"So it’s profitable for someone ..." was the only standard answer to any question we asked. "Why are battles going on in this part of Grozny?" "Why do the underground oil rocking machines continue to work during the bombings?" "Why do Chechens buy weapon the military? "
- So, - an elderly Chechen on the outskirts of Samashki or a young pimply conscript soldier at the checkpoint equally shrugged his shoulders, rolled his eyes up and pointedly raised a finger. - So, it is beneficial to someone ...
This phrase, I think, then became the main symbol of Yeltsin's Russia. She allowed to explain any event and at the same time show herself as a person who knows the secret springs of making all decisions. Although in reality nobody knew about it.
And one more phrase accompanied us from the very first day in Chechnya. "You only tell the truth!" - both Russians and Chechens shouted to us, all we had to do was to slow down and open the car door.
Journalist Chris Booth (far right) with his Associated Press colleagues. Terrible, 1995
For a business trip we got a dark cherry "Niva". The Associated Press news agency shared with us large stickers with its logo, which we immediately placed on the doors and hood of the car.
Another decoration was the huge letters of the TV, personally cut from electrical tape. At first, we were proud of the product of this, but then it turned out that the Latin abbreviation of the news agency was read in Russian, like "A" and "P", so in response to the question "Where are you from?" we usually reported that we were working for Armenian Radio.
Oddly enough, this explanation suited almost everyone. In the 1995 year, both Russians and Chechens fully admitted that a station with the same name could operate in Yerevan, which sent the Englishman and Tatar to cover this war with a large professional television camera.
By the way, about a hank of wide electrical tape, from which we cut the letters, it must be said separately. At that time it was the main tool, so that in the trunks of any television group and in the trunk of each car that the journalists used, you could always find a pair of skeins of this tape.
With its help they repaired the broken equipment, used instead of bandages and bandages. But first, be sure to paste over their cars with the words PRESS and TV.
This practice ended somewhere in the middle between the first and second Chechen wars. Local gangsters then with all their might engaged in human trafficking, and the journalists turned into almost the main object of abduction.
So the TV inscription on the car noticeably increased the chances that you would be lost in the area of the mountainous Chechen village, and soon a parcel with a small Hi8 video cassette will be sent to your Moscow office, where your address to your colleagues will be recorded.
One of such cassettes was brought to us in 1997. On dark photography there was an American missionary, overgrown with a beard and completely gray. He had been kept in the basement for a long time, and on the video he asked those who knew him to pay a ransom for him, otherwise he would lose his finger first and then his life. The very next second, without any editing, his little finger was slowly cut off.
The missionary was then released, we recorded an interview with him, but it never fell into news BBC. Shortly afterwards, we received another tape from the North Caucasus, where the Russian soldier’s throat was cut.
This was filmed before the system of automatic stabilization of video shooting was invented, but the camera in the hands of an unknown “operator” never wavered.
The operator with whom I worked was called Vadik, and he was from Astrakhan. We swore quite often, but Vadik hated me especially when I was driving a dark cherry Niva.
The roads in Chechnya at that time were indeed terrible, but some of our colleagues were worse than us. One of the television agencies, for example, decided that “Zhiguli” - “four” would be the best for working in a war.
It was also pasted over with the letters TV, cut out of electrical tape, and in order for the radio to turn on by itself, all that was needed was to slam the door harder.
Traveling along the Chechen roads for two years, I considered myself a great expert on war behavior. And only a few years later, during a special course in London for journalists working in hot spots, I was surprised to learn that the knowledge that I was so proud of was completely useless and was taken by me from American film fighters.
As it turned out, a car door, for example, behind which we so often hid from shelling, does not at all protect against bullets. After listening to my history about the flight from the area of the cannery, which covered with artillery fire, the instructor on the courses asked if I really had to turn around the car seven times in order to leave under the fire on the only road. I confessed.
“A car,” the British instructor in a white shirt and tie said reproachfully, “you should always park your nose in the direction of a possible evacuation.” I had to agree with him.
All these instructions, however, did not relate to the news agency Reuters. From the very first day they brought real armored SUVs to Chechnya, so they could safely hide behind the open doors of their cars.
Like any operator, Vadik, if he didn’t grumble about my inability to drive the Niva, I was always looking for a “prettier picture”. At the very beginning of January, in the midst of the battles for Grozny, we decided that it was time to capture at least one battle in all details.
It was almost impossible to enter the city center, so for the filming we chose an unfinished high-rise building on the outskirts. He already had a roof, but there were no stairs, but we somehow managed to climb up.
Vadik barely managed to put the camera on a tripod and began to choose a plan for the first shooting, as we heard a thin whistle, and then the mortar charge exploded a hundred meters from our building.
The next volley was laid just before the entrance of the house, and when the third gap rang out, we already rolled head over heels, not noticing the lack of a ladder.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that the areas between the floors were covered with sleeves and empty magazines from the Dragunov rifle. The unfinished house we chose was apparently chosen by Chechen snipers for a long time, and the mortar gunners knew this very well. Yes, and Vadik with his big camera on a tripod from a distance could easily be mistaken for an arrow with a hand grenade launcher.
We jumped into the car and, after driving a couple of hundred meters, tried to climb onto the roof of another building. But the mortar waited for us here, and the first charge exploded in front of the house as soon as Vadik set up a tripod on the roof.
I had to urgently change the location. We decided to go to Chernorechye, the only district on the outskirts that the Chechens still seemed to be holding back at that time.
"Niva" parked in the courtyard, surrounded by still completely whole "Khrushchev". The artillery cannonade did not stop, the explosions of shells rumbled closer and closer. In the very center of the courtyard, in the children's sandbox, a teenager was digging in silence and with concentration. Women ran around the yard, covering their heads with handkerchiefs.
As they explained to us, the Chechens left the area a few days ago, so that no one knew where and why the army batteries, deployed a few kilometers from Chernorechye, were firing.
We waited for the next artillery attack in the first approaching staircase, and then we just started knocking on all the doors. One of them was opened by a pale as a woman and invited us to enter.
An elderly man was sitting in a wheelchair in the living room. On his jacket glittered medals of a veteran of World War II. At the very beginning of that war, both Russians and Chechens believed that military awards would become additional insurance and protect them if someone breaks into a house.
The man's name was Nikolai. He told us that he was very afraid, and that he had relatives in Kizlyar. His wife (I think her name was Raisa) said that they could not leave at all, because she had very valuable carpets and she did not want to leave them to either the bandits or the soldiers.
These entreaties lasted all the time while we carried Nikolai in his chair down to the Niva parked in the courtyard. On the stairs, I called London, and our editor said that if we remove the whole story, he gives permission to take the family to Kizlyar.
But there were only two of us, and Vadik could not simultaneously carry Nikolai and take pictures. So we immediately forgot about the order of the London editor. Already at the door of the car the veteran burst into tears. He kept telling his wife that the Chechens had left, and now the soldiers will come and kill everyone.
But Raisa insisted on her, convincing him that she could not just throw carpets ... We had to leave. At parting, Nikolai wiped his tears for a long time and waved his hand toward his wife. “This is a fool,” he said quietly. “This is a fool ...”
A few days later we spent the night in Grozny. Everyone was awakened by the roar of airplanes and the frequent crash of rocket gaps. A bunch of journalists, rubbing their eyes with difficulty, ran out into the street.
As it turned out, during the raid several bombs landed in the oil refinery, so that the entire horizon blazed with crimson reflections. A rocket destroyed several houses on the main street of Grozny.
The outer walls collapsed, and it was evident that a man covered with dust had emerged from the wreckage in one of the apartments on the second floor. Behind his back, a Christmas tree was shimmering.
When I returned to Moscow from this trip, an official fax was waiting for me at the office from the press service of the Russian government.
In a paper referring to Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets, it was reported that state structures had begun collecting blankets and food packages and that all this would be delivered to civilians in Chechnya.
In another paragraph, an unidentified press officer clarified that, in reality, residential buildings in the center of Grozny were blown up by militants in order to pass it off as the consequences of air strikes.