I have no money anyway. I live on handouts. I want to go home and see if I have anything left."
As she continued her walk into the fog, a convoy of trucks passed, kicking up mud, and momentarily masking the sound of artillery ahead.