Russia's War Hits Home: Bombings Rock the Urban Heartland, and the Trail Seems to Lead to Islamic Insurgents in the Remote Caucasus Region. Suddenly, Nobody Feels Safe

Newsweek, September 27, 1999 | Go to article overview

Russia's War Hits Home: Bombings Rock the Urban Heartland, and the Trail Seems to Lead to Islamic Insurgents in the Remote Caucasus Region. Suddenly, Nobody Feels Safe


Yekaterina Chaborina, a retired 71-year-old widow, had trouble sleeping last Monday night. At around 4 in the morning, she was puttering around her small apartment in a neighborhood south of central Moscow. Then there was a noise unlike any she had ever heard, a deafening thunderclap that blew out the windows in her apartment and knocked her to the floor. Dazed, she gathered herself and raced to see what had happened. Next door, where an eight-story concrete apartment building stood just an instant earlier, there was now just a huge smoldering pile of ash and rubble. "And not even that much rubble," she said later. "I lived through [World War II] and the Nazi invasion," Chaborina recalled as she placed a note of remembrance at a makeshift memorial at the site where 119 of her neighbors were killed, "but I have never seen anything like this."

Russia's latest war has hit home, with a ferocity that has stunned and frightened the citizens of both the capital and its far-flung regions. It is a war most Russians thought had ended three years ago, with a humbling truce in the breakaway Islamic Republic of Chechnya. But the conflict revived last month, when Chechen-led rebels invaded neighboring Dagestan. They quickly withdrew after being pounded by Russian warplanes and artillery, only to invade again early this month. On Sept. 4, a bomb ripped through a Russian apartment building in Dagestan (map). The explosion appeared to be the start of a sophisticated, and ruthlessly executed, terrorist campaign. Three deadly bombings followed--two in Moscow, and one in the southern city of Volgodonsk. In all, nearly 300 people were killed in 16 days of terror. And the security services braced for more.

The authorities blamed Islamic extremists from the Caucasus region for the blasts and rounded up thousands of dark-skinned Chechens, ordering them, in effect, to go back to Chechnya. Police identified two men as ringleaders of the bombing campaign: a Chechen named Achemes Gochiyayev and an Uzbek, Denis Saitakov. Officials said Gochiyayev rented storage space in both of the Moscow apartment buildings that were blown up. But neither man was in custody. Security forces did arrest two other suspects, both Chechens; traces of ex- plosive were said to have been found on their persons or in their homes. One of the suspects said on Russian television: "They haven't found a thing, not a thing. It is a complete fabrication." So far, no one had claimed responsibility for most of the bombings, though a previously unknown group calling itself the Dagestan Liberation Army said it had directed one of the Moscow attacks. Chechen leaders insisted they had no connection to any bombings.

For Boris Yeltsin--ailing, aging and now in the last year of his presidency--the blasts are a disaster. The Russian economy is a mess, and allegations of massive corruption dog him and his government. Now, for Russia's beleaguered citizenry (particularly the 10 million Muscovites), the most basic sense of security--that they can go to bed at night reasonably assured of waking up the next morning--is all but gone. "We know the name of the enemy," Yeltsin said, "and it is terrorism."

The Russian president is so weak--and the political environment so vicious--that the bombings triggered wild speculation. Some rumors said the bombs were set on behalf of politicians who want to succeed Yeltsin. Others said the attacks were designed to provoke a state of emergency that would allow Yeltsin to step down in favor of Vladimir Putin, his prime minister--and designated successor--of the moment. Still other rumors said Yeltsin would fire Putin, replace him with Aleksandr Lebed, the former general who negotiated the Chechen truce, and then cancel scheduled parliamentary and presidential elections.

There was not a shred of evidence for any of the conspiracy theories. That left Moscow confronting a more likely, and equally bleak, reality: a conflict with Islamic rebels has now spawned a terror campaign that has no precedent in modern Russia. …

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