Milana Aliyev had been at home in Chechnya for just a day, having returned Jan. 2 from a refugee camp outside the battle-ruined region. Russian officials assured her it was safe, that the war was over in Alkhan-Kala, a town just southwest of Grozny, the besieged capital.
But on the morning of Jan. 3, before the water in a pot on Aliyev's wood-burning stove had boiled, she saw three bearded, armed men lounging on a street corner. They were separatist rebels who had slipped out of Grozny to do battle behind Russian lines.
Aliyev knew in a flash that the promised peace was about to be shattered. That afternoon, Russian artillery shells began to crash into the village. Aliyev, two sisters-in-law and eight children fled the next day.
"How is it possible that one day, the Russians are everywhere and the next day, the fighters?" said Aliyev, as she waited at a border checkpoint for passage to the neighboring region of Ingushetia. "With things like this, we will never be able to go back."
Aliyev's tale is a story repeated by dozens of refugees who fled Alkhan-Kala and the nearby towns of Alkhan-Yurt and Yermolovsky this week after Chechen rebels broke through the Russian ring around Grozny with a lightning incursion that highlighted flaws in the Russian military's plans for pacifying the independence-minded southern region.
The conflict in Chechnya is on the verge of degenerating into a long-term war of attrition. Although the separatist rebels have managed to stall the Russian offensive with a series of counterattacks, they are not strong enough to hold villages and towns. Yet, the Russian forces appear to be too dug in and immobile to effectively go after the rebels and eliminate them entirely, or to maintain full control in the zones they occupy.
This war appears to be evolving roughly the same way as the first Chechen conflict, which ended in 1996 when the battered Russians withdrew and the Chechens gained de facto independence. Like the first war, this one is becoming a guerrilla contest, a prospect that makes former president Boris Yeltsin's prediction this week of victory within a month or two seem unlikely.
In the past three months, 100,000 Russian troops have swept into Chechnya under cover of artillery fire and airstrikes. They immediately seized the northern two-thirds of the Connecticut-sized region, but have been unable to take control of Grozny or the mountainous area to the south.
The Russians have proved to be vulnerable to hit-and-run guerrilla tactics. This is partly due to the daring of the Chechens, who despite months of bombing continue to resist the Russian advance on Grozny. But it also reflects the static way that the Russian forces operate.
In interviews with refugees in camps and private homes in Ingushetia, and at a military checkpoint inside Chechnya, descriptions of this week's rebel thrust reveal a slow-reacting Russian army holed up in base camps and unwilling or unable to pursue guerrillas, even when they come within a mile of Russian encampments.
The Russians have not used troop-carrying helicopters to cut off rebel advances or retreats. And unlike the Serb-led Yugoslav forces, who countered ethnic Albanian guerrillas by deploying groups of soldiers in Kosovo villages during the war, the Russians either retreat to a fortified headquarters once they clear a town of rebels or withdraw from the town completely.
The rebels are counting on guerrilla warfare to turn the tide of battle. When announcing the recent seizure of Alkhan-Kala, Alkhan-Yurt and Yermolovsky, a top Chechen official boasted, "The period of the Russians' triumphant march through Chechnya is over."
But this week's incursions may have only limited benefit for the guerrillas. Refugees from the three towns said there were no Russian casualties. The refugees fled the towns quickly, so they do not know about casualties in the Russian counterattack.
The Russian forces used artillery, which minimizes Russian casualties, but causes heavy damage and endangers civilians, in their counterattack on the three towns. The barrages started about 12 hours after the rebels' arrival; Russian armored infantry was not mobilized.
By Thursday, the rebels retreated as stealthily as they arrived, leaving little in their wake except resentment on the part of some Chechen civilians. "These Wahhabis," said Aliyev, using an Arabic word meaning a strain of Sunni Islam that predominates in Saudi Arabia but which is widely used in Chechnya to designate Islamic militants in general. "They weren't from our town. They refused requests of our elders to leave. So I was able to stay just two nights in my own house."
In addition to the incursions into the towns near Grozny this week, rebels fired grenades at a police post near Gudermes, Chechnya's second-largest city. The rebels also set fire to a Russian field hospital in Chervlennaya, north of the Terek River, ambushed a truck convoy near Urus-Martan, southwest of Grozny, and harassed Russian troops in Staropromyslovsky, the one Grozny district Russia claims to have captured.
Russian officials have acknowledged a casualty rate of between seven and eight soldiers a day within a recent 10-day period. Such a rate, if sustained, would increase the official death toll--which stands at 500 in four months of fighting--by more than 40 percent in just one month.
The Russians are now trying harder to control the movement of people within Chechnya. Refugees said that young men are being detained at checkpoints, sometimes forced to lie face down, and frequently led away, their fates unknown. "Youth are marked as fighters, no matter what," said Maulit Davletukayev, a former paraffin factory worker from Yermolovsky.
At a tent city for refugees here in Sleptsovskaya, near the Chechen border in Ingushetia, civilians fleeing the fighting faced another problem: claims that all the tents were full. "My children are cold!" cried Tamara Dadayev. "We have no place to go! Please!"
Khamzad Hamkhuyox, the Russian migration service representative at the administration office, replied, "Ask the camp director."
Shirvany Khuchbarov, the camp director, told a reporter that the camp is at its capacity with 8,000 refugees. "The new fighting has put pressure on us again, but there's nothing to do."
At the edge of the camp, however, 30 large tents stood empty. Khuchbarov said they are reserved for potential refugees from Grozny, but even if he wanted to allow Alkhan-Yurt refugees to use them, there are no stoves to heat them.