A Human Rights Watch team in Ingushetia has interviewed nine witnesses to Russia's October 21 attack on the Grozny Central Market. Their testimonies suggest the assault may have been a serious violation of the laws of war, and Human Rights Watch urges the Russian authorities to vigorously investigate the incident and publish their findings.
The testimonies also indicate that Chechen fighters may have situated a key command post within or adjacent to the market. This too would be a serious violation, as the Chechen forces are obliged to respect international law prohibiting use of the civilian population to shield military objects.
Three large explosions ripped through the Chechen capital's downtown bazaar at approximately 5:00 p.m. on October 21, killing an estimated 140 people and wounding about 260, according to Chechen estimates. After initially denying any role, some Russian authorities acknowledged their involvement in the blast, but said they had struck legitimate Chechen military targets. The witness testimony, however, suggests that the Russian attack may have been illegal, as the use of powerful explosive devices in a congested civilian marketplace at an especially crowded time of day is likely to have been both indiscriminate and disproportionate.
The Geneva Conventions and their protocols, to which Russia is a party, as well as the customary international law of war, emphasize the principle of civilian immunity. This body of law prohibits attacks - even when aimed at legitimate military targets - if they are indiscriminate or disproportionately harmful to civilians. Humanitarian law also requires precautions to protect the civilian population, such as effective advance warning.
The witnesses were all interviewed separately and at length. They indicated there may have been legitimate military targets in the market. One forty-year-old woman said she heard that a number of Chechen fighters had been killed and wounded in the blast, and that the injured combatants had been sent to the nearby Urus-Martan hospital. Another 35-year-old woman wounded in the attack told Human Rights Watch that Chechen military commander Shamil Basayev had his headquarters in a corner of the market near a group of stalls selling automatic weapons, pistols and ammunition. However, neither the importance of Basayev's headquarters, nor the possibility of arms merchants in the bazaar, justifies the tremendous amount of force used against the market.
Witnesses said that the central market was thronged by hundreds of shoppers at the time of the attack. The shopping arcade, a narrow, informal bazaar stretching for some 400 yards along the trolley tracks in central Grozny, runs perpendicular to Prospekt Svobody street, the capital's central thoroughfare. "You can buy everything you need there," said Zalina Amirkhanova, a 17-year-old nursing student injured in the blast. "Vendors sell anything from second-hand clothes to vegetables, meat, flowers, eggs, jewelry, and medicine." Her upper right arm was seriously wounded.
Customers included Chechens as well as ethnic Russians and Ingush. "It was the main place to buy produce and household goods," explained Bella Titiyeva, a 27-year-old pharmacist. "I shopped there almost every day." The bazaar included dozens of small stalls jammed against one another. Immediately before the attack, the bazaar was "so packed that I had to almost push my way through," recalled Shamil, a 42-year-old math teacher whose right foot was injured. The market was particularly crowded at the time of the blast, as it was filled with shoppers on their way home from work.
The first explosion hit a building about fifty yards northeast of the central bazaar. Most of the marketplace deaths came from the second and third explosions, however, which occurred within 100 yards of each other in the central bazaar area.
The second explosion hit a building adjacent to a Number 7 bus, which was caught in traffic at the corner of Prospekt Svobody and Mira Streets. "I saw the building explode and then glass flew everywhere," recalled a 63-year-old female bus passenger. "I then looked down and thought, 'Where is my arm?'" Part of her right arm was blown off. As she crawled off the ruined bus, the witness saw the bodies of two children who were "less than 10 years old," lying dead on the pavement.
The second blast caught Bella Titiyeva in the center of the market, "near the flowers and confectionery stalls," while she was shopping for toiletries with a friend. "There were bodies everywhere," she recalled; her lower leg was shattered by the blast, and her calf muscle was shredded. Her mother recalled that "it was hard to get to my daughter, because there were so many bodies strewn around."
Another 34-year-old woman, wounded in her right leg, discovered her 16-year-old son's body lying between two stalls. She said the top of his head had been blown off.
Many of the blasts' victims were brought to the central Grozny hospital, where doctors operated by candlelight. "The first floor was packed with wounded and dead people," recalled one 25-year-old man who brought his brother to the hospital. "They were putting them on the balconies, the floors, everywhere." Some of the wounded were evacuated across the Ingush border that same night. Others, however, were taken across 24 or 48 hours later, and therefore faced lengthy delays by Russian troops attempting to seal the border. "I waited with my daughter in an ambulance for 24 hours at the Russian checkpoint," Bella Titiyeva's mother recalled. "They wouldn't let us through, even though they could see she needed urgent attention." According to Ingushetia hospital officials, the medical condition of some blast victims deteriorated as a result of the border delays.
Although there is some evidence that there may have been legitimate military targets located near or within the Grozny bazaar, the size and extent of the blasts, combined with the large number of noncombatants in the immediate vicinity, strongly suggests that the Russian attack was grossly disproportionate.
If Chechen commander Shamil Basayev did indeed situate his headquarters within the Grozny market, that too would be a serious abuse of international law. Although Chechen fighters are not parties to the Geneva Conventions, as individuals within the territory of a state party [Russia], they are bound to respect the basic precept of civilian immunity. Human Rights Watch calls upon Chechen commanders to immediately redeploy their troops, headquarters, and weapons storage facilities out of populated areas.