NEW YORK - Russian authorities have gone to tremendous lengths to isolate Chechnya and the war there from outside eyes, and for four years intrepid and dedicated reporters and human rights champions have been striving to document the brutalities of the conflict. But a few are now starting to ask themselves in discouragement whether there's any point to their own efforts.
Does it matter what the world knows about Chechnya? Will the world act on what it does know? The record so far suggests that the answer is: Not likely.
"I no longer believe the childish illusion that information can change the world," says Andrei Babitsky, a reporter for the American-backed Radio Liberty who was here in late September for a conference and film festival on Chechnya. The conference was timed to coincide with the United Nations visit of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, and the run-up to Moscow-sponsored elections that are being held in Chechnya today.
Babitsky had taken the Russian blackout of information in Chechnya as a personal challenge from the start. In early 2000, as the war there was picking up steam, he was the only reporter in Grozny, the capital, and he sent back a stream of reports contradicting the official Russian line. In February of that year, he disappeared, turning up three weeks later in Russian custody - then, astonishingly, he was turned over to a band of supposed Chechen rebels.
The Kremlin apparently wanted to discredit him, but it was a clumsy move. Babitsky eventually turned up near the border with Azerbaijan, where he was arrested for possession of a false passport - the one the Russian military had given him.
Since then he has been back, most recently in August, when he spent three weeks accompanying a band of Chechen rebel fighters high in the Caucasus Mountains.
He could take pride, if he chose to, in hardships he has suffered in pursuit of the real story in Chechnya, and of the success he has had in circumventing Russia's information blockade - except that the war grinds on with no end in sight.
"This outrage goes on," says Aaron Rhodes, of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights - but international condemnation is difficult to find. The Council of Europe ignores abuses in Chechnya. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has no presence there. "And what's the United Nations doing about Chechnya?" he asks. "Virtually nothing."
Chechnya, he says, is a prime example of the "ineffectiveness" of international bodies.
The documentary film festival - which has also run in London and Washington - brought together works by Russian, Polish, Dutch, French, British and American filmmakers; it was further testimony, in fact, to the relative failure of the Kremlin's attempted blackout of Chechnya. The images were necessarily gory; evening screenings, at the Thalia Theater on the Upper West Side, were sold out.
"Films like these are very important because they at least strive to tell the truth," says Maureen Greenwood, of Amnesty International. "But telling the story is not enough."
The festival was sponsored by an array of human rights advocacy groups - among them, the Foundation for Civil Liberties, which is backed by the fugitive Russian tycoon Boris A. Berezovsky, who recently won asylum in Britain. Berezovsky, who had close ties to the Kremlin of Boris N. Yeltsin, was at one time a sponsor of Putin, but the two have bitterly turned on each other. Berezovsky has been accused of having had a role in stirring up the revived Chechen war in 1999, on Putin's behalf; now he is charging that Putin engineered a series of apartment house bombings in Moscow and other cities that year to harness public opinion behind the war.
Berezovsky has the cash and the motive to pursue the issue of Chechnya and do what he can to keep it in front of Western audiences, but he can't make them pay attention.
Sept. 11, notes Greenwood, made it much more difficult for the United States to bring pressure on Russia over Chechnya - because the United States needed Russian help in fighting al-Qaida, and the Russians were largely successful in recasting the conflict in Chechnya as a part of the war against terror.
"The Chechen resistance movement is rapidly becoming a terrorist operation," says Babitsky. "Yet this expansion of terrorism doesn't grow out of Chechen culture. The root of their terrorism is the abuse these Chechens have been subjected to by the Russian military."
And the United States needs to understand this, he says: "that the Russian leadership is directly fostering terrorism."
Today Chechens will be going to the polls in a presidential election scheduled by Moscow that no one expects to be free or fair; the main opposition candidates have been forced out of the race, and when Putin came to the United States last month he brought the favored candidate, Akhmad Kadyrov, with him. There has been little official protest, in the United States or elsewhere, over the preparations for the vote.
Aset Chadaeva, a Chechen nurse who now lives in the United States, survived a Russian mopping-up operation, or zachistka, in her village Feb. 5, 2000. Afterwards, she tended to old people, invalids, children and women who were dying of their wounds, she says, and the memory still stings her. She agrees with Babitsky about the growth of terror. "Sooner or later the Chechen problem will be our problem here," she says.
Babitsky doesn't see a way out. "Putin has no choice," he says. "At the beginning of the war he clearly defined his strategy, and he's stuck to that strategy, and that's a strategy of brutal military force. And there's no potential on the Chechen side to initiate peace talks. The only possibility is external pressure - but I don't believe in that, either."
Just consider, he says, how ineffective it has been these past four years.
The first Chechen war, in fact, broke out nearly nine years ago, and raged for 18 devastating months. Much of the current disillusion clearly has its roots in that earlier war. Chechen rebels at the time treated foreign reporters and activists with great respect, because they were intent on telling their story to the world; but after a cease-fire in 1996, Chechnya descended into unbridled gangsterism.
Kidnappings and mutilations became routine, and Westerners who had once championed the Chechen cause were forced to stay away. Idealism withered, and to some extent Moscow took advantage of that when hostilities resumed in 1999.
A French film shown at the festival here was called Chechen Lullaby, and it was an examination of burn-out. In it, an indomitable Czech television journalist named Petra Prochazkova explains why she decided to take a break from war reporting so that she could run an orphange in Grozny. "Maybe it's better to help these 50 children," she says, "than to tell the world there's a war going on."
In a Polish film, Murder with International Consent, a petition to the world community from a different group of orphans is displayed. "Your indifference," it says, "is killing us."
But if there's dismay among those who would like to fire up international indignation over Chechnya, Moscow hasn't gotten the message. The film festival was supposed to run there this weekend - but the Kremlin brought pressure to bear and on Tuesday it was canceled.