Emi Bagatov, a grave man in a heavy fur hat, is a saver of rebellious teenagers. Not teens out on joy rides, nor into drugs or crime, but youths who have joined the rebels here in Chechnya who are fighting the Russian military in the separatist region.
He is a municipal administrator in Nozhai-Yurt, a little valley town east-southeast of Grozny and about 10 miles from the border with Dagestan; it was conquered by the Russians shortly after New Year's Day. Parents come to him for help seeking out their sons in the mountains surrounding the town and persuading them to return home.
Through connections, he makes contact with the rebels and brings the mothers to their teenagers in hopes of persuading them to come home.
He takes the mothers because men are often turned back at Russian checkpoints, especially if they are headed for the hills. Getting the boys back is a hard sell, no matter how heartfelt the pleas. "There is nothing for young men to do here. No work, no future. Not even gas or electricity," he said. "That's why many of them are up there in the first place."
Recent events suggest that the war in Chechnya is going to be drawn out. Russians occupy much of the territory, but in recent weeks, the rebels have made bold moves to harass and ambush Russian forces. A long war means casualties on both sides, disruption for civilians and delays in reconstruction of an already devastated region.
In many ways, the prospects for Nozhai-Yurt are as bleak as anywhere in Chechnya. Before the war, it had a population of 6,000 and its economy revolved around tobacco. Since the war began about four months ago, at least half the residents have fled both bombing and fighting, and the town's commercial outlet through Dagestan has been blocked by the Russians. Nozhai-Yurt's school and some of its houses were damaged by Russian shells.
Rebels operate in the surrounding mountains, making Russian overseers of the town suspicious of the residents. Neither electricity nor gas supplies have been restored, no pensions from Russia are being paid, nor has emergency relief reached the town. "I am the administrator here, but I have nothing to work with," said Bagatov.
Russian press handlers escorted reporters here today, mostly to glimpse activities of soldiers at a mountaintop command post on the nearby Chechnya-Dagestan border. The soldiers live in rows of tents amid the thick mud of an unseasonably warm January. They are under threat from guerrilla snipers, especially at night, and have ringed their outpost with mines and heavy guns.
The Russians are trying to sweep the mountains clear of rebels, and claim daily advances. Yet peace seems remote for both Russian soldiers and civilians, even here, far from the front lines. "By day, a Chechen may seem a peaceful citizen, but at night he's a wolf," said a young major named Anatoly. "They are always trying to penetrate our camp."
An officer who identified himself as Capt. Krugolov acknowledged that as the Russians have moved through Chechnya, the rebels have popped up repeatedly in supposedly pacified areas. Still, he and Anatoly said, the Russians would persevere and win--unlike the first war with Chechnya from 1994 to 1996 or the lengthy conflict with Afghanistan in the 1980s. "This is Russian territory. We dare not leave," Krugolov said.
Gen. Gennady Troshev, until recently the field commander for the eastern front, paid a visit to the camp. He denied that rebel harassment had disrupted the Russian offensive and predicted once again that the long siege of Grozny, the Chechen capital, would soon end. "You see, the weather is good, the planes and artillery are doing their job, and we will go in," he said.
For some in Nozhai-Yurt, the only wish is for the war to finish--one way or another. "It is obvious that neither side is strong enough to wipe out the other," said Murat, a 27-year-old father of two small children. He said Chechens lack the enthusiasm of the first separatist war, when society was virtually united against Russia. Three years of postwar chaos, during which Chechnya was rife with crime and kidnappings, and now another conflict, have sapped Chechen strength, he said.
"However, no one believes the Russians intend to make things better. If they wanted to, could they anyway? Is Russia such a paradise?" he asked.
Hamid, a companion of Murat, said that many 15- and 16-year-olds from Nozhai-Yurt had been influenced by militant Islam and had left home to make jihad, or holy war. "It gave them hope, even if false and difficult hope," Hamid said.
The religious fervor, along with poverty, makes Bagatov's teen rescues more difficult. He declined to give the number of retrievals he has made, but said, "We have been lost for the whole decade and we are lost again. What do I tell a man who believes in his mission, when I have nothing to offer?"
In other developments today:
Moscow appeared to have eased a ban on Chechen male refugees crossing the border into Ingushetia, although there were conflicting accounts of the situation.
The Interior Ministry said 80 of its troops, fighting alongside the regular army, had been killed in the breakaway region since Jan. 1, but dismissed a report that 33 troops had fallen Wednesday and Thursday.
In Moscow, Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Party leader who is expected to run for president against Acting President Vladimir Putin, today voiced his first criticism of the war, which he had supported earlier.
"About Chechnya . . . we are stuck there up to the very ears," he said. "It is progressing very badly."
Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov criticized the United States for receiving a senior Chechen official. "Such actions suggest support for terrorists and separatists," Ivanov said, referring to a visit this week by Ilyas Akhmadov, who acts as Chechnya's foreign minister. Akhmadov met with State Department officials Wednesday.
CAPTION: A woman adjusts her hair as she stands amid the ruins of her house in Alkhan-Kala, a town nine miles southwest of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. The house was destroyed by Russian air and artillery strikes on Wednesday.