Civilians trapped in Grozny face death and possible starvation in the coming days, as Russian forces step up their attack on the city.
Human Rights Watch has interviewed more than a dozen civilians who have fled the city in the past few days and crossed the border into Ingushetia. They report that a significant percentage of the population remains behind, particularly the elderly, poor, infirm, and wounded. They have been pinned down in their homes and basements under aircraft and artillery fire for several weeks.
"The civilian tragedy in Grozy is very significant, and getting worse," said Holly Cartner, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division. "The Russian forces need to announce a break in the bombing to let those people out."
The city has been without electricity, gas, running water, and heating supply since at least the beginning of November. Witnesses relate rapidly dwindling food supplies, and prices that have escalated threefold for the remaining food. Bazaars and stores have ceased to operate altogether. Desperate residents are forced to travel up to three miles under heavy aerial and artillery fire to fetch fresh water.
According to many medical personnel from Grozny who have taken refuge in neighboring Ingushetia, the city's hospitals and medical clinics are completely shut down, leaving civilians without access even to basic medical care. The doctors told Human Rights Watch that when they left the city in early to mid-November there were countless numbers of wounded and sick, including some who were dying and unable to flee.
Magomet Usmanov, a resident of the Chernorechye suburb of Grozny, told Human Rights Watch that in late November, residents regularly fetched water at the only site that remained in the city, the Groznenskoe water storage tank. On November 29, however, two bombs fell on that site. After hearing the explosions, Usmanov went out of his house and met people who had been gathering water when the bombs began to fall. "Now people are afraid to go and get water," said Usmanov, "because they have to cross the road and walk in the open."
On November 25 or 26 at 2:00 p.m., Usmanov continued, three bombs hit a small bazaar located near the dam. According to Usmanov, civilians were selling products that they had at great risk traveled to buy in Goyty. The wounded were transported to Goyty, about fifteen kilometers south of Grozny. The very next day, as Usmanov was on the street leading from the center of Chernorechye towards a dam, a warplane dropped a bomb on the same site. "Two woman died right before my eyes," he said. "Their bodies flew up into the air, then fell back on to the pavement. I was about 200 meters away from the explosion, and it left a crater about six meters wide by six meters deep. People are too terrified even to poke their nose outside." Usmanov and his family fled Chernorechye during the night of November 30 in order to avoid fire and shelling, traveling on foot through wooded areas to Goyty. Usmanov's wife, Raisa Usmanova, reported that three families had remained behind in their apartment building, and that in the apartment blocks adjacent to the Usmanov home many civilians remained, lacking the funds to leave. Usmanov himself claimed that many people remained in the suburb of Aldy, about five kilometers from the center of Grozny. The Usmanovs also related that bread was nowhere to be found when they left Chernorechye at the end of November.
Lyoma Mashtaev, 39 years old, a former driver from Grozny, left the city on December 1, explaining that Grozny was besieged by air and rocket fire. He told Human Rights Watch that on November 27 at 10:00 a.m., eight warplanes scored direct hits on Sector 30 of the Oktyabrskii district. Mashtaev's nephew, Khasmagomet Magomadov, was among the casualties, as were Daud Khushparov, Rukhman Kaisarov, and an elderly Russian woman and her son who lived on Dal'nyaya Street." I visited six or seven houses to express my condolences," said Mashtaev. Mashtaev believed that seventeen people were killed in the attack, but another Grozny resident, "Saidmagomed" (not his real name), 40 years old, claimed that only eight persons had been killed.
"Only old food supplies remain," said Mashtaev. "For water, you have to go to Chernorechye, a distance of about four kilometers. There aren't any other fresh water sources." Mashtaev traveled the road from Grozny to Goyty in order to flee, asserting that at the time it was the only exit route from the capital. Now, however, he claimed, the Russian forces had taken up positions between Goyty and Urus-Martan, both located south of Grozny, blocking even this exit route.
"People laugh when a humanitarian corridor is mentioned," said Mashtaev. "Nobody believes it. There aren't any humanitarian corridors, and in any case, nobody knows about it. There's no television or radio, and if there were batteries before, they've long been used up. Nobody knows anything in the city. Sometimes leaflets calling for the rebel fighters to give themselves up are dropped."
On November 22, Ruslan Kartoev, 20 years old, a resident of Katayam suburb, was walking along Nijnaya Street with a companion when they came under tank fire. "They saw us, we weren't wearing army outfits, we were transporting water in wheelbarrows," said Kartoev. "The weather was good and clear, and one of the rockets fell on a house. There were screams there, but then I don't know what happened. They brought me out right away." Kartoev received a shrapnel wound in his right leg. He also related that the Solyanaya Balka suburb, adjacent to Katayam, had been razed by shelling and aerial fire. "We drew warm sulphuric water from the wells there," said Kartoev. "They know that people go there to get water, that's why they fired on it."
The Russian government claims that Russian airplanes have dropped leaflets in the city informing civilians of a humanitarian corridor. But documentation gathered by Human Rights Watch on civilian casualties that have occurred since the beginning of the fighting strongly suggests that Russian attempts to warn civilians in advance of attacks or to establish safe exit routes have been sorely ineffective.
"The Russian authorities must take every possible step to ensure that civilians are made aware of any safe exit route leading out of Grozny," said Ms. Cartner." Then, Russian authorities must also protect the corridor so that civilians can leave safely. If these steps are not taken, the people remaining in Grozny will be in grave danger."