On The Chechen Front
Anna Politkovskaya, a
correspondent for the Moscow biweekly Novaya
Gazeta, was in Los Angeles last October,
picking out her dress for a media awards ceremony, when some staggering news
came from Moscow:
Chechen terrorists were holding 850 hostages in a theater. The Russian
authorities tried to send in negotiators, but the Chechens refused to see most
of them. They asked for Politkovskaya.
And so Politkovskaya rushed back to cover yet
another episode of one of the world's nastiest and longest wars, which this
time had shifted to Moscow.
The terrorists, she says, "wanted someone who would accurately report
things as they were. My work in Chechnya
makes people there feel that I don't lie. But there wasn't much I could do for
the hostages anyway." She carried water and fruit juice to them, and
reported their dejection and feelings of doom to the world. Two days later, Russian
Special Forces stormed and gassed the theater, killing 41 terrorists and 129
Politkovskaya, 44, made her name by writing
detailed, accurate and vivid reports on the plight of the civilian population
caught in the horrors of war since 1994. She tells stories of people who are
taken from their homes at night and never come back; about extrajudicial
executions; about the hungry refugees in cold and damp camps. "It was the
refugee problem that started it," she now recalls. When the second Chechen
war began in 1999, tens of thousands of refugees began flooding the makeshift
relief camps. "It was horrible to stand among the refugees in the field in
October 1999, and see cruise missiles flying over your head," she recalls.
When those missiles hit a market in Grozny, it was only prompt
coverage by journalists like Politkovskaya that forced the Russian commanders
to let ambulances in and refugees out. "Our work is a lever to help people
as much as we can," she believes. But it also causes trouble. In February
2000, the FSB (the former KGB) arrested Politkovskaya in the Vedeno district of
Chechnya. They kept her in a pit for three days without food or water. "It
was important not to let them kill me on the first day," she says. A year
later, a Russian officer whose war crimes Politkovskaya had exposed threatened
to kill her. Novaya Gazeta had to hide her in Austria for a while. The officer is
now awaiting trial on charges of war crimes committed in Chechnya that Politkovskaya was the
first to report. "But I don't feel victorious," she says. "I
only feel that we're all involved in a great tragedy."
Her editors have had to stand up to pressure
from the Kremlin, which is often infuriated by her reporting. Novaya Gazeta
balances on the brink of forcible closure. "Well, it goes with the
job," she shrugs. Politkovskaya has long since learned to keep her
anxieties in check. As she arranges yet another trip to Chechnya, she may now be too famous
to be targeted by the FSB. But she really doesn't think about such things.
"If you don't have the strength to control your emotions, you're of no
help to the people who are in such shock and pain. You only add to their
burden," she says.