Aldi, known formally as Novye [New] Aldi, is a residential suburb of the city of Grozny, located on the south-west edge of the city. According to an Aldi resident who prior to the war worked in the administration of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, the pre-war population of Aldi was 27,000, most of whom fled the fighting. This witness said there were approximately 2,000 people left on February 5.6 Aldi borders a large reservoir, intersected by a dam, over which runs a road to Chernorechie, a district that neighbors Aldi to the west. There are none of the high-rise apartment blocks in Aldi that are characteristic of most of the suburban areas of the city. Rather, the homes are largely single or two-story separate houses, located in family compounds sometimes containing two houses and often a stable. Most compounds have their own high-gated entrance into a communal front yard.
The current military campaign in Chechnya began in September 1999. It was sparked by an armed incursion by Chechen fighters into the neighboring republic of Dagestan in August and a series of apartment building bombings in September that claimed the lives of almost 300 civilians. Russian authorities blamed Chechens for the bombings.
After advancing quickly through northern Chechnya, taking several towns without a fight-including Chechnya's second largest city, Gudermes-Russian forces began focusing their offensive on the Chechen capital, Grozny, the scene of very heavy fighting. In November, Russian troops fought hard to encircle the city and cut off supply lines from the south. Russian forces exhibited an even greater reliance on rocket, artillery, and aerial bombardment than that witnessed in the 1994-1996 war.7 These tactics, undoubtedly employed in an attempt to reduce casualties among its own forces, caused thousands of deaths and injuries among the civilian population throughout Chechnya, and led to the destruction of Grozny.8
The battle for Grozny itself commenced in earnest in December and was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting of the war to date. Chechen fighters put up fierce resistance from well-prepared and heavily fortified positions, using the urban terrain to their advantage, much as they had during the 1994-1996 war. Both parties to the conflict have exaggerated the other side's losses while underestimating their own, and reliable data are unavailable. However, it is clear that in the battle for Grozny, both sides took some of their heaviest casualties of the war.
At the end of January, Chechen fighters began to leave Grozny en masse, their exodus precipitated by the fall of Minutka Square, a central district of Grozny, on January 31 after two weeks of heavy fighting.9 By February 1, the overwhelming majority of the fighters had left the city en route to the southern Caucasus mountain range. Estimates vary, but most observers put the number of fighters leaving the city at approximately 3,000.
Russian forces largely encircled Grozny and subjected it to fierce and sustained aerial and artillery bombardment. They laid a large number of small anti-personnel landmines along the exit route the fighters took, causing many casualties. Typical of the response to the fighters' flight to the mountains was the heavy bombardment of populated areas in which columns of fighters appeared: Shaami-Yurt, Katyr-Yurt, and Gekhi-Chu.10 Residents often stated that by the time Russian forces commenced bombing, most of the fighters had already left.
Insofar as Human Rights Watch has been able to ascertain, Aldi itself was not a target for Russian bombardment prior to February 3. Equally, it appears that the settlement was not used by the fighters in any discernable way during the war; there are no reports of clashes between Russian forces and Chechen fighters in the village. In contrast, the arrival of several thousand Chechen rebel fighters in Alkhan-Kala, a village about seven kilometers southwest of Aldi, is well documented.11 Given Aldi's geographical proximity, Chechen fighters may have passed through or close by to Aldi on their retreat from the city, but there is no evidence to document this.
Contact between local villagers and the Russian military centered upon their pleas that the military not bomb the area. For example, on the morning of February 3, approximately one hundred Aldi residents went to the military commander of District Twenty (Dvadtsaty Uchastok in Russian) to state that there were no fighters in Aldi and that it should not be subjected to shelling. Neighboring areas, such as District Twenty and Chernorechie were, prior to February 5, the scenes of very heavy fighting and aerial and artillery bombardment. Aldi residents stated that while Aldi was occasionally struck, they believe by stray shells and rockets, until early February, it had not been specifically targeted.126 Human Rights Watch interview, Karabulak, Ingushetia, March 5, 2000. The interviewee did not want to be identified. 7 Dr. Mark Galeotti, "The Russian Army in Chechnya," by Jane's Intelligence Review, December 1, 1999: The Russian invasion could be described as a textbook success. Lessons were learnt from the last Chechen debacle. Spearhead units of a much larger invasion force were largely made up of elite troops. They avoided getting bogged down in urban and mountain warfare, where the guerillas had the advantage, but stuck to the lowlands and wider valleys. Settlements were either bypassed or levelled by heavy air and artillery bombardments in a programme of pacification by depopulation. 8 See, for example, the explanatory memorandum to the Political Affairs Committee of the Council of Europe report, "Conflict in Chechnya-Implementation by Russia of Recommendation 1444 (2000)," by rapporteur Lord Judd, April 4, 2000: 18. The Ad Hoc Committee was deeply moved by its visit to Grozny. The centre of the city has been totally and systematically destroyed. We did not see a single building intact . . . In the centre of the city it has been estimated that there are only some 1,000 to 1,500 people left, and they are living in conditions of total privation. 19. Although the city had already suffered damage in the earlier conflict in Chechnya, the current level of destruction suggests that Grozny has been the target of indiscriminate, disproportionate bombardment by theRussian forces. The state of the city and the accounts given by people from Grozny in refugee camps in Ingushetia clearly indicate that many civilians perished in the bombardment. Only a thorough enquiry will be able to determine the exact number of victims. 9 See, for example, Deutsche Presse-Agentur, "Russians Continue Grozny Advance," February 2, 2000. 10 See Human Rights Watch press release, "Russian Soldiers Executed Seven Men in Chechen Village, Snipers in Gekhi-Chu Shot Civilians," March 31, 2000; Yevgenia Borisova, "Guerrillas, Federals Blaze Trail of Misery," The Moscow Times, February 10, 2000. 11 See, for example, Janine di Giovanni, "Battered rebel army flees fallen Grozny," The Times of London, February 2, 2000. 12 One witness, Akhmed A. said that approximately sixty-six persons from Aldi and surrounding areas who were killed by shelling are buried in the grounds of the Aldi polyclinic. He said a total of about some fifty persons were killed by shellfire in November, December and January 2000.