Russian forces began shelling and bombing Alkhan-Yurt on November 6, and the bombardment lasted intermittently until December 1, when Russian forces finally entered Alkhan-Yurt. Shelling was particularly intensive on November 8 and during the final days of November, and caused an unknown number of civilian casualties and the widespread destruction of civilian property in the town. Russian forces indiscriminately shelled Alkhan-Yurt, forsaking their Geneva Convention obligations to take serious precautions to limit the loss of civilian life during military operations. Because of their experience with bombardment during the 1994-1996 war in Chechnya, civilians in Alkhan-Yurt were able to take precautions which limited civilian casualties in the bombing campaign: "We had already had some experience, the [first] war lasted many years. We had good [underground shelters], and many people slept there, and many slept in semi-cellar premises."11 Human Rights Watch has received detailed information about eleven civilian deaths during the bombardment. However, because Human Rights Watch has been denied access to Alkhan-Yurt, we have been unable to gather exhaustive information about all civilian casualties that resulted.
Yunis Mezhinov, thirty-five, was one of the first killed by Russian warplanes when the attack on Alkhan-Yurt began. The circumstances of his death and condition of his body were described to Human Rights Watch by a neighbor, forty-six-year-old Sultan Magomayev, who helped prepare his body for burial.12 According to Magomayev, when Russian warplanes started flying over Alkhan-Yurt on November 6, Yunis Mezhinov got into his car and attempted to go to a small stand of trees near the village to fetch a group of children who had gone to collect firewood. A Russian warplane fired a rocket ahead of his car, and the shrapnel of the rocket removed half of Mezhinov's head, killing him instantly. Mezhinov was a guard at a local bank during peacetime, and was not involved in the fighting. He was married, and had five children.
On November 8, three members of the Umarkhajiev family and a neighbor were killed in shelling. Lecha Umarkhajiev, thirty-nine, came home at about 3:30 p.m. on November 8 to find his brother, Issa Umarkhajiev, twenty-six, chopping wood in a shed in the backyard. Their home was on Lenin Street, not far from the outskirts. Their father, sixty-six-year-old Doka Umarkhajiev, and mother, Zara Umarkhajiyeva, sixty, were sitting nearby, the father sharpening knives and the mother talking to her husband and her son. Suddenly, an explosion hit the shed:
The shell [probably a rocket] hit the roof and exploded, and all three were injured. My young sister heard the explosion and cried out, and I ran in their direction. My sister was in the house, I heard her crying and also ran in that direction. I was trying to send the children into the cellar.
I saw all three were lying on the ground. I did not know what to do, I cried out to drive up the car because I wanted to go to the hospital in Urus-Martan. First, I saw my brother, he was face down. My mother was also near. Father was lying on his back, facing the brother and mother. I saw that my father was wounded in the head. My mother had lost two fingers and had an injury on her back.
The three men were taken by car to Urus-Martan. Lecha Umarkhajiev continued:
My father was on my front seat and his head was on my shoulder. On the way to Urus-Martan, I realized that he was dead already... when my neighbor started to cry, I realized my brother was dead also. When we reached the hospital, the second car arrived. We took mother to the hospital, and when the doctors were checking her, she died also.13
At the same time as the Umarkhajiev family was hit, several other explosions took place on Lenin street, the street in front of the Umarkhajiev house. Saparbek Abdulkhajiev was about fifty meters away from the explosion. He told Human Rights Watch, "They [villagers] were standing in the street, there was a big crowd. Then we heard the noise and three explosions."14 Abdulkhajiev believed the explosions were caused by rockets: "There was a hole in the roof and a small pit twenty centimeters deep. There was shrapnel. We can even bring you the rocket, they come in different makes, some iron, some copper. This one was aluminum, the pieces were light."15 The explosion in the street killed forty-one-year-old Sultan Abdulkhajiev: "I saw his body and participated in collecting what remained of him. From his upper legs to his chest he was in one piece, but the other parts were missing."16 Several others were injured, including Molsart Tulieyev, thirty-two, who received shrapnel wounds.
Lechi Elsunokayev, a thirty-one-year-old refugee from Grozny, was killed in late November when he attempted to leave Alkhan-Yurt with his children. A woman whom Elsunokayev had spoken to prior to attempting to flee Alkhan-Yurt told Human Rights Watch that Elsunokayev had told her that his wife had been killed earlier when they were fleeing Grozny to Alkhan-Yurt. The body of Lechi Elsunokayev was buried only on December 18 because the villagers were unable to identify him until the woman who had spoken to him saw and identified the body.17 Human Rights Watch has obtained several photos of the body of Lechi Elsunokayev taken in the location where he was found. The photos show him wearing civilian clothing lying near strewn-about bricks of a destroyed home, suggesting that he was killed during shelling. The photos indicate severe wounds to the lower right leg, as well as grave facial injuries.
Several other villagers were reportedly killed during the shelling, but Human Rights Watch does not have detailed information about their deaths. Musa Yakubov, around fifty, and Bilkis Madagova, about fifty, were killed during shelling in late November, reportedly by shrapnel from explosions near the market place in Alkhan-Yurt.18 Sharani Arsanav was killed in late November, or possibly in early December, when his house suffered a direct hit from a rocket; a witness interviewed by Human Rights Watch participated in his burial on December 7, 1999.1911 Human Rights Watch interview with Lidia Alikhanova, age unknown, Pliyevo, Ingushetia, December 13, 1999. 12 Human Rights Watch interview with Sultan Magomayev, forty-six, Pliyevo, Ingushetia, December 28, 1999. 13 Human Rights Watch interview with Lecha Umarkhajiev, thirty-nine, Adket-20 border crossing, Ingushetia, December 11, 1999. Doka and Zara Umarkhajiev had met in Kazakhstan, where they had been deported by Stalin together with almost the entire Chechen and Ingush nations. They had eight children, four sons and four daughters. Issa Omurkaziev had just graduated from school, and was engaged to be married on November 17, nine days after his death. 14 Human Rights Watch interview with Saparbek Abdulkhajiev, forty, Nazran, Ingushetia, December 11, 1999. 15 Ibid. 16 Ibid. 17 Human Rights Watch interview with Belita Zarakayeva, forty-five, Pliyevo, Ingushetia, December 25, 1999. 18 Human Rights Watch interview with Movladi Tadushayev, twenty-nine, Pliyevo, Ingushetia, December 25, 1999; list of dead in Alkhan-Yurt provided by informant. 19 Ibid.