Residents of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, dig through rubble of destroyed buildings to salvage whole bricks to repair their destroyed houses following the siege and assault by Russian forces.
Let us call it by its real name. What Russia is committing in Chechnya is the mass murder of civilians. Moscow's propagandists speak of creating a "security zone" and of targeting "terrorist bases," but these are euphemisms. Russia is butchering Chechens by the thousands and driving them from their homes by the tens of thousands. And not only is the West failing to rise up against this bloodbath, it is actively helping to finance it.
Last week Russian rockets slammed into the main marketplace in Grozny, Chechnya's capital. More than 140 shoppers and passersby were killed, according to local health officials; hundreds more were wounded. The attack turned the marketplace into a scene from hell, complete with dead children, dismembered bodies, and pools of blood. One day later, Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a former KGB man, gave it as his opinion that the Chechens had probably blown up the marketplace themselves.
In the wake of the rocket attack on Grozny, thousands of additional refugees joined the flood of frightened civilians leaving Chechnya. By now as many as 200,000 men, women, and children have fled across the border into neighboring Ingushetia. But this, too, is a put-up job, Putin says. The Chechens are pretending to be terrified refugees in order to "make the situation look worse" and to "give the world the impression of a humanitarian catastrophe."
To prevent the world from being deluded by those crafty Chechens, Putin's forces have taken the precaution of bombing TV stations, radio towers, and telephone facilities, along with such other "military" targets as hospitals, buses, and bridges. Moscow has made it clear that it will not look favorably upon reporters who try to cover Chechnya honestly - for example, by broadcasting images of the carnage caused by Russian attacks. It has also created a new propaganda ministry whose function, its director says, is to supply "completely objective information that shows the official point of view of the Russian government."
Moscow defends its new war on Chechnya as an effort to rout the Islamic terrorists it claims were behind a series of apartment building bombings in several Russian cities that claimed nearly 300 lives last summer. This justification has been repeated unquestioningly by the US press, but it suffers from a flaw: There is no evidence to back it up.
Nothing about the apartment bombings resembles the modus operandi of the Chechens who have been fighting to free their homeland of Russian domination. The guerrillas have attacked Russian military installations and killed Russian soldiers, but they have steadfastly avoided taking civilian lives. In addition, the Chechen commanders routinely claim responsibility for their anti-Russian operations. Yet they vehemently deny any connection to the apartment-building bombs.
What would Chechens have to gain by blowing up Moscow apartments? The certain outcome of any such attacks would be a wave of Russian rage against Chechens. And as Miriam Lanskoy of Boston University's Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology, and Policy asks: "If the Chechen field commanders did set the initial explosions, why have they stopped? Why aren't more buildings in Moscow going up in smoke as retribution for the bombing of population centers in Chechnya?"
The apartment bombings did nothing to advance Chechnya's cause, but they have been a boon for Putin and the security agencies in which he rose to power. The police have been given a free hand to crack down on "criminals." Buildings and people have been searched at random. Thousands of Chechens and other "blacks" from the Caucasus have been expelled from Moscow, often after being viciously beaten. The bombing of Chechnya - and the heavily slanted cheerleading it is getting in the semi-censored Russian media - has given Putin an enormous popularity boost, so much so that he is now a favorite in Russia's upcoming presidential election.
Wasn't it just a short while ago that the United States led NATO into a war to end Serbia's assault on its Albanian population in Kosovo? Such ethnic "cleansing" was intolerable, the allies insisted then; if Belgrade wouldn't stop its brutality voluntarily, it would be stopped by force.
But Russia's savagery in Chechnya evokes no outrage from the White House or the State Department. Madeleine Albright managed to say that "the events of the last 36 hours" - her antiseptic reference to the Grozny marketplace massacre - were "deplorable and ominous." That was it. No furious demand that Russia halt the killing. No impassioned plea for the Chechens' safety. No warning that Moscow sit down to negotiate or face economic sanctions.
Washington would much rather discuss how many more billions of US dollars should be funneled into Russia's corrupt economy than discuss the butchery underway in the Caucasus. But the one is tied to the other: Those dollars are being used, in part, to blow up children in the streets of Grozny. Putin's cruel war is but the latest installment in Russia's centuries-old quest to subjugate the proud people of Chechnya, but this time the United States is underwriting the bloodshed. We can cry out in protest and try to halt it, or we can look the other way. But we cannot escape our responsibility. It is Russian pilots who are dropping the bombs, but the Chechens' blood is on our hands, too.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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