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MARGARET WARNER: The book is Chienne De Guerre, “Dog of War” in French. The author is Ann Nivat. Moscow correspondent for the French daily newspaper Liberation. The book recounts her travels in the breakaway Republic of Chechnya beginning in September of 1999, a period coinciding with a renewed Russian military assault launched by then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Nivat was deported by authorities in February 2000, the same month that the Russian military declared victory in what’s been called the second Chechen war. Welcome.
ANNE NIVAT: Thank you.
MARGARET WARNER: Tell us first how you got into Chechnya. This was a time when the Russian authorities were not letting western journalists travel independently.
ANNE NIVAT: Well, to tell you the truth, I didn’t really care about what the Russian authorities were allowing or not allowing. I’m a journalist, and I do my job. So I arrived in Chechnya right before the war broke out. So that’s probably how… It helped me a great deal to be already there when it all started. It doesn’t mean it was easier, but it helped.
MARGARET WARNER: But you also went in disguise, essentially.
ANNE NIVAT: Yes, because that was the only way I could do my job as a reporter. Well, now I don’t really feel like having been disguised, but then, you know, it was, like, normal, natural. I just realized that, in order to do my job, I should just get completely unnoticed, be only a woman, just a woman among other women, and I just, you know, noticed that every Chechen woman wear a scarf and long skirt, and I just decided to put long skirt and a scarf, and here I was, you know, crossing the checkpoints, the Russian military checkpoints, without being noticed by them.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, you also speak Russian.
ANNE NIVAT: I do, yes. Speaking Russian was, of course, of a great help. Being a woman, speaking Russian, knowing the region, and being ready to stay for a while, and not for one or two or three days as usually journalists do, was really good… of a great help to me.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, how were you able to file your stories?
ANNE NIVAT: It was difficult. I had a satellite phone with me because, as you can imagine, there is no normal phone lines in Chechnya, no computers working, no electricity, no heating, no nothing. So I was just writing my articles by hand and dictating them on the phone back to Paris. Paris had provided me with a sat phone which I had strapped on my belly.
MARGARET WARNER: So you were on the ground when this assault began. Tell us what it was like.
ANNE NIVAT: Horrifying, of course, and it is still horrifying. That’s what I want to say today, is that this war is still going on, and although it’s not the kind of blind bombing, shelling of civilians in villages I went through during the winter of ’99, 2000, what’s happening now might even be worse because when Putin and the Kremlin tell us, “well, this war is over–” that’s basically as you’ve said it is over, that’s what they’ve been saying since February of last year– it’s wrong. It’s completely wrong. What is going on in Chechnya is that civilians are still being killed by the Russian army, and the Russian army so far did not arrest any of the top rebels.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, but let’s… and let’s go back to your book just a little bit, though, because the heart of your book is really the impact all this had on civilians. What does the West need to know about that?
ANNE NIVAT: Well, the West need to know that this war is a full-scale war, a nasty, dirty war, and it has nothing to do with a clean anti-terrorist operation as the Kremlin pictures it to us, to the outside world. What I saw myself many times, sharing my daily life with the life of the civilians, is that unfortunately the Russian army doesn’t really care whom it is killing down there, and the civilians are suffering. That is the result. The result is that on the first hand you have the Russian army, and on the second hand you have the rebels, the Chechen rebels, and caught in between you have the civilians, thousands of people who have no life, who lost absolutely everything, and who just… they’re just hoping that someday it will stop.
MARGARET WARNER: The Russians justified this second incursion by saying that they had to go back, even though they’d given Chechnya some autonomy, because there were Islamic guerillas that were making incursions into a neighboring republic, Dagestan, bombing buildings in Moscow. You talked to a lot of these rebel commanders. What’s your sense of what’s driving them?
ANNE NIVAT: Well, a lot of them don’t really know what to do next. They don’t really have a long- term strategy, but– and they are divided– but what is uniting them is the fact that they really want to kick out the Russians from their country, from Chechnya. Well, it doesn’t mean that Chechnya will gain its independence the way they would like it to be, but that’s what they want for now.
MARGARET WARNER: But do you get the sense that it’s a religious war for them or is it a war of sort of national independence or liberation?
ANNE NIVAT: It’s absolutely not a religious war, and again, that’s easy for Moscow or for the Kremlin to pretend that it is and to sort of… Wanting to defend the outside world of the Islamic threat coming from Chechnya. Well, that’s not what I saw in Chechnya. After six months, more than six months spent with this republic, I didn’t see any kind of Islamic, Muslim extremism in this republic. The way the Chechen people practice Islam is a very sort of humble way, has nothing to do with extremists, even though, of course, there is a bunch of Chechen rebels who are extremists and fanatics, but it’s a minority.
MARGARET WARNER: So how did the Chechen civilians feel? I mean, obviously they hate this war, but how do they feel about the war being fought in their name? I mean, where are their sympathies?
ANNE NIVAT: The Chechen people? The Chechen people are lost. They don’t know what to think anymore. They are depressed, deeply depressed. I mean, when we talk about being depressed here in the west, I mean, here the people who are really depressed, and they have many reasons to be, that’s why they don’t trust anyone anymore. They lost their trust in their own elected President, Aslan Makhadov, who is one of the top rebels. They lost their trust in any kind of pro-Russian Chechen leader. They lost their trust in Russia. They only want one thing: This war to stop.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, you said that even though Russia is saying publicly the war’s over, essentially, and they’re saying they’re in full control, that that’s not the case. But what’s your… You went back there just a few months ago. What’s your sense of the rebel commanders and how determined they are to continue this? Do you think they are?
ANNE NIVAT: Well, I was there not a few months ago, but a few weeks ago, back from Grozny. I was there three weeks ago. Of course the rebels will do something, probably soon, before the end of the summer, in order to change the situation because right now the situation is completely deadlocked. It’s… nothing is moving, absolutely nothing, and that’s why Russia pretends that, you know, the war is over, but in fact it is not over. Most of the rebels have nothing to lose. They already have lost everything, and that what makes them dangerous, of course.
MARGARET WARNER: Finally, before we go, take us back to the end of your six-month stay there, sort of in disguise, and what finally happened when the Russian authorities find you out?
ANNE NIVAT: Well, they deported me back to Moscow. Basically they were so amazed to find me that the FSB, the former KGB, the Russian secretary’s officer who found me, and he was my age, in his early thirties, and he could just not believe it, and he was… of course he was not pleased to see me, and he would not believe it. First of all they accused me of being a spy, and then, you know, they just said, “well, go back to Moscow, and we don’t want you anymore here.” But since then I returned.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, Anne Nivat, thanks so much, and good luck with your book.
ANNE NIVAT: Thank you so much.