The road to Bamut:
At least among Chechens, Bamut became one of the legends of resistance during the First Chechen War. In a dramatic flourish, the rebel leader Dzhokhar Dudayev even officially renamed it “Fortress Bamut”. And for a while, as its 1,300 houses and other buildings were being continuously rocketed, bombed and mortared, the town really was impregnable.
Bamut edges up to steep, wooded foothills that proved perfect for defense. Equally important, the rear of the village backed up into the border with Ingushetia. If the Russians could have attacked Bamut from this side, they would have encircled it. But because Moscow feared dragging Ingushetia or other areas of the North Caucasus into the war, the frustrated Russian generals were highly restricted in what they could do on Ingush territory. Troops could move through, but launching active operations on (or even from) Ingush territory was not permitted. With their flank secure, the fighters in Bamut could discreetly visit the village of Arshty, just inside Ingushetia, for rest and supplies. Further, many of the refugees from Bamut lived in Arshty, making the village a natural rear base. Russian efforts to cut the link between Bamut and Arshty both with air raids and an attempt to send ground troops, were called off after furious protests from the then Ingush president Ruslan Aushev.
After 18 months of heavy fighting, Bamut was finally captured by Russian forces in June of 1996. However, this was something of a hollow victory as the town was nothing but rubble when it was finally taken and the Chechen fighters defending Bamut had not been killed – they had simply retreated up into the foothills overlooking Bamut.
This is one’s first view of Bamut when driving in today:
The photo above was taken from where the Russian forces that laid siege to Bamut during the First Chechen War were dug in to try and show you the way this would have looked to the Russians.
Chechen snipers hiding in the ruins of Bamut would continually harass the Russian forces and Chechen mortar and artillery teams would fire into the Russian camps. The Russians would respond in kind with more artillery and mortars, setting fire to already ruined buildings, further splintering already splintered trees and ripping more craters into the earth.
However, after every bombardment, the Chechens who were scattered across Bamut in small groups (and always stayed close to cover) would emerge and fire back to let the Russians know they were still alive and still fighting.
Entering Bamut… Still a town of ruins:
A few homes have been rebuilt around the center and so one can see a long line of bombed out houses and then suddenly there will be an intact, modern home. Below is an example of this incongruent experience as we see a destroyed home right next to a rebuilt one:
Aside from a handful of rebuilt homes, Ramzan Kadyrov has also had a school built in Bamut as part of an effort to improve the propaganda picture. However, as we were told by locals, the school sits empty with no supplies, teachers or students.
Now, speaking of the school and the propaganda efforts, something interesting is taking place in the picture below:
Quite coincidental to our arrival, a very high-ranking official in the Chechen government was visiting Bamut when we arrived to review the progress of the propaganda efforts. What you see in the picture above is their convoy making its presence felt in Bamut.
Just after taking the picture above, we drove on for perhaps 100 meters to the school and stopped for a moment to look at it. Within seconds of our stopping, the convoy pictured above pulled up alongside us and at least a dozen very hard-looking men, draped in heavy weaponry and dressed all in black burst out of the vehicles. They immediately set up a perimeter while another group escorted the government official into the school to inspect it. I very much wanted to take a picture of this scene which I have just described, but these men looked particularly unforgiving – vicious even – and I did not wish to lose my camera or, more importantly, cause our driver and fixer to end up being disappeared.
As if there were not already enough interesting things in the picture above, the area beyond where the convoy was stopped is a restricted military zone. These roads lead to the Galanchozh Valley, which is still very much the frontier and an area that remains the “Wild West” for the Russian and Chechen government forces.
Below is a better picture of the restricted military zone and the way to the untamed wilds of the Galanchozh Valley:
Still in the center of Bamut, just past where the school is… Even within sight of such a showcase project, there are still ruined buildings everywhere:
Given its history in the First Chechen War, Bamut has not received a lot of love from the Russian and Chechen governments. The Second Chechen War did nothing to improve it either:
A rebuilt home and barn with ruins in the background… The people of Bamut belong to the Melkhy clan, one of the more closed and ultra-traditional in Chechnya:
There are bombed out, ruined buildings everywhere one looks in Bamut:
There’s also something else that makes Bamut stand out… Bamut sprang into the consciousness of the West when its connection to the disappearance of Fred Cuny emerged. Cuny, nicknamed the “master of disaster”, was a famous veteran of humanitarian aid missions in global conflict zones that was on contract with the Soros Foundation when he, along with two doctors and an interpreter traveling with him, disappeared in 1995. On what was supposed to be a quick trip over from Ingushetia, the group was detained in Bamut by Chechen rebels and Bamut is the last location where their presence can definitely be confirmed.
They were likely executed in Bamut or nearby.
But why would the Chechens murder someone there to help them? The New York Times explains the theory in this article from February of 1996 – a theory that the Russian government promotes and has become the most widely accepted by the American government:
In mid-November, the Russian authorities received a videotape from a boyeviki [Eds. Note: This is another word for a Chechen fighter] commander directing them to a popular Moscow park. They found buried there a 30-pound box bundled with explosives and laden with non-weapons-grade radioactive material. The Chechens had placed it there; it was a bold warning that the separatists were not only prepared to carry the war into the heart of Russia but also that they possessed radioactive material.
Since almost the beginning of the war in Chechnya, the separatists’ leader, Dudayev, has hinted that his forces possess nuclear weapons. If Dudayev actually does have them, there is one place under his control they are most likely to be: the old nuclear missile base in Lower Bamut. The Russian Government maintains that all missiles were removed from Bamut five years ago, and all nuclear material with them. Yet even if this is true — and, given Russia’s record on keeping track of its radioactive material, there is every reason to doubt it is true — one can imagine that the Chechens would not want their bluff called.
Nowhere I traveled in Chechnya were the rebels more edgy than in Bamut, and nowhere have outsiders faced a more terrifying reception. One Russian journalist who was taken prisoner there in May was made to dig his own grave and was mock executed every morning for six days before finally being released. The group I traveled with was also detained there for a time one day, and threatened. Two cameramen with the independent Russian television network NTV disappeared in the vicinity of Bamut last June. Like Cuny and his team, they have never been found.
There would seem to be one factor determining whether a visitor to Bamut lives to tell, or not. I, like most other journalists who have made the journey, was stopped in Upper Bamut and barred from going farther. By traveling with Ruslan Muradov [Eds. Note: This was Fred Cuny’s driver], a Bamut native, Cuny and the others had managed to enter Lower Bamut, the site of the nuclear missile base. Cuny surely knew of the base: did he imagine that his driver would protect him? Was he looking for something? No one will ever know. But as they drove into Lower Bamut on the afternoon of March 31, their fate may well have been sealed. Whatever they saw there — or whatever the Chechen high command feared they saw there — was perhaps too important to risk letting them live.
In the kitchen in that wreck of a building in Grozny, I tried this theory out on Magomet [Eds. Note: Magomet was a Chechen fighter the author became acquainted with].
“I don’t know, ” he said warily. “I don’t know what is in Bamut, except that it is a very bad place to go.” He produced a map, and trailed a finger along the highways leading from Ingushetia into Chechnya. “They had the choice of all these roads,” he said. “They are all good highways and were open at the time — they could have passed with no difficulty. There was no reason to go to Bamut. It was crazy.”
In other words, perhaps the perceived need of the Chechen rebels to maintain ambiguity over their possession of uncatalogued nuclear weapons – an ambiguity that unquestionably distracted their Russian attackers, trying to decide on how to allocate military resources in the conflict – may have cost Fred Cuny and the others their lives?
Certainly, the West was as concerned as the East about these rumors of nuclear missiles gone astray (and, particularly if one places this in the context of the time, the rumors would not have seemed that implausible or unlikely in the middle of the 1990s). Given his suggested loose ties to the US intelligence community, Fred Cuny may indeed have swung through Bamut to see what he could discover.
However, just because this is the theory that most seem to accept does not make it true. Unfortunately, given that most – or all – of those who may have been involved are now dead (some killed in suspicious or mysterious circumstances) there is a good possibility that the mystery may never be solved and that there is no one left alive that knows the full story.
With or without nuclear missiles, the decommissioned missile base held all manner of underground bunkers, tunnels and silos – a labyrinth of hiding places – all designed to withstand nuclear blasts. It is no wonder then that even with the massive quantities used, the conventional mortars, rockets, missiles and bombs failed to dislodge the Chechen rebels from this location.
Even all of the smaller fighting groups scattered across Bamut could take shelter in the heavy concrete cellars that many homes had. They were damp and cold, but difficult for the Russian bombardments to penetrate without a direct hit:
Some have calculated that Bamut has the distinction of being the most heavily bombed place on the planet per square inch:
And the fighting certainly did not end in Bamut after the First Chechen War or even the Second Chechen War. As recently as last year, there was a major battle that took place here:
So, the security detail accompanying the Chechen government official was not entirely unwarranted.
I struggled to find some pictures of Bamut before the conflict, but was not successful. However, I did discover pictures of Bamut, taken in 1995 when the Chechens still controlled the town, in the Flickr account of Russian journalist Vladimir Varfolomeev.
The pictures can be seen here.