Escape from Chechnya to a trial by ice

By Marie Colvin
January 2, 2000

As Russian paratroopers cut off her last line of retreat, our correspondent Marie Colvin was forced to flee with Chechen help by the only route left open: a range of 12,000ft mountains.

The two moonlit gravestones were the only signs of humanity in the mountain range that stretched far around us. Magomet Amin Katayev, our guide, sat in their shadows and seemed to find comfort from them.

A small wiry Chechen who has spent his life on these slopes, Magomet had agreed to lead me and Dmitri Beliakov, a Russian photographer working for The Sunday Times, across these mountains from Chechnya to safety in Georgia. We had jackets and boots but little else for a trek across the 12,600ft peaks.

The journey began four days before Christmas. It continued for eight increasingly desperate days, ending in rescue by helicopter last week from a snow-bound field in Georgia.

It was a trip that was not supposed to be necessary. I had been smuggled into the country from Georgia on December 10 in a four-wheel-drive vehicle to report first-hand from the towns and villages under bombardment. I had planned to leave by road. But then Russian paratroopers seized Melkhist, an ancient centre known as the Dead City, taking control of the only road to Georgia. They shot at any vehicles that tried to pass. I was trapped.

If we travelled a day north, we would reach the so-called safe corridor into Ingushetia set up by the Russians. But I knew that road and was not going back to it. On the way in, Russian fighter planes had attacked and destroyed the vehicle I was travelling in and had returned again and again, firing missiles into the field where I had taken refuge under a stunted beech tree. The pilots tried to scare us into making a run for it so that we would be easy targets. It was torture to listen to the babble of a stream in the silence after each attack, only to hear the returning roar of the jets.

I had also met refugees who had reached the “safe corridor” only to be attacked from the sky. They had taken refuge with their injured in caves, or in the dark, unheated ruins that passed for hospitals, where the few doctors left could only stop the bleeding.

The alternative route, east over the border to Dagestan, was blocked by fighting. Sitting in a mountain hideout, we agreed that a trek over the peaks was preferable to being hunted from the skies.

For hours on the day we hoped to set out, Tuesday, December 21, planes attacked the slopes nearby with rockets that set brush and trees on fire in great arcs of flame. We left our hideout just after sunset. As we reached the gravestones, where Magomet said a friend would meet us, the dark ridge above us began glowing orange. One of the fires was burning our way. “It will take 15 minutes to cross this field,” Magomet said. I asked why we were sitting there. “We are waiting for my friend.” There did not seem much point in arguing.

Valed, Magomet’s friend, showed up before the fire reached us. Unlike our laconic guide – who was dressed in a sheepskin coat, jeans and lightweight climbing boots – Valed was in full combat camouflage gear with a Kalashnikov over his shoulder. He told us about his ambition to join the Foreign Legion.

Valed said he would escort us until there was no more danger from kidnappers and smugglers. That was the first we had heard of them, but to Valed the perils seemed as commonplace as a weather report. He kept up a stream of patter, walking ramrod straight and talking about how he needed training missions like this. Dmitri and I struggled behind the silent Magomet.

Within an hour we were zigzagging up a mountain on a 6in-wide path covered in snow and ice. I was carrying a pack with a satellite telephone and a computer, and wearing a flak jacket. I felt every ounce.

I tried to time my breath to my strides, but it was impossible. I struggled to breathe and the air kept getting thinner. Magomet paced silently in front. I looked down to the spectacular depths below us and the snow-covered slopes across the gorge, then thought better of this and kept my eyes on the path. I regretted every cigarette I had ever smoked – and I had smoked a lot in the past few days: cheap Russian tobacco that gave some respite from the bombs and the decisions. Without a word, Magomet took Dmitri’s camera bag and Valed shouldered my rucksack.

We stopped at a spring where, like all those we would come across, a tin cup had been left on a stone. Valed took off his shoes and socks and washed his feet in the freezing water, then knelt to pray while I collapsed and tried to breathe.

“Normal?” asked Magomet.

“Normal,” seemed the only response. I would find out during the next days that “normal” was Magomet’s way of indicating anything from “okay” to “will you survive?” – and that “normal” to a Chechen and to me were two different things.

The path was ghostly grey in the moonlight and seemed deserted. But it was alive. Three human shapes appeared along it and Magomet and Valed stiffened. The meeting was like one between suspicious dogs. Both parties circled each other, speaking quietly, until some obscure test was passed and grins broke out and all five embraced.

Some agreement to travel together had been reached. The newcomers – Leche, Mussa and Omar – took our baggage and one of them put on my flak jacket. I was sure we would be bombed as soon as I relinquished it, but I was beyond caring about anything except the relief from the weight on my back. I was thirstier than I can ever remember being and scooped up handfuls of snow to suck. I thought of the Chechen refugees who had fled along this route.

About midnight, after almost six hours of walking, we reached the top of a peak, where a roofless stone hut provided shelter from the wind. Magomet lit a fire and said we would eat. I lay on a bed of woven saplings covered with damp sheepskins and fell asleep. When I awoke, the Chechens were breaking out bread and opening tins of salty Russian stewed beef. I drank a cup of hot water but could not eat anything.

Magomet insisted we get going. The path took us towards another mountain that looked so close in the moonlight that it seemed hyper-real, a dark shape lined with white veins of snow. It was a moment of pure beauty, but when we reached the bottom of the slope it turned out that one of the white veins was the path we would have to climb up.

Dmitri sat down and said he could not continue. “Leave me here. Someone will find my body.” I sympathised but we had to get over the mountain before dawn or the Russian planes would find us. Magomet sat down beside Dmitri and quietly talked him out of suicide.

We walked up the slope, looking down thousands of feet into a gorge that one slip would take us into. Magomet hauled me by the hand to the last summit. I slept for an hour sitting against a stone in the snow until Magomet woke us at dawn with a warning that we were still in Chechnya and would have to move.

We slid and walked down the mountainside, but the way forward over a mountain river was blocked. The river had frozen into a stream of silver ice, 30ft across. This was pure ice with no footholds and a drop of about 1,000ft. We detoured back up the slope, then down across fields towards another river and another path. Suddenly, two Russian fighter planes flew overhead. We froze.

It was a discouraging day. Travelling up the next river, I stepped in the wrong spot and plunged through the ice up to the hip into the raging torrent below. Our three fellow travellers went ahead but returned to say they had reached the head of this half-frozen river and could not find a pass over the mountain. They declared that they were going back because “we cannot see any chance for success in this mission”.

We had now been walking for 24 hours. As night fell, Magomet lit a fire on the ice of the frozen river and then set off on his own. He returned at about 10pm and told us he had found the pass. He said the departure of Leche, Mussa and Omar should not concern us. They were young town boys, wannabe weapon smugglers out to make some fast money, and had decided that this route was too difficult.

I remembered Leche hauling me up 200 yards of an almost vertical slope and reflected on the Chechen meaning of “town boys”. Without my noticing, Valed had also gone – replaced by another Chechen, Murad, who was walking to Tblisi, the Georgian capital, to buy a weapon.

The next 12 hours were passed in a daze, one foot in front of the other, up and over another mountain. The air was so thin that I could not fill my lungs, and the wind was so strong that several times I was almost blown off the mountainside. Just before dawn we reached a snow-covered field amid the peaks. It looked like the top of the world. Dmitri could not walk, so Magomet placed him on a small tree and hauled him across.

There was a pile of stones ahead – the Georgian border. Two shots rang out. We dived into the snow and another two shots sounded. It seemed unfair that here, yards from the border, we would die. Magomet began shouting in Chechen and the shots stopped. We crossed the border. But we had not yet reached safety. We could not find Giveri, the Georgian village that was our goal.

I had been dreaming of coffee and a bed. Magomet said Giveri would have been deserted anyway as it was winter. Despair, for the first time, set in. I fell asleep on an exposed bluff, impervious to the wind and cold. When I awoke, Magomet had found an abandoned shepherd’s hut.

It was Christmas. The symbolism of spending it in a shepherd’s hut seemed a better omen than the graves at the start of our trek. I got a call out over the satellite phone to The Sunday Times foreign desk to say that we had crossed the border, and I also managed to reach Georgian contacts in Tblisi who had promised to pick us up by helicopter. There were no roads here and it was the only way out. The helicopter was promised for 11am the next day.

We foraged through the hut and found some flour, which we boiled up with melted snow into a gluey porridge. We took it in turns to stoke the fire, working in four-hour shifts.

Christmas turned out to be a time of disappointments and broken promises, however. Timor, one of the Georgians who was supposed to be organising the helicopter, kept promising and not appearing. The battery on my satellite phone was running out. We were marooned.

For the next two days we lived in the shepherd’s hut on flour and water. I supplemented the porridge once with wild onions. They tasted horrible but they would give us some vitamins. Magomet gave me a pistol loaded with nine bullets – telling me not to shoot a wild animal until it was 10 metres away but to shoot a man the moment one appeared – and set off to find a way forward.

After his return, we walked down a river valley into Georgia. Magomet said that in the Caucasus, people built their villages along the rivers and we might find some inhabitants. He was right: we found Giveri, a collection of dark stone houses. All were open and unlocked but had been abandoned for the winter. We found a house with beds, a stove, some more flour and a can of peas.

Using the last power in the satellite phone battery, I made my final, brief call to Sean Ryan, foreign editor of The Sunday Times. Could he take over and try to get a helicopter here?

In fact, Ryan was already in touch with Georgy Gvasaliya, a Georgian general who was helping to provide the helicopter. The general had painted him a false rosy picture: Dmitri and I were being cared for in a village with traditional Caucasian hospitality, downing great stews and sleeping in warm sheepskins, he said.

On December 28, a storm set in and we were down to the last of our flour. We decided to try to walk out. According to the map, about 30km down the river was a town and a road. I fried up the last of the flour into five flatbreads and we set out along the valley. After walking for five hours, we found another shepherd’s hut and spent the night in the cold, eating half our bread.

The dawn was clear and cold. The storm had passed but left about 1ft of snow. In a village along the river we heard a dog barking and found an elderly couple, Bartanz and Elizabetha Kacunkubev, too poor to leave for the winter.

They took us into their tiny stone house, where a portrait of Stalin looked down from the wall, and gave us fried potatoes, preserved cabbage and a shot of vodka each. Bartanz then drew a map, showing us how to get to another village, Omala, which he said had a radio and was only 5km away.

Setting out for it, we walked until an hour before dark, when we heard a helicopter. We waved madly. The helicopter ducked its nose and landed below us in a field. The Georgian general had let us down but The Sunday Times had sent my colleague Jon Swain to Tblisi. He had gone to the American embassy and told them a US citizen was missing in the mountains on the frontier. I was never happier to have an American passport.

I walked down the slope to be greeted by an Ernest Hemingway figure with a white beard and blue snow jacket, who said: “Jack Hariman, American embassy. Are we glad to find you …”

He told us Omala was much further away than the old couple had said. We would have spent another cold night on a mountainside with no shelter. Instead, the helicopter lifted off, whirling over the frozen landscape of snow and dark fir trees towards Tblisi.

(c) Times Newspapers Ltd, 2000. All Rights Reserved.