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Eyewitness to Samashki

A group of Chechen women were enthusiastically playing dolls. But the doll they were dressing up was me, a deputy in the Russian parliament who is more than 55 years old. Later, disguised as an old Chechen woman overcome by grief and leaning heavily on the arms of two young women, I passed unnoticed by an Interior Ministry checkpoint and entered the town of Samashki. It was the morning of April 12, just two days after Russian Interior Ministry forces finished their "mopping up" operation in the village. In their wake, the Russian troops left about 100 civilian dead.

I have visited the war zone in Chechnya six times. I have also been in a number of other war zones in the Caucasus over the years. I have much experience with which to compare what I saw in Samashki.

On May 7, 1991, when I was a People's Deputy of the Russian Federation of the Soviet Union, I was in an Armenian village called Voskepar when an operation called "The Ring" was carried out under a decree by then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev which called for the disarmament of "illegal armed formations." Immediately after an ultimatum to disarm was broadcast over loudspeakers, Soviet forces began shelling the village. I was convinced that when I emerged from my shelter, everything would be destroyed. But I was amazed to see that only the outskirts of the village had been hit and only those civilians who had tried to take cover in the woods had been killed. After the shelling, troops should have moved in, but they did not -- perhaps because of my presence.

A week earlier Soviet troops had, under similar circumstances, massacred civilians in the villages of Ghetashen and Martunashen. Those who doubt whether the operation at Samashki was preplanned would do well to study the history of these villages.

I am always skeptical when local residents tell me that they were completely unarmed and helpless. And this was a story many told me in Samashki. Others, however, admitted that the Russian troops suffered casualties and I was showed a burned-out tank and the uniform of a dead soldier. Everyone I spoke to, though, confirmed that any organized force attached to Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev's general staff had been withdrawn from Samashki several days before the Russian arrived.

Bearing in mind the scale of the present war, the Interior Ministry's reported casualties of 15 Russian soldiers dead in Samashki must be considered minimal. Whenever Dudayev's forces have offered serious resistance, the fighting has been extremely intense. Russian forces have had to resort to concentrated artillery and air strikes, destroying everything in order to dislodge the resistance. When I was in Grozny on Jan. 2, I counted more than 30 destroyed Russian armored vehicles on the square near the railroad station. The air was full of the odor of burnt flesh, and the corpses of Russian soldiers were everywhere.

In contrast, what I saw in Samashki on April 12 did not remind me of a battlefield. The first thing that struck me as I entered the village was the lack of signs of artillery fire or air strikes, although outside observers had reported a massive bombardment. It turned out that the shells had fallen in the area around the village. Just like Voskepar.

Any soldier will tell you that experienced fighters are not frightened by artillery attacks if they are in secure positions or if the shells are falling in the distance. Such an experience, I can tell you firsthand, is only terrifying the first time one lives through it. It would be absurd to think that Dudayev's fighters could be chased out of the village by such a tactic. Clearly, the purpose of the attack was to sow panic among the local residents, and in this it succeeded.

All the destruction within the village was localized along those streets where Russian forces passed. The buildings had not been hit by artillery; they had been set ablaze. Many homes had been completely looted. Carpets, dishes, books, clothing and linen, radios and more had all disappeared, loaded onto trucks and taken away.

Locals told me how Russian soldiers had thrown hand grenades into basements where families were hiding. I was told how men were shot as their wives and children watched, and how two veterans of World War II were thrown into a burning building. They, at least, had been shot dead before being burned; others, including a 17-year-old girl, were burned alive by flamethrowers. Four ethnic Russian men who lived in the village were also shot. Other men were accused of supporting Dudayev and taken to filtration camps. Some of them were shot along the roadside.

As for reports of drug use by Russian troops, I was told that representatives of the International Red Cross, who had been in the village the day before I was, had gathered up a number of syringes and capsules that were found in the streets and in the houses where Interior Ministry troops had stayed. I myself found only a couple of syringes and one capsule of a drug called Promedol, an antishock pain-reliever that is common in military first-aid kits. Residents told me that they had seen Russian soldiers injecting themselves openly.

It is amazing that Russian officials have yet to report that a single weapon was confiscated at Samashki. All those who were detained were later released without being charged. So far, the names of 96 people who died that day have been identified, including several women. When I was there, I saw only seven unburied corpses, but there were a large number of graves in people's gardens. According to Chechen traditions, the dead are buried quickly, but they are never forgotten.

Anatoly Shabad is a deputy in the State Duma from Russia's Choice. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.

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