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The War in Chechnya: Diary of a Killer | The Sunday Times

November 5, 2010

Sunday Times (UK)
October 31, 2010
The war in Chechnya: Diary of a killer
By Mark Franchetti

‘The female suicide bombers were drugged and kept smiling at us. They were
executed and their bodies blown up. They got what they’d craved.’

This man was a senior officer with Russia’s elite Spetsnaz special forces. He
has risked everything to give the reporter Mark Franchetti this disturbing
diary: a chilling record of executions, torture, revenge and despair during 20
tours in Chechnya.

The war in Chechnya was one of the world’s most brutal conflicts. Both sides
committed unspeakable atrocities. Islamic rebels decapitated Russian prisoners
and carried out a wave of shocking terrorist attacks against civilians,
including women and school children.

The Russians abducted, tortured and executed suspected militants in
extra-judicial killings – brazenly violating Russian and international law. Up
to one hundred thousand people, mostly civilians, are thought to have died in
the region’s two conflicts. At least five thousand Chechens simply disappeared.

The war was as difficult to cover as it was savage. Access was severely
restricted, especially on the Russian side where the most controversial,
dangerous and secret work was carried out by the Spetznaz – Russia’s elite
special-forces units. Made of up hardened professional soldiers who specialize
in black ops, these highly secretive units were the backbone of Russia’s war
effort.

This deeply personal diary was penned during the war by a senior Spetznaz
officer who served nearly twenty tours of duty in Chechnya’s second campaign,
which was launched by Vladimir Putin in late 1999 and declared officially over
only last year.

Nothing like it has ever been published before. Written over several years, it
is a unique first hand account of the war as waged by one man and his unit. It
does not claim to be a historical overview of the Chechen war. It is his story.

Raw, remarkably frank and hard hitting, these extracts offer an unprecedented
and chilling insight into the brutality of Chechnya’s dirty war.

The terrifying world he paints – both with shocking detachment and sharp emotion
– is one of appalling cruelty, despair and suffering; a world of demons in which
he struggles to retain what is left of his humanity and sanity.

The author wrote over a ten year period, at times nearly every day, others every
few months. The following extracts were penned at the height of the second war,
between early 2000 and late 2004. To protect the author from retribution, his
identity, as well as names of people, places and dates, have been withheld.

———

SOON off to Chechnya. I feel foreboding and apprehension. Our unit has sustained
the first casualties. Our column was attacked. The Chechens set fire to our boys
as they sat concussed in their armored personnel carrier (APC). The column’s
commander was shot in the head. That’s how Chechnya’s second war kicked off for
our unit. I readied myself and already knew what awaited us.
***
Rebels hiding on rooftops suddenly fired at us from a heavy machine gun. Bullets
whizzed by rhythmically over my head as I threw myself to the ground. The boys
fired back to cover me as I crawled. We did everything instinctively. I wanted
to live. We hit back with heavy firepower and managed to retreat.

It was my first firefight. It was scary. Only idiots wouldn’t be scared. Fear is
a self-preservation instinct, it helps you survive. Just as crucial are the men
at your side.

We took up position on the edge of a settlement and slept outdoors on wood
planks in the snow. It was below zero and windy. One becomes accustomed to
everything and can survive pretty much anywhere, it’s down to training and
strength of character. There was firing at night. We slept in turns.
***
Into another settlement. Locals stared at us with hatred and anger. We moved
towards the local hospital where rebels had taken up position a day earlier.
There’d been a firefight. The road was littered with body parts and covered in
blood. On the way locals told us of a Russian soldier, a prisoner the rebels had
left behind when they moved on. They’d broken his legs and hands to stop him
from escaping.

Our troops had seized the hospital. We were ordered to guard a group of some
thirty wounded rebels who’d been crammed in the basement. The wounded stared at
me with such hatred when I went down there that I felt trigger-happy.

Back outside, two women begged me to release one of the wounded. I’m not quite
sure why I agreed to let him go. I could have executed him there and then. But I
felt sorry for the women. The fact that the locals had pointed us to our wounded
soldier also influenced me. The women couldn’t stop thanking me and stuffed cash
into my hands. I took it but it then weighed heavily on my mind because I felt
guilty towards our lads who’d died.

After a while justice ministry soldiers came to take away the wounded prisoners.
It wasn’t pretty. They dragged them out, stripped them naked and crammed them
into a truck. Some prisoners walked on their own, others were beaten and dragged
out by force.

One Chechen who’d lost both feet stumbled out on his own, walking on his stumps.
After a few steps he fainted and collapsed to the ground. The soldiers beat him,
stripped him naked, and threw him into the truck. I didn’t feel sorry for the
prisoners. It was just an unpleasant sight.
***
We’ve encircled a settlement, digging up positions in a field. Snow, dirt and
slush. We froze but spent the night in foxholes. In the morning we moved into
the village, carefully clearing each house on the way, weapons at the ready.

Soon we were caught in a fierce gun battle, bullets flying everywhere. Our
scouts were cut off. The Chechens launched an assault. We came under very heavy
fire but mowed them down like Germans in 1941. One of our snipers, a close
comrade, ran over to us. He said he’d killed several rebels, grabbed more ammo
and ran back to his position. The rebels moved back a bit and started firing at
us with rocket propelled grenade launchers and heavy machine guns.

Suddenly my mate the sniper crawled back. He’d been hit in the head and chest.
He had left behind another soldier who’d been shot in the legs but was still
firing back. My friend fell into my arms. “Please brother, save me, I’m
dying,”he whispered before going quiet. I gave him an injection of powerful
painkillers, “you’ll be fine,” I said. “You still have to see the day when
you’ll buy me a drink to celebrate your discharge.”

I ripped off his flak jacket and ordered two of our men to carry him to a nearby
house where our boys had dug in. But as they ran in between houses they were
sprayed with machine gun fire. One was hit in the leg, the other in the hand. My
friend who was being carried was hit everywhere. The two wounded crawled back to
me, leaving him on the ground. I and another soldier kept firing back from
behind a burning house.

Our men covered us as we struggled to get the wounded out. We still needed to go
back for our mate, the sniper. We ran back, grabbed him and crawled over a
fence. As we dragged ourselves to safety one of the men covering us was hit in
the neck. He collapsed to the ground, splattered in blood. We evacuated all the
wounded with an APC and rushed back to fight on. As we later found out, my
friend didn’t make it.

The next day we went back into the settlement, passing the house where we’d been
pinned down, where our boys died. The ground was covered in blood, empty
cartridges and torn flak jackets. Hidden in a field were the bodies of several
rebels.

In the basement of a house we found several wounded rebel mercenaries, all
Russians fighting us for money. They screamed and shouted, begging us not to
kill them because they have family and kids back home. So what? As if by
contrast we’d come from an orphanage into this sh-thole. We executed them all.
***
Night, on the outskirts of the settlement. We slept in fox holes next to another
unit which had lost seven men that day. I pulled out some vodka and we sat by a
camp fire to dry. We drank in silence and remembered the dead.

The other unit told us that one of their men had been killed in front of his
twin brother who instead of losing it had fought on. The truth is that the
bravery of those who fought in Chechnya isn’t valued.

I was once struck by the words of an idiot of a Russian general who was asked
why the families of the crew who died aboard the nuclear submarine Kursk were
paid generous compensation whilst those of soldiers killed in Chechnya are still
waiting.

“Because the Kursk deaths were unexpected whereas those in Chechnya are
foreseen,” he said. So, we’re cannon fodder. There are plenty of f*****s like
him in the army’s top echelons.

We pulled out of the settlement at night. The whole place was on fire. Another
village razed to the ground. I felt bleak inside at what I had seen. The rebels
lost 168 men in that battle.

***
As darkness fell I got so cold I could hardly pull my frozen hands out of my
pockets. One of the lads got out a flask of pure alcohol to warm ourselves up.
We had to dilute it so I sent two men to fetch water. Suddenly they came face to
face with a group of about fifteen rebels, some 30 meters away.

Everyone froze. I quickly woke up the lads. The enemy fell to the ground as did
we, everyone waiting to see who’d fire first. Time stopped. One of us let off a
round from a heavy caliber machine gun and all hell went loose. The firefight
lasted an hour.

We blasted at the rebels from an APC and a tank. They sustained heavy
casualties. In the dark our tank got disorientated and fired just as I was
running towards it. The blast threw me to the ground, leaving me concussed. The
lads dragged me back. It took me a good twenty minutes to regain my senses. The
Chechens hit the tank with an RPG.

The scene the next morning was bad. There were blood trails everywhere marking
where the rebels had dragged their dead and wounded. There were body parts
strewn across the ground. We ran over to gather trophies, automatic rifles, RPGs
and ammo vests. Machine gunfire broke out followed by hand grenade blasts. Our
lads had encircled a group of wounded rebels. Hiding with them were two able
bodied Chechens who blew themselves up with the wounded to escape capture.
***
Back at our unit’s base many beds became empty, marked with candles and pictures
of the lads. I felt grim inside. Our lads were dead whilst we’d survived. All
that’s left are memories. Death had snapped its teeth and grabbed at will. At
times I get used to the thought that one day my time will come.

Crossing a settlement. Our commander told us to move faster but we got hit from
two sides. We moved ahead, taking cover behind a row of houses and could hear a
firefight just ahead. Suddenly my eye caught some shadows, one behind a window,
the other at the entrance of a basement. Mechanically, I lobbied a hand grenade
into the cellar and sprayed the window with machine gunfire. When we walked up
to check on the outcome we found two bodies, an old man and a woman. Bad luck.

A rebel’s voice came onto the walkie-talkie of one of our commanders. Allah is
almighty, it said, and knows whose side truth is on in this war. At once we knew
the commander had been killed.

For days we had a large group of rebels trapped inside a settlement. We’d
encircled them. Several times they tried but failed to break through our lines
and get out. Our lads severed ears and noses off the dead bodies of rebels
killed in the fighting. They were loosing their mind as a result of what they
were living through.
***
Got back to our base, filthy and exhausted but happy because our six months tour
was coming to an end. The thought of going home softened the pain we had
accumulated during our deployment. Got back, relaxed with three shots of vodka
and started packing. Longing to see my child and wife.

Early in the morning a lieutenant-general came to hand me and another officer a
medal for a black ops we’d carried out. It took us by surprise. We set off on
the long way home, medal pinned to our chest. On the train my friend and I
dropped the medals into a glass of vodka to inaugurate them. We drank the third
toast in memory of our dead. This tour had taken too heavy a toll.
***
Home for a month. After all I’d been through I started to drink heavily. My wife
and I rowed often. Although she was pregnant at the time, I’d just loose it, big
time. I didn’t know what would happen to me on my next tour of duty. One of the
lads stayed with me. We’d drink and go off the wall. I didn’t even try to stop.
Something burst inside me and I began to be cold and indifferent about
everything.

I spent less and less time at home. My wife got more and more upset. We’d argue
and she’d cry so much I couldn’t calm her down anymore. It was a tough time,
full of contradictions, emotions, arguments and anxiety.

The last day before leaving on my next deployment I went drinking with one of
the lads till the early hours of the morning. I stumbled back home at 7am, one
and a half hour before setting off back to the war. As soon as I opened the door
my wife slapped me in the face. She’d been up waiting all night.

In silence I picked up my bags and left for the train without even saying good
bye. On the train the lads drank. I lay on my berth and tried to come to terms
with what had been happening to me. I felt pain and sadness inside. But you
can’t turn the clock back and put the past right. That made it even harder.
***
On the road back to damned, bloodied Chechnya. First by train then on the back
of an APC. Winter, snow and freezing cold. On the way we spent a night at an
army barracks. They put us up in the gym. We crashed out on the floor in our
sleeping bags. We made a cocktail; 50 gr of pure alcohol, 200gr of beer and 50gr
of pickle. It warmed us up good.

It went to the head of some of the lads and a fight broke out. It was hard to
get up the next morning but we psyched ourselves up in the yard and one of the
lads fired a heavy machine gun into the air. The soldiers stationed at the
barracks looked astonished at such shenanigans. They’d never seen anything like
it and would clearly remember our brief stopover for some time. That’s how a
true spetznas should behave.

Counter intelligence got wind of a group of female suicide bombers. We stormed
their safe house and nabbed three women. One was in her forties, the others
young, one barely 15. They were drugged out and kept smiling at us. The three
were interrogated back at the base. At first the elder, a recruiter of female
shahidki, wouldn’t talk. That changed when she was roughed up and given electric
shots.

They were then executed and their bodies blown up to get rid of the evidence. So
in the end they got what they’d craved for.
***
Our unit lost too many men. During our first four months some 30 of our lads
died and 80 were wounded. The hardest was to look into the eyes of the mothers
of the dead. Because it’s impossible to answer the question, why are you still
alive while their son is gone.

I stepped into the tent of another unit. The lads had piled up on a table
several torn flak jackets, masks and helmets covered in dry blood and dirt and
wax from burning candles. A bleak scene.

Suddenly a cat which lived with us started furiously scratching one of the table
legs and fresh blood drops hit the floor, even though the blood on the flak
jackets was dry. “The lads are giving us s sign,” said one of the boys. It was
an uncanny moment. The soldier pulled out a bottle of vodka and we drank to
remember the dead. I stumbled back to my unit.
***
4am start. Heavy rain. Off to pick up a rebel runner who’s been detained, a
young Chechen, no more than 15 years. We tortured him. I shot at him, putting
him through a mock execution by shooting next to his head. He quickly gave up
his fellow rebels. He told us everything he knew, pointing us to their training
camp, an arms depot and named several rebels.

Swiftly we went back to base with a second Chechen we’d nabbed. After we
tormented him, he too spilled the beans, pointing us to several rebel safe
houses. We acted on the intel at once and went to the home of three Chechen
brothers who’d been behind a series of blasts. They spotted us as we approached
and began sprinting across orchards.

As our men stormed the house, one of the lads sprayed gunfire into the night at
the fleeing Chechens. One of the brothers was gunned down, one we caught. The
third got away. We picked up the dead body without anyone seeing us and quickly
went back to base where a crowd of protesters had already gathered.

At the base information was beaten out of the detained Chechens with rough
methods. It was decided to literally wipe the dead rebel off the face of the
earth by blowing him up.

We passed on all the information gathered to military intelligence. I was tired
and starving. Fell asleep at around 2am. I sat drinking with one of the lads.
Relaxed a little but not for long.

Ordered up at 4.30 am. We had to pulverize the dead Chechen, very early to avoid
witnesses. We wrapped him in cellophane and took him to a ridge where we dumped
him into a pit filled with mud and dirt from marshlands.

I placed a kilo of TNT on his face and another between his legs and walked about
thirty meters away. I connected the wire. A big blast followed. The corpse’s
stench hung in the air but there was no trace of blood. I felt no emotions
whatsoever. That’s how people go missing.
****

Most of all I always felt sorry for our boys. So many losses, so much pain. At
times you start to have doubts, and ask yourself if all this isn’t in vain.
What’s the point? Our motherland won’t forget us but is doesn’t value us. In
Chechnya now everyone’s against us – the law, Russia, our prosecutors. On paper
the war’s over but our lads keep dying there.

Going back home didn’t become any easier. The day my second child was born I was
so overwhelmed I went out to celebrate with the lads and lost all sense of time.
I got to the maternity ward three days later. My wife was very upset. She asked
me to go buy some medicines and I vanished for another day. But when they
finally came home and I held my new born in my arms I was happy.
***
Called to back up one of our units which had trapped a large group of rebels.
The Chechens fought back hard but were in a bad way. We heard them on the radio
asking for reinforcements. “Ready yourself to become martyrs,” came the answer.
“We’re not ready,” they replied. “Well then only Allah can help you,” concluded
their fellow rebels.

Sent to the scene of a firefight and a powerful blast. An APC had run over an
improvised explosive device (IED). Five guys died and four were wounded. We went
to look at the dead, laid out on a helicopter landing pad. We stood in silence,
each one of us had his own thoughts. Death was somewhere nearby.

The war has become much fiercer. We used to see the enemy and knew who we fired
at. Now we wait to be shot at. All around us is treachery. And in this dirty war
of course it’s the blood of ordinary soldiers, not that of the politicians who
started it, which is spilled. They’re even scamming us out of our war zone
wages. And yet we keep carrying out these stupid orders, and keep coming back
for more tours of duty. Each one of us has his own reasons.
***
Two FSB officers (equivalent of MI5) and two guys from ALPHA’s elite anti
terrorism unit have been killed. It’s a big deal. Our unit is sent to the
village where they were gunned down. Two days of tough house to house mopping up
operations followed. At night we brought several Chechens to a detention camp
where the guys from the Justice Ministry worked them hard to extract intel. The
bodies of the FSB officers were found two days later. They had been mutilated,
probably under torture.

Got back to base where they told us that a bridge we’d just crossed had been
heavily mined but the timer had failed.

It’s my child’s birthday today. I’d like to be together but I’m far away. I
promised my darling I’d get a parrot as a present but it will have to wait until
I get back home. I miss my child terribly. I know the little one is waiting for
daddy to come home. Once I saw how it was praying for me. It moved me deeply.

We sat down for dinner. There was a burst of gunfire. One of our soldiers had
shot another who was wondering at night without knowing the password. He had a
hole the size of a fist in his stomach and was airlifted by chopper. Not sure if
he’ll make it.

The war is starting to baffle me. We are shooting at our own. At times it seems
absurd and pointless, a real mess. In the evening I looked at my medal. It’s
rewarding of course. And nice when they give you credit. Slept badly. The
artillery pounded the mountains all night.
***
Out on a mopping-up raid. Swiftly detained two at the first house we were sent
to. Their women made a big scene and a crowd gathered in the street, but we were
gone in no time and handed over the two at a nearby detention camp.

We set off to raid another house, took two Chechens, one young the other
elderly. Not far from the detention camp, we put sacks on their head and chucked
them out of the APC. The lads beat the hell out of them. Later handed them over
to intelligence.
***
I’m thinking of my family. I want to go home and hug them all, fool around,
especially with my wife. But for now it’s all in my dreams. Recently I’m craving
more and more to do DIY and carry out ordinary household chores to take my mind
off all this sh-t.

We are sent off to a base where a soldier had lost it, shot dead two officers, a
policeman and fled. We stopped to wash up in a river. Went looking for the
soldier but another unit got to him before us. He’d been gunned down. Arsehole.
What was he thinking?

On the road the lad driving our APC rammed all Chechen cars in our path. At
least on the road we laid down the law and made every one fear us.

My child once asked me to bring back a donkey as a present. At first I laughed
but then thought why not? As a deployment neared its end I got a Chechen to find
me a small one for a little money. With the lads we pumped it with heavy pain
killers to keep it calm and loaded it onto our train in the ammo carriage.

At a checkpoint on the way home a general is checking our column’s paperwork
when the donkey starts braying like crazy. What the f***’s going on? he said. At
first his jaws dropped when we opened up but then he was in hysterics. After a
few hundred miles, got home, barely managed to cram the animal into a car and
delivered it to my child. Everyone was astonished. Mission accomplished.
***
I had a bad feeling about this raid from the very start. That night there was a
violent thunderstorm, our tent was flooded and crawling with rats. It was as if
nature was telling, lads, sit tight, stay in tonight.

We set off by APC in pitch dark on a mopping up raid. Quickly surrounded our
target, a house inside a village, but as we readied to storm it we were fired at
from behind us. We’d been set up. One of the lads was hit. He was in a bad way,
with a big exit wound next to his heart. We rushed him back on the APC.

Our commander had deceived us. A Chechen who’d promised him several AK47s had
talked him into helping him settle a blood feud. There were no rebels in the
house he’d sent us to raid.

We found another of our men dead next to the house. When the firing had started
he’d pushed me aside and lunged ahead. That’s when he was hit, in the head and
spine. He’d saved my life. On the radio we heard that our wounded friend had
also died. I went numb inside. My sixth sense had not failed me.

When we got back to base the lads lay in body bags on the landing strip. I
opened one, grabbed my friend’s hand and said “sorry.” Our boss didn’t even
bother to say farewell to the boys. He was blind drunk. I hated him in that
moment. He never gave a damn about the boys, just used them to pursue his
career. He later even tried to blame me for the bungled raid. F***er. Sooner or
later he’ll pay for his sins.

We were sent to retrieve a heavy machine gun a detained Chechens had left behind
during a firefight. We couldn’t find it. Enraged I beat him up. He fell to his
knees and cried, saying he couldn’t remember where he’d thrown the weapon. We
tied him to the APC with a rope and dragged him around.
***
I often think of the future. How much more suffering awaits us? How long can we
go on for? What for? Maybe I should think of my own life, start living for my
family, my children my wife, who deserves a memorial for all the pain I’ve put
her through. I’m 31. Maybe it’s time to unwind. I want some peace and quiet, a
little domestic warmth and comfort. I’ll get there.
***
Another year has passed. A tough one. I lost four of my closest brothers in
arms. People who were by my side. Now they’re gone for good.

Our unit has a new commander. We don’t get on. I’ve learnt that often it’s
easier to fight with the enemy shooting at you than with the enemy within your
own ranks. Gave 14 years of my life to the spetznaz, lost much and many close
comrades, for what? Deep down I’m left with pain and a sense that I was wronged.

My many good memories are only of the lads who really put their life on the line
for the unit. It’s a shame you can’t go back and put some things right. All I
can do is try to avoid the same mistakes and do my best to live normally.

My service in the spetznaz is over. The unit gave me a lot and took much away.
I’m left with many memories.

These days I think a lot about my life, about my actions. The older you get the
more you think about such things. I leave these pages behind. My life is in
them. I regret one thing – that maybe, had I acted differently during a
firefight, some of the lads would still be alive today.

(http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/Magazine/Features/article425814.ece)

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