31 March 2010

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Throughout the MyWar exhibition, FACT will be publishing guest blog posts from looking at war and politics in the media. Matthew Taylor is a "twentysomething lawyer with interests in arts, music, philosophy, politics, and sci/tech..."
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Yesterday's bombings in Russia, which killed at least 35 people and wounded more than 50, have yet to be claimed by any terrorist group. Within Russia itself, the weary assumption is that the conflict in Chechnya has once again reached the streets of Moscow.

This is far from the first time that suicide bombs have rocked Moscow. Nor is it the the first such attack on the Moscow Metro. As has been the case ever since the mid-1990s, the brunt of this conflict is been borne not by soldiers, but by civilians.

By April 1995, after a year of vicious fighting, it was estimated that 25,000 civilians Chechen civilians were dead. At least that number were killed when the fighting resumed in 1999, and hundreds more have died in Russia as a result of terrorist attacks and hostage crises which seen the Chechen conflict come all the way to the heart of the Russian State.

Chechen hostility to rule from Moscow was fostered during the Soviet Era. After an uprising up during the Second World War, Stalin ordered the entire population of Chechnya - around 500,000 people - deported to other Soviet Republics. Operation Lentil, as the 1944 expulsion was called, caused tens of thousands of deaths. Where transportation was too difficult in remote villages, inhabitants were summarily executed by Soviet security forces.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, independence was sought once again, and bitterly resisted by Russia. The war fought in Chechnya between 1994 and 1996 set a template for the conflict which has followed, with both sides paying scant regard to the human rights of civilians or the laws of war. Russian forces used their military superiority to conduct artillery assaults and aerial bombing which made little distinction between civilians and separatist fighters, and the rebels routinely took and killed civilian hostages. Both sides engaged in summary executions and "disappearances".

In June 1995, Chechen rebels attacked the city of Budyonnovsk, in Russia proper, and took more than 1,500 hostages in the town's hospital. At least 100 hostages would die in the ensuing events, some executed by their captors, but most killed in the cross fire as Russian forces attacked the building, and hundreds of civilians were wounded.

Another attack followed in January 1996, again on a hospital, and in October 2002 Chechen fighters struck in the heart of Moscow, taking hundreds of hostages in a theatre. 129 of them would die from inhaling gas which Russian troops pumped into the building to neutralise the Chechens - and avoid the deaths that had followed rescue attempts in previous incidents.

In September 2004, the name of Beslan, a town in North Ossetia, became infamous when more than a thousand people were taken hostage at a school - at least half of them children. After a three day siege, explosions were heard from inside the building, and Russian forces attacked with heavy weapons. 334 hostages died, and more than 700 civilians were injured.

Time and again, the conflict between Chechen separatists and the Russian government has been inflicted on civilians on both sides. A decade after the war officially ended, the deaths continue, from suicide bombings, artillery barrages, disappearances, hostage taking - and the bungled rescues that follow.