Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Samashki: Belief and Betrayal in a Chechen Town at War

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Samashki: Belief and Betrayal in a Chechen Town at War

Article excerpt

I just got back from a curious triangular project involving the Russian-American Press and Information Center in Moscow, the Center for War, Peace and the News Media in New York, associated with the journalism school there, and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London. I do not know how they all managed to find each other, but they came up with what sounded to me like the most insane project I had ever heard of--finding two young journalists from Ingushetian and Ossetian television, and getting them to work together on a joint venture film about their mutual conflict, which would be then be simultaneously broadcast in both republics. But they had to find somebody foolish enough to come in and be the mediator, and my name came up.

Well, I nearly killed the project because I thought it was just so stupid. But I needed the money, so I took it on and flew off to Moscow to meet the organizers. There I was told that if we could get the two groups even working together, we could call it "training," and it would be a success. Well, I did not like the sound of that at all, because I like "product." But things were set, so I flew down to Nazran, met the two teams, and we started working--meaning I started knocking heads, I guess. Because the remarkable thing was that at the end of the day, when we got to St. Petersburg to edit the piece, we actually had come up with a small documentary that was not only acceptable to both parties involved, but acceptable to me, too, in the sense that I want to show it to you all. Sadly, I have not had the voicing done on it yet, so I will have to torture you and read the script as it goes along, but you will get a good idea about what happened.

I am actually quite proud of it. I showed it at the Association for the Study of Nationalities conference at Columbia University last Thursday night [April 24]. Everybody seemed to be very pleased with it. I showed it yesterday at New York University, and the response was the same. While I have done my fair share of reporting on war and ethnic conflicts, this is the first time I have worked on a project involving post-conflict resolution, actually getting people to work together. As I say, I went into it with great trepidation and doubt, but it actually ended up being very successful from my point of view.

The primary thing that I want to share with you today is my most recent video on Chechnya, which I put together for the BBC. It concerns my return to the town of Samashki. It might help to provide some background information.

In early 1995, I was subcontracted to ABC to produce a documentary for Nightline on the "Chechen spirit." I traveled alone, as I prefer to do when I work as a TV reporter. It may be more dangerous, but you get a lot more things done. I went in illegally from Azerbaijan, through what I call "the pipeline," up through Dagestan and then into Chechnya.

By purest chance, I ended up in a town called Samashki. At first, I wondered what the hell I was doing there, because the war was in Grozny and elsewhere, and Samashki seemed rather quiet. Then I took a look around and I said, "This place is Grover's Comers a la Chechnya." So I stayed and started to work, while things got more and more intense, and the security situation began to seriously deteriorate. After several weeks, I thought I had enough material; so I left and managed to get out of Chechnya, via Dagestan to Azerbaijan, once more via the smugglers' pipeline, doing lots of fun things like walking through minefields in the middle of the night. Actually, I was caught on the border by the Russian guards. My bribe was not big enough the first time, and they refused to take the second, so I had to find other means across.

When I arrived back in Baku I sent the tapes, but the agency I was working for said they wanted more material. I flew to Moscow to get legal accreditation, and then went back to Samashki, which was by that time surrounded. …

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