Background Briefing

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Chervlyonnaya, October 5, 1999

Credible press reports claim that a number of civilians were killed when a Russian tank fired on a civilian bus traveling near the Russian-controlled town of Chervlyonnaya on October 5, 1999. A Chechen cameraman provided journalists with a tape of what he claimed was the aftermath of the attack to Reuters television. A Reuters summary of the tape narrated:

The footage showed a man whose top half had been blown away, leaving a bloody stump where his waist should have been. Other people were shown with serious head injuries, some lying or sitting. Bodies of women and children were heaped among the seats of the wrecked bus. Its roof had been blown off. A Chechen man lay a coat over the body of another man, apparently mortally wounded, shivering and gasping in a pool of blood alongside the bus. Children, looking on, screamed and sobbed.6

The photographer told Reuters that eleven persons were killed in the attack and seventeen wounded.7 Chechen officials gave a similar account of the incident with higher but unsubstantiated casualty figures, the regional prefect Abdulkadir Israilov telling Agence France Press that twenty-eight persons had died in the bus.8 Russian officials have denied the attack took place, claiming that the accusations were part of an “information war.”

Although Human Rights Watch was unable to locate a direct eyewitness to the attack, it did interview a witness who saw the burned and destroyed bus the day after, when the corpses of victims had already been removed. He told Human Rights Watch:

I saw this bus and blood, strewn around pieces of flesh, they hadn’t picked them up, they were specifically from the bus which was hit. The bus was totally burned down, [it] was broken into two pieces, split. [The day before,] the intact bodies were taken away to different places, everyone took their own dead. People were looking for the pieces that were missing, [the body parts] they didn’t have.9

Chechen tradition requires that the dead are buried in their ancestral village, and that parts of the body are buried together. Witnesses at the scene told Esembaev that some twenty persons had been killed in the bus.

A separate account of the attack on the bus was given to the New York Times by two wounded women who survived the attack. Zina Kardaeva, aged forty-two, told New York Times correspondent Carlotta Gall that she and her sister were traveling on a bus packed with mostly women and children on October 5, 1999, returning to Chervlyonnaya after fleeing the Russian advance two weeks earlier. “We were all civilians,” Kardaeva told the New York Times, “We hung out a white flag.” She continued: “It was 2:00 p.m. and we went over the Terek River and turned toward Chervlyonnaya when they started to shell. The bus turned back, and suddenly we were hit from behind.”10 The New York Times puts the death toll at forty, but offers no information to substantiate that higher casualty figure.11

[6]"Russia denies killing 41 on bus,” Toronto Star, October 8, 1999.

[7]"Russia denies deadly attack on refugee bus,” Baltimore Sun, October 8, 1999.

[8]"Chechens Say 28 Die in Russian Tank Attack on Refugee Bus,” Agence France Presse, October 6, 1999.

[9]Human Rights Watch interview with Dzhamalai Esembaev, Stavropol, October 31, 1999.

[10]Carlotta Gall, “Civilians Suffer High Rate of Casualties in Chechnya,” New York Times, October 8, 1999.

[11] Ibid.

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