The current military campaign in Chechnya started in September 1999. It was sparked by a Chechen armed incursion into the neighboring republic of Dagestan in August and several bombings in Russia in September, which the Russian government blamed on Chechen forces.
After advancing quickly through northern Chechnya, taking several towns without a fight-including Chechnya's second largest city, Gudermes-Russian forces began focusing their offensive on the Chechen capital, Grozny. In November, Russian troops fought hard to encircle the city and cut off supply lines from the south, with towns and villages south of Grozny, including Alkhan-Yurt, the scene of very heavy fighting.
Alkhan-Yurt is located about seven miles south of Grozny, on the strategically vital Baku-Rostov highway, which cuts east-west across Chechnya. It has a peacetime population of about 9,000, and consisted of about 2,000 family compounds.
Because Chechen fighters had their positions on the outskirts of Alkhan-Yurt, most villagers had little contact with them. Both Russian and Chechen sources describe heavy fighting around Alkhan-Yurt, and there is evidence of significant Russian casualties. Chechen fighters based their position on the edge of the village in a group of unfinished houses that they reinforced with trenches, sandbags, and dug-outs. Russian forces tried to storm Alkhan-Yurt on several occasions, but were repeatedly repulsed by rebel troops in the entrenched Chechen positions. Russian casualties in the assaults were high, and several witnesses from Alkhan-Yurt reported being told that one Russian division had suffered more than seventy casualties. One witness told Human Rights Watch: "There was heavy fighting. From the words of the commander of the division, they lost seventy-two troops and about ten tanks and APCs [armored personnel carriers]."1
The residents of Alkhan-Yurt did not invite Chechen fighters to their town and did everything within their powers to get the fighters to leave the village. Many residents of Alkhan-Yurt expressed their anger toward the Chechen fighters:
The fighters were not defenders, they were not defending us but were there only out of their own interests. Every street of our village is visible from Sunzhan ridge [where the Russian firing positions were located]. Our village is not made for defense, but the fighters came anyway. Near the cemetery, there is a stand of woods, and there they dug their trenches. We asked and demanded that they leave, but they told us to leave and threatened to shoot.2
On November 16, Haji Vakha Muradov and three other respected elders from the village attempted to meet with the fighters to convince them to leave the village: "I begged them on behalf of the village, `please leave our village, this is not a place for you to fight. The whole village will be on your side, just please leave.'"3 According to Muradov, the commander of the Chechen fighters replied that they would not leave, and reportedly said, "We cannot retreat from Russian soldiers. We are not going to hand the city [Grozny] over to them. We are not going to let the soldiers get to the city through this village. We are going to fight."4
Some of the fighters began threatening the respected village elders, ordering them to leave or be shot. The fighters began shooting their weapons in the air, and the elders decided to leave.5 The elders tried on several other occasions to convince the fighters to leave, without success.
According to many of the villagers, the Chechen fighters were split into two groups. A group of Chechen fighters of local origin obeyed the request of the elders and left Alkhan-Yurt around November 27. However, a significant group of fighters, including many non-Chechen fighters, refused to obey the elders and stayed on until their withdrawal just before the entry of Russian troops in Alkhan-Yurt on December 1. According to those who met with the fighters who remained behind, there were many foreign fighters among them: Arabs, Tajiks, Afghans, Kazakhs, and Uzbeks.6 One villager told Human Rights Watch: "Some of the fighters said they would not go because they had taken the vow of Ghazavat (jihad, or holy war). It was mainly the fighters from outside the village who refused to leave. There were also Arab fighters, and fighters of other nationalities, I could not understand their language."7
The elders also met with the Russian commanders, trying to convince them to stop shelling the village. On November 25, the Russian commanders presented an impossible "deal" to the Haji Vakha Muradov: remove the fighters from the village in exchange for sparing the village of further Russian fire. In effect, Russian forces that had been indiscriminately bombarding Alkhan-Yurt demanded that civilians pressure the fighters to leave the village, although the civilian leadership of Alkhan-Yurt was clearly powerless to do so.
According to Russian officials, Russian forces engaged Chechen fighters in a fierce fire fight in the last week of November on the outskirts of the village. Because the elders had apparently told the Russian command that the fighters were going to retreat, Russian forces were expecting no resistance. When the Russians first attempted to take the village on November 26, they were ambushed. Russian forces then retreated, bombarded the Chechen positions, and resumed their advance.8
On November 31, the Chechen fighters abandoned their positions near Alkhan-Yurt. When Russian soldiers finally entered Alkhan-Yurt on December 1, they faced no resistance from the local population.
Many interviewees told Human Rights Watch that when Russian troops first entered the town, they ordered all remaining villagers to stay in their cellars, allowing them outside only for a few hours a day. On December 5 at about 7:00 a.m., soldiers shot at nineteen-year-old Musa Adamov, wounding him in the foot, simply because he was standing outside his cellar without permission.9 On December 10, when Human Rights Watch interviewed thirty-nine-year-old Imran Eskayev, one of the first persons to leave Alkhan-Yurt after Russian forces had sealed the village, he explained the restrictions placed on civilian movement in the town by the soldiers:
The soldiers came and warned the people when they could leave the cellar and how they could leave the cellar. They cannot walk in the street. They can only be in their yards. This happens from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. People are still in their cellars because they are afraid-if you saw the soldiers you would know why. They can come and loot the houses, beat the people, and humiliate them.101 Human Rights Watch interview with Sultan Magomayev, forty-six years old, Pliyevo, Ingushetia, December 28, 1999. 2 Human Rights Watch interview with seventy-five-year-old Haji Vakha Muradov, Nazran, Ingushetia, December 15, 1999. 3 Ibid. 4 Ibid. 5 This is considered an attack on civilians that is banned under Protocol II additional to the Geneva Conventions. Chechen rebel fighters, as parties to an internal armed conflict, are obligated to observe Geneva Convention standards. For an elaboration on Protocol II, see footnote 20. 6 Ibid. The presence of foreign fighters in Chechnya is confirmed by information on a pro-Chechen website, http://www.qoqaz.net, which lists foreign jihad fighters "martyred" in Chechnya. 7 Human Rights Watch interview with Shamkhan Hadayev, fifty-six, Kavkaz border, Ingushetia, December 14, 1999. 8 Human Rights Watch interview with Military Procurator Yuri Dyomin, Moscow, March 10, 2000. Dyomin also claimed that underground trenches ran through the entire village, and that "each house" had an "underground firing position." 9 Human Rights Watch interview with Belita Zarakayeva, fifty-five, mother of Musa Amadov, Pliyevo, Ingushetia, December 25, 1999. 10 Human Rights Watch interview with Ihmran Eskayev, thirty-nine, Kavkaz border, Ingushetia, December 10, 1999.