Chechnya Album



At first it looks just like a tourist’s album, the kind of book full of souvenir photos that people used to put together after a holiday, before the world went digital, to show friends and family. The photos are glossy, badly glued, deforming the pages a bit; the captions are meticulously scrawled, the dates precise. There’s the usual mix of images: landscapes, skies, buildings; pictures of friends, of slightly remarkable events, of happy moments, of the tourist himself posing in front of a landmark. Nothing special.

It’s true though that the buildings are a mess, and the natives seem armed to the teeth. For these are photos of war, of the Second Chechen War, as it’s known. And most of the photographs document the appalling destruction wrought upon Groznyi and other villages by the intense Russian bombardments that began in September 1999 and continued, without cease, through March or April 2000. Yet in contrast with the horrors depicted in some photographs, the sheer banality of the others, of the album itself, is grating. It is true that even in a war there are quiet moments, moments of pleasure with friends, of soft irony, of beauty even, and these, on occasion, also get photographed. And then again, the album was never meant to be public.

During the First War, in 1996, I lived for six months in Groznyi (I was working for the French aid agency Action contre la Faim), and I didn’t take a single picture. I didn’t believe in cameras then, only in memory, and other than a handful of photos made by some friends, or those published by journalists, I have no images of that war. The second time around, when I returned in 1999, something had changed; but what? I am not sure. I didn’t yet have children, that immense generator of photographs; probably my bosses back in Paris asked me for pictures, so they could visualize what was going on. I was working for the same aid agency as the first time around, we were trying to get in-country to distribute aid, and because of the risks, hardly any foreigners actually entered Chechnya; my superiors knew they never would (although my desk officer, shown in a couple of pictures, finally did come for a visit, in June 2000).

The photos documenting the destruction—the reason the album has been included here—were taken fairly systematically, neighborhood by neighborhood, roll after roll (small APS capsules actually, the last new film format before digital), and developed and stored in boxes specially conceived for the panoramic format. However, except for the photos related to the Aldi massacre, taken at the request of Human Rights Watch, their objective was not human rights, nor politics. One important stake, at the time, was guessing the number of people who had returned to live in the ruins. The authorities, by mid-2000, claimed that some 100,000 people lived in the city, which had a direct incidence on the amount of food and other aid the UN and the NGOs would provide. Our visual estimations of the level of destruction made these claims ridiculous: the buildings left standing, at that time, couldn’t have housed more than 20,000 people, in the whole city. And the photographs showed this to the UN and European officials who signed off on the programs without ever visiting Chechnya.

Next to that, there was the natural impulse to document our programs—the distributions, the beneficiaries, the obstacles (checkpoints), the field trips. Then there were the photos taken as souvenirs, of friends and colleagues. Most of these have been blanked out here: except for my colleague Shamil Dachaev, murdered in 2001 as I recall, the others are still living in Chechnya, and being shown here could conceivably put them at risk. The city and the villages, since 2000, may have been rebuilt, but the violence remains, just below the surface.

The album came much later. It was a convenient way to select and organize the best photos, to caption then, probably with my children in mind, just in case I wasn’t around when they grew up to show them these images myself. I enjoyed making it. And then, with its neatly organized mix of scenes, people and scenery, it landed on a shelf, where it’s been gathering dust ever since. Just like any tourist’s album.

Photographer & Writer

Jonathan Littell

Interview and Assistance

Andrea Bagnato


Charlotte Mandell

During the Second Chechen War (which began in 1999 and tapered out around 2005), because of the kidnappings, all the NGOs were based in Nazran, which was the capital of the neighboring Republic of Ingushetia. We had police escorts when in Ingushetia and we travelled in and out of Chechnya; we never really slept over. My organization, Action Against Hunger (Action Contre la Faim, ACF), was one of the only two—the other being Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)—that didn’t take escorts into Chechnya, for reasons of objectivity and neutrality.

The checkpoint in the image at the top is at the crossroads between the main highway, which is called the Rostov-Baku Tras, and the intersections to Sernovodsk and Assinovskaya. [These were the two places where we started working: the first two villages right over the border, administratively inside Chechnya.] And this was a checkpoint of Cossacks, as they indicate: “DONtsy” means Don Cossacks, and they have this lovely graffiti, “Terrorism is a disease, but we, DONtsy, are going to cure it.” The bottom photo shows a checkpoint—they had a checkpoint about every kilometre on the Tras. From the border to Groznyi you had to go, if I remember correctly, through 31 checkpoints, all similar to the type you see in the picture here. And so this bottom one is pretty representative. The checkpoint is actually a fortified camp, because they got attacked at night, so they’ve got concrete blocks around it, and tanks. And in each checkpoint they were racketing all the people going through. We didn’t pay because we had official papers, we were an NGO, but all the civilians going through the checkpoints had to pay 10 rubles a head per checkpoint, which means 300 rubles to get from the border to Groznyi. The money was being passed up through the chain of command, up to the Ministry of Interior general who was in charge of all the checkpoints in Chechnya. He was making, according to what we were told at the time, a million dollars a month from this. Obviously everybody along the chain of command was keeping a cut, but the general at the top got a million dollars a month, which is pretty typical of the way the war was run in Chechnya.

There was a major episode at the beginning of February 2000 where 3,000 fighters retreated from Groznyi through the town of Alkhan-Kala, immediately to its west: they were trapped there, they went through minefields, many died or were wounded in the minefields, the Russians were waiting for them and bombed them, and then they had to go further west towards the big forest called the Samashki Forest, and they hid a bit in the forest and then cut through Shaami-Yurt, Katyr-Yurt and Gekhi-Chu, to escape up into the mountains. And as they were moving in groups of 20, 50, or 100 men, the Russians were just pounding all the villages along the way with heavy field artillery and aviation, mostly field artillery.

One of the main clues to this kind of destruction is the roofs. You see the roofs have been blown off, the metal sheeting of the roof, but the wooden structure is still intact. That is typical of destruction by artillery and aerial bombardment, where it’s mostly the blast effect that blows the sheeting off the roofs. In the other photos you’re going to see buildings that have no wooden structure left on top. Those buildings were burned by the soldiers when they entered the village. When they occupied the villages, the federal troops burned a lot of houses, either with gasoline or by using gas bottles, blowing them up from the inside. And so the way you can tell between bombardment and wanton destruction by soldiers burning houses is from the presence or not of these wooden roof structures. The building on the right was quite clearly burned: you see the flames rising above the door from the inside of the building. It was probably torched by the soldiers when they occupied the village a bit later on.

A direct hit would destroy the wooden structure, obviously, but then the walls would have collapsed too; the whole building would collapse. Like in the top photo: you see the building on the right where a whole side is collapsed. That building took a direct hit. But in the case of the ones where the wooden structure remains but the sheeting has gone, these buildings took a hit nearby and the blast blew off the sheeting. And in the bottom photo you see a building that must have been hit directly through the roof by a shell. But the roof is still there, even though it’s crumpled and damaged, which is different from the photo on the right where there’s no roof at all. The federal troops would occupy the villages they accused of supporting the fighters, and would torch intact houses as a vengeance. The debris you see in the photo on the right was debris that was pulled out of the houses; people had already come back and cleaned the houses.

The heavy fighting continued all the way into March. 600 fighters of Gelayev, a senior commander at the time, now dead, were trapped in Alkhazurovo and Komsomolskoe, and were basically annihilated. All the survivors were captured and mostly murdered after their capture; this is all very well documented. The fighting ended at the end of March. So we must have gone in three or four weeks after the major combat operations had ended. By that point, by the time we were allowed in, the fighters had moved up into the mountains and the fighting was more localized. And clearly we were entering with permission of the Federals, so we could only go where they allowed us to go, when they allowed us to go. We weren’t doing this clandestinely. But still it was relatively soon after the Katyr-Yurt destruction—the people had just come back a few weeks before us.


The mosque has taken a direct hit from a shell. The Russians were also using a lot of grad: multiple-rocket launchers on trucks, sometimes called Katyusha, that fire a series of rockets. And at the bottom you see bits of different types of ordnance that the man was showing us: some of it is rockets, some of it is shells. Grads are a highly imprecise weapon: you fire 10 or 20 rockets at the same time, it’s a scatter-effect weapon, and firing that on a populated village full of civilians is considered a war crime by international standards. There is no way you can claim accuracy or discrimination with that type of shelling. So you see the mosque has been hit by shelling, you see the houses; on the next page this man’s car has been burned. I don’t remember whether the mosque was bombed or the roof collapsed during shelling.


This poor lady is standing in the debris of her house, a huge amount of debris. Artillery doesn’t make holes that big, so that would probably be a half-ton bomb dropped from an airplane. If it were a one-ton bomb, the house wouldn’t have been left standing. Then you have my former office, of which the roof is still standing—it’s pretty damaged. It was my office during the First War. I just went back to visit it.


I was shooting with an old type of camera—it’s actually film, an APS format which allowed me to do panoramic views, so I did all these panoramics to show the buildings. In that panoramic at the top you can clearly see that an airplane flew right over the building and just dropped one bomb after another, all along the entire length of the building. It’s one, at most two, strafing raids from an airplane just systematically flying along the axis of the building and dropping half-ton bombs, destroying the entire height of the building. The bombs fall through their own weight a couple of floors into the building and detonate towards the bottom, thanks to a delaying device on the fuse.


In the next photo, the panoramic at the top shows the ruins near Minutka, one of the main roundabouts of the city. At the time there was a series of buildings around Minutka which were known as the devyati etazhey, the “nine-floor” buildings. They were called that because they were the only nine-floor buildings in the city. They were dynamited by the Federals in March 2000, shortly after they took Groznyi, with the official reason being that the Chechens were using them as a snipers’ nest. So they destroyed, they dynamited, every single one of these nine-story buildings, which were the main, tallest, most important civilian habitations in the city. Nothing was left. And the bottom photo: we headed through the city towards the west and went to a suburb called Aldi. The photo is taken from a hill, looking back at the city and the Zavodskoy district.


You see different types of destruction on these buildings: shelling hits, mostly shelling on these buildings. And in the bottom photo you see one apartment which is inhabited; in the middle of these devastated apartments, someone’s put her laundry out to dry. And you see there is a chimney, with smoke from the chimney coming out. Everything else around has been destroyed, visibly by artillery fire.


This is a cinema; it clearly took a hit from an airplane bomb, a big one, possibly one-ton, given the size of damage. In the bottom photo, the whole Minutka roundabout was transformed into a giant checkpoint. So I had to sneak these pictures because it was forbidden to photograph checkpoints. The buildings, the five-story buildings in the background, are still standing, and the rubble in front of the five-story building is one of the dynamited nine-story buildings.


Then we skip to late November. For the first time we slept overnight in Chechnya. We went for four days because we were going so far in the mountains it was impossible to do a day trip. So we followed that road up to Shatoy, and up to Itum-Kale; we slept in Shatoy for two nights and then we went down another valley, the valley that goes east from Shatoy. We went up the other river, which is the Sharo-Argun, all the way into really remote territory. We went there to see if there were any villages, if people were living there, if it was worth having distributions up there. I’m always very curious, I wanted to see what it looked like, but that was the professional reason: an assessment trip.

Basically Chechnya is divided into districts, and the way the UN coordination worked, each NGO that was doing food was responsible for a set of districts. The plan was to distribute food in the entire district, not just the main towns, and so we wanted to do as thorough an assessment as possible to see how many people were living there, what the access conditions were, whether we could trucks get there, what cooperation we could expect from local authorities and what kinds of problems we could have at checkpoints. Because it is so close to the border of Russia, it’s actually an area under Border Troops control, which is a completely different branch of the military. You found yourself dealing with either regular Army, or FSB (the Federal Security Service) or MVD (the Ministry of Interior), and obviously each branch didn’t recognize the permissions you got from other branches. You could have an Army permission, and the Pogranichnie Voiska (Border Troops) would say, “Fuck off, we are not Army, so get out.” But we actually didn’t have any major problems on this trip at all, except at the border from Ingushetia when we went through a huge amount of trouble, but that’s another story.

And then the next day we went up to Itum-Kale. There is this village, Ush-Kaloi, which you can see was destroyed by bombing. You see the roof beams are still standing. This vehicle was destroyed by a rocket, probably fired by a helicopter.


Then we go all the way to Sharoy, which is the last village before the border. It’s really the last village, and then after that there is nothing. In Sharoy, and the villages before, there was a lot of destruction: of the mosque and the bashnyas. It’s is actually very old, it goes back to 1864, when the Tsarist troops, having captured Chechnya in 1859, dynamited the bashnyas, which at the time really served as fortified towers, to prevent the Chechen rebels of the time from holing up in these towers. So there is a cemetery, the old mosque and one intact house.

And this place is interesting because, although it doesn’t show in any of the photos, there is some 1980s prefab housing at the foot of the hill, built under Gorbachev. You know about the Chechen deportation in 1943? They were allowed to come back in 1956 but even then they were not allowed to resettle in the high mountains. They weren’t allowed to resettle past Shatoy because they were felt to be still too unruly and dangerous. So the authorities wanted to keep a no man’s land, a buffer zone up in the higher mountains. And in the 1980s, when there was glasnost and perestroika, they were finally allowed to return there—they had been resettled in the plains up to then, so very few people got there, and the living conditions are incredibly harsh and difficult. And the Soviet authorities built prefab housing for them; the village was just ruins.

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Nearly nine years after these photographs were taken, Jonathan Littell returned to Chechnya, as a journalist this time. His report was published in France as a small book entitled Chechnya, Year III.[1] The following excerpt describes Groznyi as it stood in 2009.

Tamir, a Chechen government press attaché, had offered to take us on a tour of the city. From the plane already, flying in over the city’s northern Staropromyslovsky Shosse, I could guess at the extent of the reconstruction: all the buildings lining the long avenue looked new, their green metal roofs and pale yellow sidings providing bright dashes of color in the otherwise drab landscape; below us, the city sprawled out like any other provincial Russian city, and you had to look hard, and know what you were looking for, to notice the scars of old trenches and tank positions along the hilltops. In the center, everything is brand new, absolutely everything: not just the elegant nineteenth century buildings, meticulously restored, lining the main avenue, now re-named Prospekt Putina, but the streets and the sidewalks as well, the grass borders with automatic sprinklers, the little trees, wrapped in garlands of red and blue lights, planted all along the central grassy plot, the signs, the traffic lights, and the pedestrian signals that count down the seconds left for you to cross. […] Further on, at the end of the avenue, surrounded by lawns and fountains, looms the monumental Great Mosque of Groznyi, a copy of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque entirely built in marble and hand-decorated by an army of Turkish artisans; a little lower down, the golden domes of the Orthodox cathedral gleam brightly, completely reconstructed by Ramzan Kadyrov in a spirit of perfect ecumenism even while his men continue to harass or kill the rare Russian civilians who persist in wanting to live in Chechnya. […] As Tamir drove us around, I experienced a strange sensation, that of a phantom reality overlaying another one, the fine spanking new city coming to recover the layout of the old, ruined, ravaged, devastated city without managing to cancel it out, as if the one were the other’s dream. I had once lived in the city for months, and I know the landmarks and the neighborhoods well, but now my internal compass was completely thrown off, I could recognize the directions of the main avenues but nothing alongside them, I identified the buildings by their location rather than their appearance: I knew that here, at such a place, must be Hospital No. 9, but when it did in fact appear, I recognized nothing, nothing at all. The city, of course, has not been rebuilt as it was, the complex of nine-story buildings surrounding the Minutka roundabout, demolished by the Federals in March 2000 out of fear of snipers, still hadn’t been rebuilt; but already new constructions are beginning to rise there, buildings that will grow to twenty or twenty-five stories; and further on, near the river, where once rose the ruins of Groznyi’s tallest skyscraper, a sixteen-story building, Kadyrov, together with Chechen and Turkish investors, is now erecting a forty-five-story tower, the foundations of which have already been laid. In what is called the ‘private sector’, a residential area of houses hidden by tall gates or rising behind brick walls, you can still see some scars, patched roofs and boarded windows, but even these will soon be gone: as a Chechen businessman who owns several houses in the area explained to me, Ramzan has ordered that all the damaged houses in the city are to be repaired, at their owners’ expense, by years’ end, or they would simply be torn down. “There mustn’t be any trace of the war left,” he told me, quoting Kadyrov, and indeed you have to drive kilometers from the center, out west to the great destroyed factories of the oil refinery complex, to see the kind of hulking, sinister ruins that filled the entire city eight years earlier. You could even say without exaggerating that Paris seems to have kept more traces of the Second World War, on the limestone walls of its ministries and its museums, than Groznyi has of its two wars. It is all often extremely ugly, and it’s hard for me to describe the architectural style of Kadyrov’s show constructions, the “Islamic airport” style perhaps, but it’s functional, and many people live and work there. Alu Alkhanov, Ramzan’s predecessor, did little in his three years in power beyond replastering and repainting; Kadyrov, in the same amount of time, has entirely redone this 400,000-person city, complete with streets, water mains, sewers, gas and electricity. He has built a brand-new city, from scratch. I still haven’t understood where all the rubble has gone.

(translated by Charlotte Mandell)

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