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Forgotten Russians in Chechnya bitter

Published Sep. 1, 2000|Updated Sep. 27, 2005

The grief that swept across Russia when 118 sailors died in a submarine accident left Denis Kolpakov and the rest of his platoon in Chechnya baffled and bitter.

"Everyone is grieving for the sailors. As for us, no one gives a damn," said Kolpakov, a 19-year old sergeant, his weather-beaten face twisted by emotion. "Two weeks ago, our company lost 14 men and who mourned for them? A colonel shouted at us and said it was our own fault."

Across Chechnya, soldiers seem angry and confused about why Russians were shattered by the loss of the sailors but say nothing about the thousands of soldiers who have been killed and wounded in fighting during the past year in the rebel republic.

Sgt. Nikolai Terekhov, 20, echoed the opinion of many comrades when he said the loss of the sailors on the Kursk submarine was no different from the toll of a week of fighting in Chechnya.

When word came of the Kursk, Terekhov and the other men in his unit drank toasts to the dead sailors. But mainly they mourned their own dead and talked about whether any of them would ever leave Chechnya alive.

"Every day, I only think about saving my own life and the lives of my friends," Terekhov said. "The submarine disaster seemed somewhat distant."

The war in Chechnya has strong support among Russians who see it as a necessary response to the lawlessness and violence that spilled out of the southern republic after it gained de facto independence in 1996. Russian forces returned to occupy Chechnya last autumn.

While it has seized much of the republic, the Russian military has failed to defeat the rebels. Some 2,700 soldiers have been killed and many more wounded in the past year, according to official statistics.

And while their generals claim that the war is all but won, the soldiers face a desperate daily struggle for survival. Every night brings Chechen mortar and sniper attacks. Russian armored personnel carriers and trucks are ambushed in remote areas or devastated by bombs hidden by the roadside.

"For half a year, I have never been sure whether I would be alive tomorrow," said 20-year-old Sgt. Andrei Dementyev.

Russians were outraged by their government's initial indifference to the plight of the sailors on the Kursk, which was lost Aug. 12 in the Barents Sea. The anger mounted as it became apparent that the rescue effort was being bungled and offers of help from the West were initially rebuffed.

Unlike the Kursk, which got huge media attention in Russia, the war in Chechnya has stayed mostly out of the media spotlight, partly because of public indifference. And after a botched 1994-1996 war in Chechnya, the government has tightly controlled information and sought to downplay losses.

"If you count the boys who died here, the entire nation should be mourning for a year without stopping," said Sgt. Igor Khapov, 20. "But no one cares for us, nor pays us honor when we die. The commanders think that it's our job to die here."


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