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DB Chechnya diary

....a cluster bomb landed between them. The woman was blasted into a fence on her right had both her ankles broken and had bled extensively from her legs.

 Grozny woman  Jon, Jim, Tomas and I photographed the eerie scene for 15 minutes, working the bodies alone then with passersby until one old lady came along and cried for them....

DAVE BRAUCHLI'S JOURNAL FROM GROZNY, JANUARY 1995

(I suggest you copy these and read them at your leisure...)

All unauthorized reproduction strictly forbidden.

 

 

JAN 6, 1995

Howdy folks,

Your weekly update from today's biggest dump, Grozny. Just FYI, Grozny, in Russian means terrible. That's what it's like here, mostly too much mud, dust, bullets and bombs.

I'm camped out in a sports complex, at least that's what they call it. I think it's a former army camp that was bought up by a guy who wants to bring up young wrestlers. So it's a summer camp for wrestlers. At least there's a shower and a sauna. Not bad. They also feed us once a day, we call it refugee soup. The whole deal was set up by Bruno, who works for the European Broadcast Union (EBU). We all share little cabins where in the summer the wrestlers live. Actually the photo guys, AFP and AP are living in the director's house. We have the use of a living room upstairs where we've set up our machines, our generators, our satphones and have invaded his bathroom with our darkrooms. However, that said, there are about 50 refugees from Grozny also staying in the house, so there's not much sleep to be had around here. Of course, who needs sleep when you have to get up at 6 to be on the road by 7 to be in Grozny by 9 to be back to file by a reasonable hour, anyway, huh?

I took a charter flight into Mineralni Vodi, which, as it sounds, is Mineral Water, in Russian. They have some strange names down in these parts. From there it was a $500 taxi ride (that's a dollar per kilometer) to get to Khasavurt, where we're set up. Khasavurt, in Daghestan, is about 120 kms on bad roads from Grozny. We manage to hire dudes locally to take us into the city, for $100 each way. Someone around here is making a lot of money and they don't work for the AP.

Grozny itself has seen better days. I got down to Khasavurt on Jan. 1 really late. I went in with the AP TV crew on the 2nd. There was more rocket fire, more tank fire, more shells incoming than I've ever seen before. It was quite serious. I stayed for about two minutes in the center of town near the presidential palace and then bugged out. I couldn't handle it. I guess, after living a relatively normal life in South Africa and Prague, I'd forgotten just how frightening incoming fire really is. Anyway, most of the buildings in Grozny have been destroyed. The Russians are really doing a job on the city. If they want to create jobs, they couldn't have chosen a better place because it's totally whacked. Everything from the former communist party building (the presidency) to apartment buildings and stores have been utterly destroyed by bombs, rockets, tank shells and bullets.

I went back the following day and stayed for about six hours. I actually met Paul Lowe, a photographer working for Magnum, and started to work together with him. We hung around the presidency, getting some very nice pictures for a couple of hours before deciding to try and find some pictures of some destroyed tanks near the train station. All the fighters at the Presidency said there was big fighting there but they didn't want to take us there. Smart. We insisted and finally a couple of brave souls volunteered. Off we went, Paul, me, another American correspondent and our two fearless guides. We ducked down a back street, across the river embankment and along behind some fences. We had to run across a plaza in front of a movie theater to make it to the next safe area. So we did, not much to it. Then we ran off down the river, keeping close to the fence next to us. All the sudden, Wham, about 10 meters behind Bill, the last in the single file line, a tank shell hit. Some tanker had seen us and had pegged us. I wasted no time in pushing through someone's locked gate and rushing into his open house, next to a wall, in a doorway that had some bricks over my head. WHAM again, closer this time, mortar stared to fall from the ceiling. WHAM again, the remnants of the glass in the windows fell out. We waited huddled there while the tanker fired some 10 more shots, trying to find us and flush us out. Our fearless guides were making tea. Chechens, it seem, really have no fear.

After a half hour, when it seemed quieter, we decided to make a break back for the presidency. We'd given up the silly idea of trying to make it to the train station to see some fighting, we'd gotten closer than we would have liked to. So off we ran, this time driven by fright. We made it back without mishap. Later one of our guides came up and said his friend had been sitting in a house some 30 meters from where we were and a tank had blown it up and killed him. Yikes.

We decided by 2 that we had had enough and it was time to split. We piled into a really crappy Lada which Paul had hired and set off. One has to cross a bridge which snipers are aiming at from both sides, whee. Fortunately we made it out of town. At Argun, where one must turn to take the highway out to Daghestan, we came upon some horrible destruction and dead Chechens. The folks there said that the planes had just bombed some 10 minutes earlier, killing there three folks here. We shot for about one minute, but the planes were still overhead, so we fled. We raced out of town, Paul with his head out of the window listening for planes. The last thing we wanted to be was nuked by planes in a slow Lada on an exposed road. Then Paul yelled, STOP!!! We got out and ran down the embankment into the bushes away from the car. A SU-27 swooped low over us, enough to give anyone a fright if it's fully armed and has been shooting earlier. It swung away and up and we decided to make a break for it. Before we had gotten close to the car, it came back and it brought another. They circled for about 10 minutes. All the time we were alternatively petrified, scared at being missled, bombed or machine gunned, and awed at the beauty and might of a fighter plane in action. Then they struck. The target was a bridge, although we didn't know it from where we were. The planes would slow down (The SU-27 can fly as slowly as 150KPH, slowest in the world), sight their target, angle in, let their missiles go and leap away. Amazing sight. I tried to get a picture of the missiles going, but it didn't really work. About 20 seconds after we'd seen the missile fire, we'd hear the Thump of them landing. Only the next day when we saw the bridge they'd done in did we realize the devastation they could cause. Three planes made three passes each at this bridge. Finally when they were high, we leapt into the car and sped (right) away. That was probably the most frightened I've ever been in my life.

Today (6th) I went in again, but we couldn't make it to the middle of town because the Russians have decided they want to artillery the city to death. That means plenty of incoming shell fire. It also means no small arms fire, which is fine. It's easier to avoid artillery than snipers. We basically ran two kms. into the middle of town to get a picture of the presidency, which was the story of the day, and probably the week. We were taking breaks every ten minutes in subways and in buildings, places that were seemingly safe from artillery. Of course if a building or a subway sustains a direct hit, I suppose you'll die. Anyway, I try not to think about that so much, it's too depressing. We made it to the bridge in front of the presidency, took some pictures and left. Too scary for me to hang around and try to get something. I got enough photos of people running and ducking to last a lifetime, I think.

I think the story is going to have to end pretty soon because it looks like Russian public opinion won't support the army here. They don't like seeing their boys die, and it's the first time, really. Russian press hasn't been free for a war before this and it's certainly blasting the government. Unfortunately it may lead to yet another coup or an attempt by the hard right and nationalists to take power again. However, I think there are more moderates in this country than the nationalists can imagine, and hopefully they'll come out of the woodwork when the hard right threatens.

Anyway, that's it from Grozny for this week, enjoy your Saturday.

David

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Jan. 7, 1995

The Russians have decided to blow the crap out of Grozny before invading. Rumors are grinding out of control, mostly generated, as far as I can tell, by journalists trying to come up with theories as to why the Russians haven't taken the city so far. I don't know, I don't want to theorize (although I have taken on the stance of being a physics theoretician. I believe a theoretician is someone who can speculate about something which he actually knows nothing). Anyway, the theories are the Russians are softening up the city before they send in their troops. Another theory is they are going to infiltrate at night with small commando groups and try and knock out the Chechen fighters. Another theory is they'll send in more tanks in a better coordinated attack. I don't know which one is true, I guess we'll see in good time.

I hooked up with an old friend of mine today, Mike (Misha) Evstafiev, who came down yesterday from Moscow for AFP. He's an old Afghan hand, having been in the Russian army then, but as a correspondent, not as a combatant. He speaks excellent English and excellent Russian, so he's a good guy to hang out with in a situation like this. Also, he knows military stuff, especially Russian military stuff, so that's good as well. Anyway, I led him by the hand into Grozny because, although he was in Grozny for the beginning of the combat outside of the city, he took a couple of weeks off to spend Christmas with his family.

 

I explained the situation to him as we drove into Grozny, still a two hour dive in our crummy, military-green, four-wheel-drive, Russian van/jeep. I said it's the hairiest situation I'd ever seen, the most artillery and lead flying around I've seen and I was glad he was with me. Our driver stopped way, way on the outskirts of the city because there was a TON of noise coming our way. Not to be deterred, we hoofed it into the center of town. Once we got to Minutka square (or something like that), we hung out while Mike got the feel for the situation. He didn't want to go in until he felt comfortable and I didn't want to go in with him if he felt uncomfortable. We also ran into his AFP reporter who is staying just a few minutes away with a portable satellite telex in Grozny. So we all three decided to head off into town, to see if we could see the Presidential Palace, which was supposed to be on fire.

 

I have NEVER, EVER heard as much incoming shell fire as I heard today. It was coming in every five seconds or so. Heavy too. Not small arms. Big arms. Arms that you want to hug bears with. Grad rockets which come in forty round bursts, 150mm artillery rounds which are launched some 20 kms away, air-to-ground missiles launched from SU-27s and, of course, the bombs, which Yeltsin yesterday promised would stop landing. After feeling comfortable with the amount of lead around, we headed off. We went the same direction we went yesterday, right down the main road to the presidential palace. To get there, from the relative safety of Minutka square, you have to either go over or under a railway bridge, across a kilometer of apartment buildings, past a few small kiosks and over a bridge into the main town square where the presidency is. Right. We went over the tracks, hugging the right hand wall of the apartment buildings, following a couple of Chechen volunteers who volunteered to be our guide (like we need a guide to get killed. Often times I wonder, if there's so much shell fire coming in, why am I headed to it? Shouldn't I be going the other way? Obviously there's something wrong with this job.). We made it some 50 meters from the bridge which leads to the palace, but because of fear, we didn't cross it or get to a point where we had a view of the palace. None of us had the guts to check it out.

After hanging out with the Chechens for about five minutes, we decided it wasn't safe to hang out with such a huge group of volunteers, so Mike, Boris (the AFP guy) and I took off up the road. There is a subway which crosses under the huge Leninsky Prospect, so we took a breather there. Apparently someone had spotted all these people ducking into the subway because as soon as we had made it down into the subway, the rockets, tank shells and artillery were thudding almost directly above us. The pressure was bad enough to blow your eardrums if you didn't breath out of your mouth (important hint for those of you planning to watch people shoot large caliber weapons). We were pinned down there for at least an hour, shells landing every 10 seconds. Frightening if you think about all the explosives around, YIKES.

Every time we thought about leaving (hey Mike, they haven't landed a shell near here in about a minute, everything must be better!) another shell would come blasting in and make us retreat to the exact center of the tunnel. Finally, we timed a five minute break and made a run for it. This is a great way to get in shape for skiing, by the way. Half way back to Minutka square, we ran into Patrick Chauvel, the guy who I came down with, who Misha met in Sarajevo and who has covered just about every war since Vietnam. We went into an apartment building and chatted for a half hour. He's been staying in Grozny, sleeping in various shelters and taking pictures for the BBC and for Sygma. He was looking a little frazzled, but in good shape. I was glad, I hadn't seen him yesterday and was slightly concerned. He said he was on his way to the presidency, we said we were on our way out. However, I was tempted to go with him. I was prevented by Mike who pointed out that we hadn't made it before and probably wouldn't make it again. I concurred and realizing it was Saturday, which means basically no deadlines, decided to head back to the relative safety of the square. So we went back, made it without trouble, got into the car and went back to Khasavurt. We only came up with one great idea, which was to move to Grozny so we would be closer to the fighting. Actually, our idea is to move there so we'll be able to file without commuting two hours each way and be able to stay in town when the Russians do take over, which can't be far off now. I'd hate to get sealed out at the borders by the Russians. I think that would be far too frustrating. I just hope we don't move too late.

Jan. 10

It's been a few days since I've had a chance to sit down and write things out. Things have been very heavy lately. The situation has changed totally, the Russians are nuking the hell out of the downtown, making it impossible to shoot any photos with meaning.

Sunday we went house hunting. We found a very nice house with the AFP guys. That was after we went to Church, though, to get blessed. We didn't mean to get blessed, it just sort of happened. We were walking down the Very Dangerous Street, called that because it's been obliterated by Artillery, Tanks, Rockets and bullets. To walk down the street is to take your life into your hands. To walk all the way to the end of the street to the Very Dangerous Bridge is considered by many to be foolish. To walk down the Very Dangerous Street to the Very Dangerous Bridge and across the Very Dangerous Bridge on Sunday is considered by all to be stupid. The Russians were landing far too many shells on the bridge and in the Very Dangerous Square to be safe or sane. The Very Dangerous Square is in front of the presidential palace. Last time I was in Grozny there were guys cooking hot dogs on the eternal flame of the Soviet Soldier. That flame doesn't exist any longer. Anyway, Misha and I were walking down the Very Dangerous Street when it became too Dangerous to be on the street, so we ducked into the nearest building, which happened to be a church. I'm not much one for churches on the whole, I like their history, but as for the religion stuff, well, I don't much harken to that. Anyway, we started talking to some very nice ladies who had just had Sunday service and were no going home. I thought that a bad idea as we had just come to church to escape the shelling. However, old ladies will be old ladies, so off they went.

Mike and I started talking to some remaining old ladies, lamenting the situation, which is about all I can do in Russian anyway (yeah, this is a terrible situation, just terrible!). We shot some pictures of them inside this little chapel. Mike went off to talk to the priest about the situation and I hung around to shoot video. I was on trial for APTV for the day, they gave me a camera because I always seem to get closer than their folks do. Interesting. Anyway, Mike got a great reception from the priest so he agreed to show us into the main church which was locked up. So in we went. Mike got a huge lecture on the chapel. I didn't understand anything. I was busy standing in a Very Safe Place, underneath a doorframe so in case an artillery round came slamming into the place, I would like, God Willing (Inshallah, depends on which side of the church walls you're standing). Finally Mike got done with his lecture and I had to shoot a picture of him standing next to the portrait of the archangel Michael.

When we were just about to leave, the priest came up and asked what religion we were. Well, I don't want to say I'm a heathen to a priest, hell it's bad enough getting hot feet in a church. So I said, well, maybe protestant. I don't think it really mattered, I got blessed just the same. As we were walking down the Very Dangerous Street afterwards I asked Mike how he felt. He said, better. Interesting, photographer gets religion during bombardment. I told him I needed to write about that.

After not getting many good photographs, like none, we went out to look for a house. We decided to move in with our AFP colleagues, Boris and Bertrand. They had a nice little house just out of the center and we thought it would be fine to move in with them. They didn't object, so we set a date. Well, not really, we wanted to look up one other house. But when we found the village it was so far away from where we wanted to be, that we decided to stay with Boris and Bertrand. Unfortunately we forgot to get them a message.

Monday we showed up at the house of Boris and Bertrand with all of our stuff. Between Misha and myself we had two satellite phones, one generator, two darkrooms, two transmitters, two suitcases, food, water, etc., etc., etc. It filled up the back of the van fairly effectively. When we got to the house of Boris and Bertrand, they weren't there. In fact, no one was there. We thought this most peculiar, so I hopped the fence, we opened the gate, parked the van and shouted, knocked, banged and concluded there was indeed, No One Home. Well, now we were in a pickle, no place to stay, all our junk in the van and the APTV cameramen wanting their van back ASAP to head back to Khasavurt. So what to do? I suggested we leave all our stuff there, it would be all right. Mike thought that was a bad idea, and instead we drive down the street until we found a home owner and then ask if we could stay with him. That sounded reasonable, so that's what we did.

We drove around for perhaps ten minutes before we found someone who agreed to let us use his home. I think he was overwhelmed. We came in, rearranged all his furniture, set up our "sputnik" telephones, turned on our generators, called our desks and let them know we were ready to rock and roll, and headed out. Our host is a very nice guy and has now gotten used to us.

We found Boris and Bertrand on Minutka and told them where we were living and asked them why they weren't staying where they said they were. They said there had been serious shelling of the neighborhood the night before and they didn't feel safe, so they left. Well, ok, good excuse, we invited them to come live with us. That basically was the most exciting thing that happened Monday except every photographer who's covered a war in the recent years showed up to make pictures. At one point, on a corner on the Very Dangerous Street near the Very Dangerous Bridge, there were more photographers than soldiers. I thought it was stupid so I shot video for APTV. I didn't make any pictures I considered decent, but I was pretty pleased we had a house in Grozny. I hear, anyway, that rental prices are pretty good in Grozny, and I was right.

Tuesday, today, now that was a day. At 7am I was awakened by the BBC saying a ceasefire had been proposed by the Russian government at 8. I practically jumped out of bed and into my clothes. I knew if there were a ceasefire that meant we could get into the palace, onto the Very Dangerous Square and make some very excellent photographs. Without pausing for breakfast except for a cup of instant coffee, Mike, a photographer who decided to make the journey from Khasavurt with us, Misha and myself jumped into our rent-a-heap and raced downtown. I didn't want to hang around Minutka and as soon as I saw cars going down the Very Dangerous Street, I called everyone together and off we went. We had our driver park at the church (it felt good) and made our way on foot from there. Walking was pretty normal, people were out in the streets and there wasn't a tension in the air like there is when the artillery rounds are landing every five seconds or so. We sauntered up to the Very Dangerous Bridge (ok, so we ran) were invited up to view the presidential palace from a nearby building and tea. We turned down the tea, took them up on the room with a view offer and saw the palace totally destroyed. It was amazing. The top left hand corner of the building had been totally blown off. The four top floors were blackened from a fire that had burned the day before. It didn't look anything like what I had seen four days before. It only whetted my appetite to get closer and make Really Good Pictures!

Getting across the Very Dangerous Bridge is something like I've never experienced before. First you have to screw up your courage to even attempt to think about crossing it. It's a long bridge, perhaps 200 meters or more. There are supposed to be snipers on the right hand side of the bridge, in a building somewhere. However, there may also be snipers on the left hand side of the bridge, also in a building. So where is it safe to run and how is it safe to run? We queried three different individuals and got three different answers. The first guy said you should run slowly, but moving side to side much like a fullback would cut through a broken field. The second guy said run like hell. The third guy said jog and you'll be fine. I discounted his advice. They all agreed we should go on the left side of the bridge and go for the building on the far side. There is should be safe and we could rest before going on to the palace. Right, we had screwed ourselves up and were ready for the Big Sprint!

We went with two local lads who were going to show us how it's done. We got to the stairs at the foot of the bridge and waited. The lads were getting themselves ready to go as well. Finally one took off, alternately running and jogging. He made it across fine, there was no shooting. The second lad was screwing himself up to it when another fighter casually ran in front of him, across the bridge, on the RIGHT side of the bridge and ran into the building opposite the palace. Now that's where I wanted to go because from there we could make pictures of the palace, which no one had seen, except for crazy fighters, for the past four days. So our lad took off. I let him to ten paces and then ran like hell. I passed him in about three seconds. I was cooking. I swerved to avoid fallen electricity wires, over the shell holes, across the crud littering the street and over to the right into the building I wanted to be in to take pictures. I stopped where I thought it was safe and started to shoot video. Mike and Misha were hot on my heels, the piled into the building and also started to shoot. We were all huffing and puffing like the big old bad wolf. It's tough to run with cameras and a flak vest.

What we saw was amazing. I've seen the moon, I saw it in Tanzania on Mt. Kilimanjaro where NASA faked all those moon landings in the '60's and '70's. This kind of looked like that. There was dirt blown up everywhere from the bomb and shell craters which were all over the square. There were wrecked cars which had gotten caught in the explosions, there were downed power lines, there was the destroyed palace but there were no bodies. The Chechens have been pulling all their guys in and getting them out for burial. The Chechens are Muslim and it's Muslim tradition it's pretty important you get buried 24 hours after you get killed. I don't know why that is, but it makes it easy to go find funeral pictures, if you want 'em.

Mike and I decided we wanted to get into the palace. I definitely wanted to see the situation there, the people there, etc. Misha said he didn't want to risk the run across the square. He's wearing plates in his vest and that adds another 5 or eight kilos. Fair enough, I had to go. I picked my route and ran. I ran faster than I ran across the bridge. The Chechens who were with Misha said they had never seen anyone run so fast. I cooked. I made it up to the palace, inside the palace and into where everyone was hanging out.

The week before, before the bombing and artillery started very seriously, all the Chechen fighters were hanging around on the back steps and platform of the palace. Now there wasn't a soul in sight except for a crazy old woman looking for bread. There was a huge bomb crater right next to the main door. All the cars in the parking lot were destroyed. The tanks which the Chechens had captured were basically toasted as well. The main foyer of the palace was totaled. There were chunks of concrete, shrapnel, metal, glass laying about all over the place. The fighters had congregated downstairs in the nuclear bunker. It's petty safe there, the Russians designed it years ago to be safe in a nuclear attack. It's pretty safe against conventional bombing too! The folks in the bunker were hanging out, smoking, talking, checking their guns, eating, talking, smoking and not worrying about the war. Interesting scene.

After about half an hour of hanging around and shooting Very Good Pictures, I felt an urgent need to leave. There were a couple of artillery shells which had landed uncomfortably close to the palace. I had no desire to be in the palace and trapped if the shelling started again. I wanted out where I could get to my phone, my transmitter and where I could get my pictures on the wire. I consulted with Mike and we agreed it was Time To Leave. We agreed on a route, where we saw fighters running towards the palace. We knew there was a sniper overlooking the route, but figured it was better than getting artilleried to death. So we went for it. We ran and ran and ran. We made it to a little wall where there were two boys trying to make it to the palace. They asked us how it was, we said fine. We asked them how it was, and they said fine. Everything was fine, they left, we left. We sprinted for another wall. About five seconds after we crested the wall, went down some stairs and had our backs up against another wall, there was a thunderous explosion. Misha, who was watching us from across the square, said that just after we had gone over the wall, a mortar or something had landed where we were running. Good thing we didn't delay when saw our two friends.

We decided a rest would be A Good Thing. We stopped in a room in the building we were up against which had no shrapnel holes. That's always important to look for when trying to find a safe place to rest. If there are shrapnel holes, that means that possibly, just possibly, you could get shot there. That would be silly seeing as we were taking cover there anyway. So we rested and waited. We screwed up our nerve for the bridge and ran, ran, ran. We made it to the far side of the bridge just fine, all out of breath, about to fall over. The soldiers standing there asked Mike and I were we were from (everyone here asks you where you're from, it seems to be a form of greeting). I was too out of breath to reply. We waited for five minutes to catch our breaths when Misha came hustling over the bridge. I thought I was out of breath. He was exhausted. We waited another five minutes, but I was getting anxious about leaving, we had great pictures and the shelling was starting again and I didn't want to get killed before getting my pictures on the wire.

At the house things were great. We had the owner's wife come in a cook us a chicken. Very sweet of her. She also cleaned up because living with five journalists, your house quickly becomes a pig-sty. Then I ran into problems, my satellite phone blew up and refused to work. Fortunately Misha, working with AFP let me use his. Then my computer which I was using to send pictures on blew a tube in the screen making it impossible to see what I was sending. However, London was happy with what they were getting, so I wasn't going to stop sending. I managed to send out a lot of fine photos and they were very happy.

Jan. 11/95

Today we almost had it. Mike, Misha and I went back to the palace to see what was up. We got in early, around nine. There were hardly any fighters around, Misha speculated they were in the perimeter buildings so if the presidency was totally wiped out, there would be boys left to give the Russians a fight. Sounded like a good theory to me (see above about theories). Anyway, we stayed around the presidency for about a half hour shooting pictures, but we were getting decidedly uneasy. There were some shells which were Very, Very Close to the building. So we decided to leave. Our driver who had driven us up to the doorstep of the palace had split shortly thereafter because he didn't want his car to get shot. We thought he had gone across the bridge. Not so, he had just gone across the street.

Our driver was the former driver of a chief executive of Dudayev. His car has a light on the top and is very nice. He also is gutsy. Anyway, we decided to run for it because we didn't know where our driver was. One fighter went with us, leading the way. We sprinted out of a window, over the stoop, through the rubble and across a mud-spattered field. As we were perhaps 50 meters from the river, our goal behind a wall, a shot cracked, just meters from our heads. Our guide stumbled. He started to go over. Jesus, I thought, he's been shot. I was wondering whether I should stop and see if he was ok or if I should keep going. CRACK! another shot, closer to me this time, I could hear the VIIIPP of the bullet shredding the air near me. No stopping for this puppy, I kicked in the afterburners and ran as fast as my legs, fear and adrenaline would take me. I hoped the guy was all right. Misha and Mike were hard on my heels, I don't think they had ever run as fast either. Then our guide came over the wall, he was muddied, but okay. If that had been a Sarajevo sniper, I said, we'd have been dead. Thank god.

We were totally frightened and went into a room to take a chill. We waited five minutes to recover ourselves and to realize we still had a decision to make, over the bridge or what. Then I spotted our car and he spotted us. Our driver pulled the car up to the bridge so we didn't have to run across the bridge. All we had to do was sprint out into the middle of the square. Great. So we ran. We RAN!! we jumped into the car and he sped off, our guide hanging out the back door. We sped all the way up to Minutka Square where we got out shaking. Not an experience I want to repeat. I think I won't go to the palace tomorrow.

Dudayev also gave a press conference today saying the only solution to this conflict will be a peaceful one. He's right, the Chechens will never stop fighting and even if the Russians take the city, they'll be subjected to terrorist attacks until they sort something out. We'll see.

Have a nice day, more will follow sometime soon.

David

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Recd Jan 17, 1995

 

Journalists have a lot of power. They have the power over what people see, what people read and ultimately what they believe. Most journalists are aware of this power and use it carefully. Few don't. Yesterday, Jan. 12, one journalist lied and it set in motion an entirely unnecessary string of events. One journalist, on his way out of Grozny to file a story of heavy shelling in the capital, which was true, ran into a regiment of Russian armor moving in the direction of Grozny. He assumed the Russians were going to mount a massive attack soon, cut off the city and kill hundreds of people. He wrote this story, without checking the facts. He didn't call the Russians in Moscow to ask what the tanks were actually being used for. He speculated, theorized (see my last note from Grozny), about what the Russians were going to do and called it fact. Bingo, I get a worried call from my boss in London demanding, basically, that I leave Grozny. I can't understand why, the situation is exactly the same as it was over the past weekend and days before the "ceasefire" was called. I had long discussions with my bosses, who are intelligent guys and who know what's going on here, about leaving. I couldn't understand their angst.

After I was done filing my pictures, I called into CompuServe and read his story. If I were a boss, I would have been frightened as well. The story was completely inaccurate. It outraged me because not only did it scare the people who are in charge of what I do here, but it misinformed thousands of people about the actual situation here on the ground. I immediately called my boss in London and complained long and loud about this story until I got my boss to admit that this certain reporter, who has a reputation of making up stories, was probably wrong. Still, I'd like to apologize to all the folks out there who aren't journalists for having to listen and read irresponsible journalism.

Misha had a colleague come out of Paris today. Another absurdity. A guy travels all the way from Paris to be in Grozny to cover the Russian invasion, learns that his colleagues in Paris have gone on strike and refuses to send his pictures on the wire. Can you believe that? This guy goes out all day, makes pictures, risks his life because there was pretty intense shelling and then, whoops, I'm on strike. Misha and I were outraged again. Misha is relying on this fellow to back him up. In fact, Misha didn't really go out and shoot today because he wanted to take it easy, being Friday the 13th and all, we had technical problems (more on that in a minute), and there was a lot of bombing, shelling, etc. Also this guy had a "fresh eye," he hasn't been here before and perhaps would see something that those of us who have been here for a week or more wouldn't see. Anyway, as soon as he learned his colleagues were on strike, he refused to work. Misha and I refused to let him use the phone then. I also think AFP should pay his expenses for today, his lodging, and he should go back to Paris on his own expense and they should send someone who doesn't have this ridiculous attitude.

Friday the 13th boded ill, right from the start. The Russians picked up their bombing and shelling at 7 in the morning. I thought perhaps since they were up, they wanted to get the rest of the city up as well. Most unfriendly. Misha and I thought, since the situation here was getting more serious, that we would try to save gas and use the new generator the man from Paris brought in. So we turned it on, plugged in the Satphone and the rest of the equipment, and prepared to call our offices. Then, all of the sudden, smoke and electrical smell. Yikes, the generator had sent a power surge through the system and had blown the power source on the Satphone. Oh no, we were screwed. No communications, heavy pressure from London to leave Grozny, and now, with no satphone, we had to leave. What to do?

We sat down to think. Peter Dejong, my colleague from Amsterdam, was supposed to be coming on the APTV van from Khasavurt with another satphone. We could use that. But, the shelling was pretty heavy. The van was supposed to be here before nine, but as it rolled around, there was no one. I decided to try and get to the meeting point, Minutka square, to see if the van was there. We took our driver, Said, and sped off towards Minutka. The square was deserted. Paola, the AFP bureau chief and Katherine, an AFP reporter were also along with Misha and I. Instead of going into the square, we pulled up early to talk with some fighters. Paola has never been under fire before, but was being pretty brave, considering the amount of lead flying around nearby. We were talking in a doorway with good access to a basement when across the street, less than 50 meters away, four Grad rockets slammed into a house. It created a deafening explosion. There was a stampede down the stairs, the girls were quashed but safe. The rockets continued to slam into the house, about 30 in all. At the end of the attack, Paola was shaking and nervous. The fighters were laughing nervously. Misha and I were ready to go home and figure out if we could fix the phone because it was obvious that there was no way the APTV van would meet us there. So we got into the car and left.

Back at home there was no car with the APTV guys in it. Bummer, no phone. So we were presented with a problem. Either we had to leave or we had to fix the phone. I had my broken satphone with a good power supply and Misha had a broken satphone with a bad power supply. First we thought it was the fuse, so we tried to find it. All the time the Man From Paris was tut-tuting in French, saying to the French correspondents around that we shouldn't take the phone apart, we would get in trouble for breaking it. The stupid git didn't realize it was already broken and it couldn't get MORE broken. Christ. Anyway, we found there was no fuse, so we exchanged the entire power supply and hooray, it worked!! We felt really good, at least something was going right today. Now if the AP guys would show up, we'd have two phones. That, of course, didn't happen.

The rest of the day I spent cowering around Minutka square. A bomb landed where Paola and we had been before, killing two and injuring five. Fortunately I wasn't there for that. No photographers were. The Russians were invading slowly. We could here helicopters in the distance, jets flying around, dropping bombs and missilingAlain-Pierre Hovassse

35A Upham Park Road

London W4 1PQ buildings and machine-gun fire. Being especially cautious because of the day, I spent a lot of time in a bunker hiding from bad noises. I think I'm getting a little jumpy. Oh well, a while around all of these loud bangs will do that to you. I only stayed in the firing line for a little while. I got my picture and left. Good thing, a half hour after I left, the Russians bombed the square again, killing five more people. There were photographers around this time but I don't know if they got anything.

Anyway, tomorrow we may move out of here. I doubt it. I would like to stay until the Russians invade although I realize that may not be the safest thing to do. We'll have to see. We're all a bit worried, but I think if we stick together we'll be in better shape.

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Jan. 14/95

 

Glad at having made it through Friday the 13th, Misha and I were feeling pretty good. To make our bosses feel good we agreed to move out of town to a small village some 15 kilometers away, Goiti. We are staying with the same family of the guy in town, but are away from the bombing and shelling. We moved the office out here in case the planes decide to target the microwaves emitted by the satphone. That's a very real worry. Anyway, we spent the entire morning organizing, packing and moving to Goiti. Once we were comfortable with our set up, we went back into town to do some pictures.

I have a hard and fast rule about Saturdays, which is, I don't really work very hard. I have that rule because it's difficult to get into the Sunday papers, mostly they are laid out, the big American magazines are closed, having gone to bed on Friday and the European magazines don't really look at the daily wire. So we just wanted to make a couple of easy features on Minutka square and call it a day. Simple.

We got there around noon. I met an old friend, Malcolm Brabant of the BBC who was in Sarajevo with me when it first went down in 1992. He's a good guy. We were chatting, he was trying to suss out the situation here. Misha and I had agreed to hang around and get the feel for the situation before doing anything else. So I was chatting with Malcolm, drawing him a map on the ground of where the Russians were in relation to where we were, etc. I told him this was heavier than anything I'd ever seen because the Russians are well armed and know how to use those arms. I heard a slight hiss. Well, I'm pretty jumpy after yesterday, so I gave Malcolm a big shove and ran into this house. Unfortunately, this house has no windows, just steel grating. Anyway, Malcolm was flat on his stomach trying to get up where there was an enormous explosion, Really Close By. Whew, I thought, it didn't get us. I put up my camera and started to take pictures. Then there was another explosion, and another and another and another and another until I couldn't count. I could see out of the corner of my eye a building not 20 meters away being hit. Weird, it was like a time zoom, like when time comes to a stop. All the time my camera was clicking away, capturing all these people huddled together on the ground in fear. I thought the explosions would never stop. It was like a pipe bomb going off nearby, except deadlier.

After the noise stopped people started to shout. There was dust all over, debris was spread around the street. There were two dead guys just 10 meters from the doorway I was in, one with a bit of shrapnel through his head, the other, I didn't see too well. I had only one thought, get somewhere safer. I wasn't convinced of the safety of the building we had sought temporary refuge in, so I sprinted for a safe bunker. Others thought they heard more planes coming in. I thought we had been hit by grads although I later learned a plane had done it, swooping low over our former house and dropping it's payload on the square. I started to film this fear in the bunker on my little video camera. The soldiers weren't sure if the planes were going to return, if there was going to be artillery fire or what. Neither were we. At the same time I felt the need to get out into the open and take pictures. I suppressed that need. I felt a greater urgency to stay safe and not have my head, legs, arms or anything else taken out by another errant bit of flying lead.

War photography I think is coming to terms with your own fear. There are wonderful, horrible images to be made in the aftermath of a bomb explosion. How brave is the photographer, how willing is he or she to risk his or her life to go out and make the picture he sees but instinctively will not shoot? I guess that's what separates the great ones from the ok ones, the guys who take the risks and make the pictures. I'd rather go skiing at the end of the month than go down in the annals of photojournalism as a great, but dead, war photographer.

I ate dinner by candle and kerosene lamplight, with Misha, Malcolm Linton, a freelancer for Newsweek, Peter from Front Line TV news and Mike Yassukovich. It was great, the sky was lit up an orange color from all the fires burning in the city. The Russians were letting off daylight flares so their fighters could flush out the Chechens. There were tremendous thumpings and crashings from the artillery downtown. And we sat in our little abode eating dinner, sipping vodka (we are, after all, in Russia) and listening to the din. A few errant shells headed our direction and we panicked a little, making sure there was a basement we could get into in case of an emergency and putting on our vests to go to sleep in. Have you ever tried to sleep in a flak vest? Very stiff. Good for the back, though. We all went to sleep about 2130 because of the adrenaline rush from the bomb. Misha and I were exhausted and fell asleep first, I guess. A rough day.

Jan. 15

What to do? Here's the question of the day. Minutka square is out of the question because of the bombing. I was talking to Peter last night, who covered Afghanistan for a number of years and is familiar with Russian tactics and he said the Russians usually go for familiar landmarks, ie big intersections or special buildings. Minutka is a big landmark so we definitely didn't want to hang out there. Going down to the bridge and to see the palace is questionable because of the fighting. So what to do? Peter was supposed to be coming in, bringing with him a much better transmitter and a satphone. That would cut filing time in half, Misha and I won't have to share a phone and the new transmitter will allow us to put pictures into the computer at the same time as we send them. It's a way better way to work.

 

By 0830, though, I was feeling anxious. I hate sitting around. I want to get into the Bad Area, get my pictures, get out and file. I don't like hanging around. So Peter hadn't shown up, so we went to Minutka square to get a feeling for the situation. There were no people there, so we walked around the back, through some apartment complexes and saw some civilians scooping water out of a muddy puddle. It was worse than muddy, actually, it was oily. The people, though, are too frightened to go far from their houses to find fresh water. I don't blame them. I choose to cover war, they had this war come to them, had their houses and lives destroyed, their livelihoods taken away, and for what? Autonomy? Independence? I don't think the average person living in Grozny cared whether or not he was independent from Russia or not. I reckon your average person in Grozny cared whether he was making enough money to buy bread, booze, milk and honey. These are the things that ultimately matter.

I wanted to find Peter, though, to make sure he had made it into Grozny okay and to see if he had any video tapes for me. Not that I'm doing video full time, but if I'm going to do it, then I'd like to do it fully. We ran into the AP team from Nazran who said they had just left Peter and Pascal at our old house. Cool, we raced over to see if they were there, but they weren't. In fact, all the guys there said they had just gone to Minutka. Well, hell, back into the fire. So we set off again for Minutka, parked our car behind a "safe" building, piled out, into the underground, under the street, up on the far side where I spotted Peter and Pascal. Feeling fearful, I said a quick hello and said we ought to talk in the underground. So we sprinted into the underground, exchanged pleasantries, and talked about the situation. I asked Peter if he volunteered to come here, I was under the impression he had. Nope, he said, Mike in London had asked him. I was stunned. I thought for sure he had volunteered, if I were a boss in London I wouldn't ask anyone to come here, it's too hairy. I know guys who would volunteer, though, people who want to see if they are going become great war photographers.

Anyway, Peter had been bombed on the road on the way in from Khasavurt. Actually the planes had bombed a farmhouse 500 meters away, but when there's a plane coming down at you firing missiles, you don't ask if the missiles are aimed at you. The planes did their deed, killing an old lady tending her cows. Another old lady was wounded. Nice shooting guys. Peter was pretty shaken up and didn't feel like hanging about. I couldn't convince him or Misha or Mike to walk downtown with me, so I asked Luc Delahay if he wanted to and he did. Luc is working for Magnum and I think on assignment for Newsweek. Luc shot a beautiful picture last year that should have won the world press photo contest, but didn't.

So off we went, down the right hand side of the street, my video camera on standby, my cameras ready to roll. I was feeling pretty nervous. We walked under the bridge for the first time. I usually walk over the railroad bridge, but Luc thought it would be safer under the bridge, so that's the way we went. Out from the bridge, down the buildings until we saw a few people. I asked them what was up, they said they had been getting some supplies and if we wanted pictures of people we should go down the street they had just come from. So we did. There were no people at all. In fact, the only people we ran into were fighters returning from the front. Lots of fighters. Luc commented that it looked like they hadn't fought. Maybe they did, maybe they didn't, we didn't ask. Onwards down a street parallel to Leninskaya. There were buildings which had been totally destroyed by mortar fire, artillery fire, machine-gun fire, bombs. I didn't know if there were snipers there or what, so I stuck fairly close to the wall, three meters back from Luc, walking quietly so I could hear if there were any incoming shells. The Chechens had set up a mortar or something about 200 meters from us and were firing it at intervals of two minutes. Well, as I learned in Sarajevo, outgoing attracts incoming. Sure enough, within three minutes, a huge shell came crashing in. I didn't feel very safe, told Luc and we agreed to cut through another building, across the other side of Leninskaya and through the apartment buildings there.

Once across the street, it was pretty quiet. The buildings were big and I felt that we had good cover, especially since they were trashing the side of the street we had just left. In all these apartment blocks were people, trying to get on with their lives, cooking on fires on the doorsteps, no heat or electricity in their apartments. We stopped to take a few pictures, but mostly carried on, towards the front line. A group of men came running towards us, a body on a stretcher. Good picture, nice body language. Snap, snap, snap and move, onto something else. Never stay in one place too long, no longer than it takes the average smoker to inhale one cigarette (Luc smokes). We came out onto Leninskaya but I couldn't recognize it from the last time I had been there, just three days before. It looked like a back alley, not a main street. All the trees have been destroyed, knocked over, broken and twisted like a hurricane had come down the street. There was broken glass littering the sidewalk. Dirt had been heaved up over everything and there were large craters in the streets and buildings from where shells had impacted. Truly weird. The closer we came to the Very Dangerous Bridge, the more intense the shelling and shooting got. The Russians were blasting the hell out of one apartment block, 16-storeys high, because they suspected there were snipers or spotters there. Not any more, the rounds were hitting that building every couple of minutes or so. It made great video.

We made our way off Leninskaya and down a side street. The shells were thudding around, but not around us. The Russians had targeted certain buildings and were going after them with vengeance. Everything which was not a target was fine. At least that was our thinking because if you start to think that everything is a target, you won't be able to work. Luc wanted to get to the river to see if he could find some fighters or wounded or something. I was running out of bravery pretty quickly and said so. I wanted to get back to file, to give my tape to someone and to get my butt out of this Bad Neighborhood. Then we heard a plane. Right, no more thinking of advancing, get the hell in the nearest building, into a stairwell where there's a lot of cement. Getting bombed has got to be my most recent least favorite thing. We scrambled into an old school and waited for the plane to pass. Out the window we noticed, however, there was a fine view of the presidential palace. SCORE!!! Up we went to the top floor and there, in all its glory was the palace, with a clear view of what was going on. APTV was about to be very happy and they didn't even know it yet. I shot about three minutes of video of the palace before finding a better place to watch. We stayed for one cigarette and moved on to another room that had a fantastic view of the apartment building taking rounds. I filmed that and then together we shot it before moving back.

It took perhaps 15 minutes to retrace our steps back to Minutka square. I said to Luc as we were crossing under the railroad bridge that I was always amazed that it took so much time to go down to the front and so little time to come back. I guess, having overcome so much fear to get down to the front, going back is like putting your fear behind you and getting away from a Very Dangerous Place. The further you get away from the front, the easier conversation becomes, the less alert you are to Very Bad Noises and the happier you still feel about being alive. I feel glad to be alive every single day I come out of the area of Serious Conflict here. This is, like I've said earlier, the most amount of lead flying through the air I've ever seen. Yikes.

 

Jan. 16

Misha has to leave today. His dad is in the hospital with fluid in his lungs and it looks serious. So he's off to offer his ma some support. It's a wise move, he wouldn't want his ma to have to worry about his dad and him. He hasn't told her that he's in Grozny, of course, she'd probably have a heart attack with all the strain of worry. It's a pity to see him go, it was very much fun working with him here. I'll make sure to look him up in Moscow when I get out of here next weekend. Yep, I'm starting to count the days. Now that Peter is here I can think about leaving and I've decided that the 21st will be my last day in Grozny and I'll leave that day for Khasavurt and then hopefully for the nearest airport Mahcahkala, which is only two hours away by car. That depends, of course, if the airport is open. There's still another six days to find out what happens here. We'll see.

 

It's getting more and more difficult to work here. Jim Nachtwey, a friend of mine, pulled in today and said it was like trying to take pictures of a ghost town being shelled. That's about right, all the people who still live in this town live in basements without gas, electricity or running water. The rest of the people are fighters and it's too difficult to reach them, they are either running towards the front to get shelled, or they are running away and don't want their picture made. Hmmph. It's no wonder the pictures have dropped off in the past week. I'm sure it won't get any better, either until the Russians finally take over, the shelling stops and the refugees start to move back into town.

 

Jan. 17

Have you ever really wondered what it's like to be in the army? I remember being a kid and playing army, running around with a toy machine gun, diving into the bushes or rolling into a small space out of the way of imaginary shelling. Well, today I got to do that for real. I decided I wouldn't like being in the army even though, as a cameraman pointed out to me, if you're in the army you have your own side returning fire. I think running as fast as you can until you think it's safe, but is it really?, sucks. I'd rather be covering the pope in New Guinea (well, maybe not).

Mike asked me on the phone yesterday to see if I could get a picture of the palace. I didn't really want to go there, I didn't go yesterday because of the shelling and it would probably be as bad today. But Mike asked, so I figured I'd comply. I set out with Jim and Tomas, who'd both shown up here yesterday. We walked downtown, avoiding the large KaBooms which were coming from in front of us. A stray bullet whizzed by, getting our hearts racing and providing a burst of adrenaline. Still, we stuck to the course, running past open spaces and taking cover every few minutes in doorways or cellars, catching our breaths and listening to what was happening. Then, fear of fears, a jet, low and loud. We were with some fighters so we all ducked into a basement until it passed. It unleased its load somewhere down the street, maybe on the train station where a ferocious battle had been going on all morning, or maybe on the presidency which the Russians, for some inexplicable reason, cannot seem to take. Anyway, I bashed my video camera, so I was trying to get it back to the right place again on the tape which took a minute. When I emerged, there was no Jim and no Tomas. Great, now I was on my own. Do I go forward or backwards. I glanced the way we had come and saw a group of people carrying a body. They must be there, I thought, so I sprinted back towards them, covering the ground we had already carefully covered before. Bummer. As I pulled up to the scene, there were already about five photographers working it. I saw my colleague, Peter Dejong on the scene, so I figured I'd save the film and shoot video.

The scene went on up the road, these six guys carrying this mortally wounded man on a blanket and five photographers shouting at each other to get out of the frame. Sometimes news photography borders on the surreal. I stopped and shot it long on video, Peter was still on top of it. I took cover and waited for the boys to come back. Only Peter did. He said he had a good picture and was comfortable with it so he didn't feel the need to follow the gang-bang on up. Fair enough. We waited in a doorway for the others, but after five minutes they didn't come back, I figured they'd gone all the way to wherever. I didn't want to hang out, it wasn't a too safe doorway and I wanted to either move forward or backwards. Staying still is a cardinal sin.

Peter wanted to go with me so I said, hey that's fine, I'll show you the ropes down here so you can do it when I leave on Saturday. We set off together, around buildings, through parks and buildings, looking for anything that moved for pictures or advice how to get to the front. We were heading for one tall white building that had a view of the presidency. Unfortunately I was pretty sure the Russians would be shelling it. But we didn't know that for sure until we were there. So we continued, weaving through buildings and listening to the incoming shells and talking to soldiers returning from the front. At one point we ran into a group of 20 or so men running recklessly through a field, shouting at us. They asked us if we were Russians or what. No, we said, we're correspondents. Come with us, away from this place, they shouted as they ran on. They were frightened of something and we couldn't figure out what. We didn't want to stick with them, it's never smart to go with a big group of fighters, they are easier for the Russians to spot and target. Then it dawned on us, they must have seen Russian troops on our side of the river and that freaked them out. It also posed a question for us, to continue or to go back. We felt the situation out and decided to take it one house at a time. So we advanced. We crept, ran and walked. Eventually we could see our goal, 50 meters across a field. However, the field looked dangerous to me. I didn't want to go across a field, especially with jets looming in the clouds.

We talked to a fighter and he said the best thing to do would be to cross the field at the shortest point and into the apartment block on the other side. Then we would be able to make our way to the building. First Peter went. He ran like a banshee across the field, across the garbage and into the building. I gave him a ten second lead and followed. There were no explosions and we were safely into the apartment block. We pulled into a safe corner to catch our breaths and there was a family cooking on a stove and asking us where we were from. It never fails to amaze me, whomever you meet in this town, in whatever sort of odd situation, they all want to know where you're from. We explained breathlessly and continued.

It looked like we had to go out onto Leninskaya Prospect (the Very Dangerous Street, more Dangerous now because it was being shelled continually) which didn't appeal to us at all. Then we heard another jet. Yipes, quick, into the nearest building. We wandered up these stairs and peered into some rooms. There, on a couch amongst debris and litter, was a dead Chechen. At least he looked dead. Then, I thought, perhaps he's sleeping. But he had no shirt, the windows were blown out and it was snowing and he was stiff. Must be dead. We took his picture. We did not take a happy snap with the dead guy, too crass. Then we wandered across the hall and there were more dead guys. Looks like we had wandered into a mortuary of some sort. Strange. Then, out of the stairwell popped two Chechens, pointing their guns at us. Where are you from? Do you have papers? Once they checked us out and we explained to them where we wanted to go, they agreed to show us.

Get your breath I said to Peter. We went out a window, onto Leninskaya Prospect for five meters, through another window into a building to avoid the Very Dangerous Street (good thing we went with a Chechen, we wouldn't have done that on our own) through a building shattered by shellfire and fighting, out the back, into the courtyard where a shell plonked down some 100 meters away. Yikes, we all ducked into a stairwell. The Chechens thought we wanted to cross their secret bridge and get to the presidential palace. No, we explained, we wanted only to see the palace. They said, go to the white house in front of you and you'll see it from there. We knew that already, but thanked them for their advice and sprinted for the door. No other shells and we made it safely into the doorway. I wanted to wait five minutes to catch my breath and feel out the building. Peter didn't object.

After five minutes we started our ascent. The stairwell was up the back of the building, away from the side the Russians were shelling. Anyway, from the sound of the impacts, the shells were blasting the house in front of the one we were in, not ours. Whew! Up we went to the ninth floor. We found an apartment that was open and walked in until we found a Room With a View. The view we found was out a room which had a window blasted for it by a Russian artillery round. We didn't stick our necks out, we just stuck our cameras around the corner and shot pictures of the presidency. It was shrouded by fog and smoke. On top of that it was snowing, so it was extremely difficult to photography. Peter made stills, I shot video. The stills didn't come out, I hope the video did. There were a couple of enormous explosions, either the Russians had hit our house lower down or they had rocked the top of the house in front of ours. No time to find out, we fled, out the apartment and down the stairwell. There was another blast, no doubt this time the Russians had hit our building. Plaster started to fall from the ceilings and we could hear the shrapnel plinking around. Down we ran until we got to the bottom. I wanted to wait but another shell hit the building. Nope, time to leave, NOW. Which way, Peter asked. Out and now, I said, so we hit the back door running, went to a wall on the left and kept on going. WHAM, another shell, this time into the building we were in. WHAM again, this time maybe it went through the building, we didn't stop to look. WHAM, WHAM, WHAM they were falling everywhere. We kept on going, trying to get out of this Very Dangerous Area. We ran into a guy who said he was a doctor. He was also trying to leave. Good idea. We made it past the building and the field without too many other loud whams, but enough near enough to scare the hell out of us.

Finally we made it to a doorway where we ducked inside to recover ourselves. Inside there were a bunch of people, Armenians, Russians, Georgians, and they spoke English. They asked us what we thought. We told 'em. We were sweating like pigs, it's hard to run with full cameras, flak vests, helmets and lots of clothes. After we felt better, we said our goodbyes and off we went, back towards our car and supposed safety. Shells were still incoming although with less frequency or accuracy. Then we heard another jet. It was coming in low and fast. We had no place to go and he could have spotted us. So we dove and rolled under an overhanging balcony. Now that was a cool move. I was pretty impressed how quickly we got under cover. When we rolled out we continued our sprint up the street.

Hairy today, no doubt. I guess the moral of the story is not to listen to your boss offer his advice about what you should shoot when he's in London and you're not. Yep.

That's all for now.

David

 

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Recd Jan 22, 1995

 

I'm sitting in a Moscow hotel, having showered (extensively) and shaved, reflecting on my time in Grozny. I had more close encounters in the last three days than I care to recall. I think when you realize you're a short-timer, you becomes more aware of your own mortality. I got caught by a tank, partly because I was stupid, but probably more because I was curious and saw a scene that would have yielded the most dramatic pictures I would have shot in Grozny the entire time I had been there, if I had been able to shoot them. That stands out as the closest to death I've come in a long time. It also brings out the most confused emotions in a photographer, to stop and help, shoot or to keep on going because of the safety factor.

 

I had spent all Thursday morning in town with Jon Jones and Tomas Mursinico (sorry for the misspelled name). Mostly we were feeling paranoid and hung out near Minutka square in case a bomb came in killing people, but not on the square itself, in an apartment complex away from it with lots of cement between us and any prospective bomb. Tomas, Jon and I go back to last year in South Africa and Jon and I to way before that to Yugoslavia when the war there was just starting, not in Croatia or Bosnia, but in Kosovo, which is still being persecuted by the Serbs (another story). We were talking, waiting for Jim to come back from a couple of bodies we had found earlier from the day before. There's a sad story, a couple of elderly Russians, their belongings in their hands, were walking out a back road, some 100 meters away from Minutka Square, trying to get out of Dodge, and a cluster bomb landed between them. The woman was blasted into a fence on her right, the man against a wall to his left. Presumably small bits of shrapnel and the force of the explosion killed them both pretty much instantly, because there wasn't a lot of blood on either. We came upon the scene while walking downtown from our house and it was eerie. I thought the guy was sleeping except he was the wax color that dead people have and his eyes were wide open, still seeing whatever it was that killed him. He was clutching his bag with his goods and, frankly, he looked drunk. But the red on his lips and hands, plus the blast mark in the center of the road, said otherwise. His wife had both her ankles broken and had bled extensively from her legs, but her upper body was fine. Jon, Jim, Tomas and I photographed the eerie scene for 15 minutes, working the bodies alone then with passersby until one old lady came along and cried for them. We all got good pictures and left. Jim went back, which was why we were waiting for him, to see if the bodies were going to be removed, and instead saw them being looted. Tragedy of war but the living needed the money, clothes and food more than the dead did. Incidentally, the bodies were laying there the next day, covered in snow, still waiting to be removed. The Chechens are very good about getting their own people out but the Russians (Azeris, Armenians, Jews, Ukes, etc.) are dying and laying there. Sad.

I digress. Jim came back after running over the tracks and going a little ways towards the palace. He said there weren't any pictures. Anyway, we weren't going to beat the picture we had made with the bodies, it was really very strong. Also it was safe, no bullets, no artillery, no bombs and no one in jeopardy. We decided to hoof it out, go back home, reassess the situation, I would file and the guys would see if they wanted to go out again in the afternoon.

We got back to the house where an ITN crew was waiting to pick up a tape from a freelance TV friend named Peter Juvenle. He was taping for ITN. I gave them my tape as well, so they could give it to APTV and I wouldn't have to send Said, my driver, down. He liked going for the money, but didn't like risking his car on the road at night. Paradox of war, the money is good, but how long will it last? Should I make as much up front right now or should I take it easy and see how long I can make this last? Anyway, I was headed out the door without my cameras, I figured I was going to file and come back, when a little fairy said to me, never go anywhere without your cameras, you never know what you may see. Fair enough. I grabbed a couple of video tapes, stuffed them into my belt pouch, and my gear. It took maybe an extra twenty seconds to grab all the stuff and head out to the car.

By this time the artillery, rockets, bombs were coming in thick and fast, but mostly, it sounded like, around the center of town. The day before a car had been shot up near the bus station, near our house and a photographer who had gotten out of his car immediately afterwards to shoot pictures had taken a round and a piece of shrapnel had gone into his small intestine. He was in Nazran where they had operated on him. I said to Said, as we drove by the destroyed car, I don't like the bus station and he concurred. We sped off down the road when there was a loud bang fairly close by. I said, hmm, must be the bus station and he agreed again. We rounded a corner and there was a scene of horror in front of us (yet, every photographer's dream). Two cars had been shot up, one Lada Niva Jeep, one Moskovich. There were four people laying on their backs, apparently dead, two crawling for cover, both badly wounded. The dust was just settling. Jesus, I said to Said, stop the car, we have to help. I didn't know what to do. I wanted to help these people, get them out of there and to a hospital. I wanted to take pictures, it is so rare when you get a chance like this, immediately after an attack, when the pain and shock are etched on the faces of the dead and wounded, where the scene is so vivid and real, the pictures would take themselves. But underneath my concern and eagerness was a wariness, something wasn't right and I didn't know what.

I took two steps towards the wounded and then opted for cover behind the Lada Jeep. I wanted to see what was up. I snapped three quick frames of the entire situation, the jeep, it's radiator smoking, the dead and wounded on the ground, the earth on the road and the factories smoking in the background. I was about to emerge from my position when the screech of a tank round and the blast of the concussion took out a small hillock to my left. I ran the opposite direction and hit the deck, next to a Chechen fighter in a snow suit. We were hiding behind a small cement post. Unfortunately I was wearing black, black coat, black trousers, and stood out like a sore thumb on the snow-covered landscape. I fumbled into my pouch for a tape and ripped off the plastic covering. I put it into my video camera. I couldn't make stills, I couldn't get position, but I could shoot the scene for TV. Another round came in, faster, closer, maybe thirty seconds after the first one. I ate snow and dirt with the Chechen. It's a tank, I thought, and he's got a bead on us. I started to babble to the fighter, I told him I really wanted to take these pictures, I wanted to help these people, but I didn't want to lose my own life doing it. He nodded, knowingly. Another round, closer.

I'd had it, I got up and ran, fast and hard to a garbage dump 50 meters away. I dove for cover and discovered three other civilians also cowering there. The tank shifted his target and put a round directly behind where we were, maybe 15 meters away. These bastards, I thought, have a good pair of binocs and have got a good sight on us. The fighter I was laying with in the snow came over and dove for cover as well. We stayed huddled in the ditch for 20 minutes as shell after shell impacted. The tanker knew we were around, but he couldn't see us because of the snow and because we were in a depression. Still, if he managed to land a round on the back side of the depression, the concussion would kill us all, just like the man and lady I had seen earlier in the day.

I started to rue my decision to get out of the car and try to make pictures. Stupid, selfish, I thought, I should have carried on. That would have been selfish as well. WHAM, another round. I had left the video camera on to capture the noise, it is truly amazing noise, the rush of a round and the impact. If you live, you're amazed, if you die, well, I don't know. I focused on the guys I was cowering with, I figured that would be better than focusing on the sky and would take my mind off my current situation. Still, as I looked through the camera, I thought, Christ, he can stay there all day, he probably has night vision, and we'll all freeze to death before he gets bored. But why would he want to kill civilians? Probably for the same reason the jets were bombing the neighborhoods. Then, Whoosh, a jet came over, low and loud. He circled and came back. At this point I was truly terrified. The tank surely had communications with the jet and he was looking for us so he could missile or bomb us. A most unpleasant ending to a pretty pleasant life. I was getting pretty upset. Then I noticed my wallet and digital diary were missing. Hell, now I was really upset. I couldn't lose those! All my credit cards, my money, my phone numbers, my expenses, my receipts. Jesus, I put them in the same place as the god damn tapes, jerk. I forgot about the tank, I forgot about the jet, I started to look for my stuff. Isn't that weird? It wasn't where we were laying, it must have fallen out as I ran for cover. There was an instinct pulling me back from whence I came to find my stuff. Fortunately my head took over and said, hey, jerk! STAY WHERE YOU ARE, THIS IS SERIOUS!!! I took that advice, but I was bugged.

The jet came back, we all cowered. It left in a roar over downtown. Maybe it wasn't looking for us. I sure hoped so. The tank hadn't taken a shot in about three minutes and we were getting antsy. We all wanted to live and we all wanted to leave. One fighter in a snow suit jumped up and raced away. The jet came back. Rat-a-tat-a-tat went his machine gun at the plane. BOOM went the tank in reply. Jerk, I thought, he gave our position away. Sure enough more rounds followed on the heels of the first one and we ate dirt for another five minutes.

Then, Silence. No booms, no jets, no whizzes. We could hear the sound of cars as they drove slowly up to the destroyed jeep and Moskivich and then as they speeded up and fled, away from the scene and possible destruction. I counted perhaps five cars and concluded it was safe to GET THE HELL OUT OF THERE NOW! I popped my head up to take a view of the situation. At the car was the ITN crew I had handed my tape to. They had their tripod out and were doing a shot when the tank tried to nail them. I've never seen four guys in helmets, flak vests and gear get into a car so fast and speed off. But I saw this as I was hoofing it at top speed away, frantically waving my arms at their car for them to stop and get me and almost crying with fear. They pulled alongside me and I dove in. I slammed the door shut and said "Thanks, you guys have just saved my life." I meant it. Then I gave them my tape.

Said was waiting down the road. After the second explosion, he had hopped into his car and taken it out of danger. He was looking for me, he looked agitated. I got out of the ITN car, ran to him and we started to step on it. Behind us, on the road, were the two civilians I was laying in the ditch with. I told Said to stop, reverse and pick 'em up. They leapt into the car and we sped off. Safety at the reservoir. There was a huge crowd gathered. Someone who had had more guts than I, had stopped and picked up one of the wounded guys. They were putting a tourniquet around his leg, but he was already going waxy. Still, they were trying to save him. I bullied my way through the crowd, made five frames, couldn't handle it and left.

We sped out of town to the office and I told Said I had lost my wallet and diary. I was more pissed off about that than anything else. My mind was working a billion miles a minute. Cancel all the cards, renew my Czech accreditation, get a new driver's license, etc., etc., etc. Crazy. I guess I was trying to avoid thinking about what had just happened to me.

I was shaking when I got to the office in Goiti. Laurent Van Der Stock was just about to go back to Grozny, so I told him to avoid that road and take the other. They may be bombing it, but at least the bombing is random. The tank is accurate and is holding it's position somewhere there. He agreed.

Inside I filed one picture from the scene, I think it's the grimiest picture I shot of the war so far, five bodies and a jeep. It was the most personal assault I felt during the war. Ugh. I wasn't sure I wanted to back into Grozny, if I had had my stuff with me, I would have spent the night in Goiti. But I wanted also to find my wallet and diary. I knew where they were, if the tank wasn't still positioned there, it would be possible to find them.

At dusk I left the office back to Grozny and hopefully to find my wallet. Anthony Lloyd, a friend and correspondent for the Times of London had just come into town to report for Anatol Lieven, who had left after three weeks. Said gave us a lift into town. As we approached the road where we had been attacked, two fighters stopped us and said the Russians were still hitting the road and it would be better to go around. I was bummed out but still wanted to live, so we didn't push it. Around we went, on a dirt road covered in snow and ice. Lights out the whole way now, the fear of attack by a jet was high and I didn't want to get bombed and Said didn't want to lose his car. The road was a sheet of ice and Anthony and I ended up pushing the car up a huge hill. I felt like an idiot, we were certainly an easy target. Fortunately, nothing happened.

Once we crested the hill and were driving slowly down the other side to the house where we were staying, the sky was lit up with flares, rockets and shells. It was like watching the fourth of July except more deadly for some. We pulled slowly up to the house and banged on the door. It took a few minutes for our owner to answer. I ran into the kitchen and there was no one there. I looked in the house and it had been abandoned. There was a note on the table for me saying the boys had moved and please join them asap. I told Anthony to put his stuff back into the car, I gathered up some junk that they had left and we left. I found everyone, all the photographers from the three houses we had been staying in, together in one apartment in a tall apartment block around the corner from where we had been staying. Jim liked the house better because if it were hit by a shell or bomb, there was a lot of cement between where we wanted to stay and the point of presumed impact. It's true the house we were staying in before was made out of fly paper, but it had good Karma. They had moved, though, after a bunch of Chechen fighters had stopped by (the entire town knew where the press was staying) and told us the neighborhood was about to become the center of an artillery attack. Makes good sense to move if fighters tell you that. Besides, there was lots of free apartment space around.

We looted four other apartments in the house to find enough mattresses to sleep on. I felt slightly guilty, kicking in people's doors and going through their things to find blankets and mattresses, but, this was a war situation. We didn't steal anything, either, we just rearranged the furniture placement in the house. Besides, it was kind of fun yelling "POLICE" as we busted down yet another door.

The shells pummeled the neighborhood we were sleeping in before. I went to the second story of the house to videotape the scene. The sky was still alight with flares and shells were still zooming across the horizon leaving a red streak behind them. Somewhere on our old street a house was burning, I guess it had taken a round. I felt glad we had moved, but was totally uneasy now being in Grozny and resolved, when Said came back in the morning, to leave town, and then leave Chechnya. I had had enough.

I slept uneasily. I had a runny nose and every time I managed to drop off I dreamed about being huddled in the ditch and losing my wallet. I really wanted to find my wallet. I contemplated, because of not being able to sleep, to go for a walk and see if I could find it. Absurd, of course, considering the amount of lead flying around outside, but an interesting thought. When we did leave the next morning, Jim, Tomas and I, Said said it was quiet and we drove by where the attack had occurred, but it had snowed at least 15 cms. and it was impossible to look for anything. Bummer. It really was gone.

After a hellish transfer including an overnight taxi ride to Mineralni Vodi from Khasavurt in an unheated BMW (the drivers were so proud to have a BMW that they refused to admit that anything was wrong with it although they did stop every 50 kms. or so to see if they could fix it), spending the rest of the night in the unheated airport in Min. Vodi and then a packed flight into Moscow, I arrived, disheveled, unshaven, tired and grumpy to the Moscow office. Happy to be out and alive, though, I checked in here.

So what happens? I heard from people here the Russians have spread out their attack and are going after villages all over the province. I spent the evening with a bunch of photographers here talking about what was going on. The Russians will never win there, of course. The Chechens will fight them for years. They fought for 300 years in earlier centuries, and they will fight that long again. If the Russians do subdue Grozny, so what? They'll never be able to install a government that will be acceptable to the Chechen people. It will always be a puppet regime like the Russians supported in Afghanistan. Obviously the Russians will have to come to a political solution, probably soon, as well, because as the soldiers continue to die, tolerance for the war will go down and Yeltsin will lose risking next year's elections. The Chechens will have won their independence, it's the only way, but at what a cost. And the only thing the Russians have earned is the undying enmity of the Caucas' people. Not a good start to a new nation.

David

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