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Friday, 21 January, 2000, 23:21 GMT
Stuck at the Chechen border

Russian artillery blasts rebel positions south of Grozny Russian troops blast away south of Grozny


By Kevin Bishop, at the Russian military HQ near the Chechen border

A small room in a remote army garrison town. The atmosphere is hot and oppressive. A fan hangs from the ceiling, beating the air with a constant thud and whirr.

Battle for the Caucasus
I'm tired and want to get back over the border, where the action is. I look around for venetian blinds but perhaps I watch too many films. This isn't Saigon. It's Mozdok. But it's still hell.

Mozdok is a shabby town that lies on a cold North Caucasian plain. The Chechen border is less than 10 miles away.

On the edge of town is the huge military base from where Russia is launching its massive bombardment of the rebel republic. Helicopters buzz low overhead, jet fighters scream into the skies day and night.


A Russian soldier takes aim in northern Grozny Russia is keeping foreign journalists away from the action

The road that leads from the town to the base still retains the very Soviet name of Peace Street. In fact, it's the kind of place that hasn't noticeably changed for 30 years.

Lenin still looks out of the central square; a huge sign on the cinema roof proclaims that 'Art Belongs to the People!'; babushkas in woollen shawls stare at foreigners.

Mud

We arrived after dark - never the best time to arrive in a place like Mozdok. We pulled up at the agreed meeting place, the local bus station, and I stepped out of the car into my first puddle of ankle-deep mud.

If someone could invent a use for mud, Mozdok would be the next Kuwait. It is everywhere. After the rain it is soft and slimy.


Jets from Mozdok The scream of jets is constant

Within days it begins to congeal, sticking to your boots until you feel like you're wearing platform soles. In summer it turns to dust and whips around the town in the 35 degree heat.

I've been told we're booked into the Hotel Otdykh, which means leisure. It is a small, squat Khrushchev-era building, set back from the road behind a large expanse of mud.

Dank smell

The woman at the front table - desk would be stretching it - looks up from her phone call as I enter.

She barks, 'What do you want?'. I explain that we should have rooms here. She laughs scornfully and points to the bedding on the couch in the entrance hall.

'They sleep on the floor here too,' she adds and promptly returns to her conversation. As I leave, somewhat thankfully, there is a dank smell of boiled cabbage and urine. I begin to worry just where we willl spend the night.

Back at the bus stop, our man from the army base has arrived. He has a car, says our accreditation is ready and we can stay at the driver's house.


Grozny Smoke rises above the bombed out capital

My spirits lift and continue to do so when I see the house. It is clean, warm and we have a room each.

The owner is a smiling gold-toothed lady called Rima who welcomes us like long-lost children, feeds us soup and Ossetian cheese pies and cleans our muddy boots.

And the toilet has a removable, cushioned seat that she keeps behind the radiator, so it's nice and warm.

Bin Laden

We're here in Mozdok because this is where the army is and this is where we are promised we can get into Chechnya from.

We'll be taken in on helicopters every day we were told. We will have briefings, access to commanders. So we turn up at the gates of the base bright and early the next morning.


Mozdok air base near the Chechen border Mozdok air base near the Chechen border

'Hello colonel,' we say cheerfully. 'We're here to go to the press office to get our accreditation that's been approved by the Ministry of Defence in Moscow.'

'So what?' the colonel snarls. 'You're not in Moscow now, you're in Mozdok and I'm in charge. The war is over so you can go back to America.' He then begins to accuse us of funding Osama Bin Laden and things start to get a bit out of hand.

Playing games

It's here I begin to see that working in Mozdok is like playing snakes and ladders.

Getting the accreditation approved was a ladder, the drive here took us a few squares along until we met the snake of the Hotel Otdykh. Rima's place is a definite ladder and now we've come up against a poisonous viper. Time for a rethink.


Russian soldiers rest on the outskirts of Grozny Russian soldiers rest on the outskirts of Grozny

Salvation comes in the form of a British photographer working for the New York Times, the only other western media in town. He has a driver with a pass who can take us into the base.

As we pass the gates I'm amazed at how slack the security is - a cursory glance at the pass and we're through. No checking of ID, no searching the boot.

Surely this cannot be the only barrier to stop a gang of armed Chechens entering the base - a scrap of paper and three unknown faces are let straight through.

Excuses, excuses

Having got into the base, I'm already looking out for the snake. He's not far off.

Our press officer is a grumpy red-faced man who hates the press. We'll call him Valeri. His job seems to be to keep us as far away from Chechnya as possible. He has a whole array of weapons up his sleeve to help him in his goal.

Bad weather is a favourite; no places on the helicopters is another; driving 200 miles to the regional capital to register with the local police is a particularly effective ploy - that one kept us out of mischief for a whole day.

He is very good at his job. We've been here for six days now and haven't set foot in Chechnya.

In the game of Mozdok snakes and ladders, Valeri is the python - strangling our energy with bureaucracy, crushing our hopes with deception.

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See also:
21 Jan 00 |  Europe
Frenzied fighting in Grozny
20 Jan 00 |  Europe
Russian general missing in Chechnya
20 Jan 00 |  Media reports
Russian press views Grozny endgame
19 Jan 00 |  Europe
Analysis: Chechen rebels hold out
18 Jan 00 |  Europe
Analysis: Russians learn from past mistakes
20 Jan 00 |  Europe
Grozny rebels put up stiff resistance

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