When a Story Inhabits the Mind

De Waal, Thomas
June 2004
Nieman Reports;Summer2004, Vol. 58 Issue 2, p88
This article provides a journalist's personal account of the war in Chechnya, Russia. I miss Chechnya. That may seem a strange thing to say, given all the associations that the word Chechnya has for most people--war, destruction and cruelty. But between the beginning of 1994, 11 months before President Boris Yeltsin sent in the troops and unleashed war there, and the summer of 1998, I visited Chechnya fair frequently and, in reporting on its tragedy, I became extremely attached to both the place and the people. Nineteenth century Russian officers, struck by the flamboyance and repartee of the Chechens, called them the French of the Caucasus. Yes, a lot of the men were gun-mad. At Chechen weddings, there was a tradition of firing weapons in the air in celebration, and all too frequently Chechen weddings would lead to Chechen funerals, as one of two guests died from stray bullets. But the less crazy among the Chechens were also among the most alive, engaging, loyal people to spend time with. Another reason I miss Chechnya is that it can be harder to be distant from a conflict you care about than to be up close. We continue to refer to the war in Chechnya, but what is happening there now is a low-level insurgency conflict that claims perhaps a dozen lives a week.


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