“Welcome to Samashki,” muttered Lieutenant Volfovich on the eastern tip of the village. The word ‘Samashki’ had been crossed out and replaced with ‘Hell’, but he chose to ignore it.
It was Spring, 1995, and Samashki was the last rebel stronghold in south-western Chechnya. The Russian army had recently tried in vain to capture it, before relinquishing the task to the Interior Ministry. Now, after three days of mock decoy operations, the troops were moving in.
“Welcome to Hell,” countered Sergeant Korotchenko, left of Lieutenant Volfovich behind a tank near the front. The Lieutenant didn’t reply. His comrade was jittery. They all were.
As the column inched up the desolate street only the rumble of tanks in unison with APC’s and the slosh of boots in mud could be heard, as the men trudged as close to the armour as possible.
After a while, however, the Sergeant elaborated. “Should have moved in the morning.”
“They have no night vision,” replied the Lieutenant. “No advantage.”
“No advantage! No sorties, no artillery strikes…”
“Command wanted to spare the village.”
“You should have a word to him,” stated Korotchenko, jerking his head back.
“Colonel Nerzorov is with us,” said the Lieutenant, surveying the area to his right. “But he has limited clout.”
“We need better intelligence. It’s nice to know exactly what you’re facing.”
“We know the Basayev battalion is in the area. If Basayev is with them we could go a long way to ending the war.”
“In the area or in the village?”
There was no reply.
“I thought we’d be going house to house: that every building would be defended,” added Sergeant Byalik, behind Korotchenko. “But we’ve now covered a whole street, not a soul in sight.”
As the lead vehicle veered off to the left there was little chatter, and it wasn’t only nerves. Two APC’s were destroyed on reconnaissance that morning. One was carrying men from the same regiment. Two were killed, two wounded.
“Gunfire,” muttered Junior-Sergeant Labzenko, left of Korotchenko, after the column diverted across a vacant block. Lieutenant Volfovich listened hard. It was protracted: the southern regiment had made contact with the enemy. Upon refocusing on the terrain ahead, however, he quickly disregarded it.
“Get onto the lead crew,” he said, grabbing the shoulder of Korotchenko. “We have to stop.”
By the time the Lieutenant was back to the tank of Colonel Nerzorov the column had begun to stall, and within a minute most men had already taken the chance for a smoke.
“So?” asked the Lieutenant.
The Colonel, peering calmly through binoculars, was atop his tank.
“We either go by, or we veer off to the right.”
A sudden volley of automatic fire broke out in the distance. It was separate from the south: it was from the west, but both men ignored it.
“We shouldn’t veer off,” said the Lieutenant.
“You don’t think they’re rigged?”
“That’s not the point. The way the vehicles are lined up- it seems too obvious. Maybe they want us to veer off.”
“We should shell them,” quipped a young crewman leaning against the APC in front, cigarette in mouth.
Both men ignored him.
“We’ll go to the right,” said the Colonel, still looking through his binoculars. “We have enough armour to deal with anything they throw at us, and we can move to the other side of the school.”
The Lieutenant saluted and scurried back up the line. He just hoped the desperation to avoid any damage would not endanger them. The procession moved on, cutting up two side streets, and in early evening the destination came into sight. The school complex was of strategic importance. If it could be taken, the other regiments would be able to link up, bypass the village square and push through to the north where local militia would be waiting.
“Turn left and park up the middle of the street,” was the call over the radio. Lieutenant Volfovich heard it repeated, but it seemed unreal. It was amazing they had arrived without coming under fire.
The column halted on the edge of a wooded area. It would provide crucial cover: on the other side were the school grounds, and they wouldn’t be moving before dusk.
“About a hundred yards,” whispered the Lieutenant, looking through binoculars at the major building from the edge of the wooded area.
Several comrades lay in the grass beside him, some sat further back while the majority remained on the street.
“See any spooks?” whispered Korotchenko.
“No,” replied the Lieutenant, handing over the binoculars. “But they’re expecting us,” he added, noting the zigzagging rows of cut, knee-high grass leading up to the main building.
“What about the grass?”
“What if they’re controlled?” said Sergeant Byalik, behind Korotchenko.
“Without night vision, they won’t know when to detonate them,“ replied the Lieutenant.
“Do they have any nests?” asked Byalik.
“No sign so far,” replied the Lieutenant. “But there’re so many rooms along the sides, they could be anywhere.”
“That’s why we need armour,” said Korotchenko, handing the binoculars back. “The track is more than wide enough to bring it through.”
“If we avoid the mines, we’ll make it to the main building before they know it,” said the Lieutenant. “Armour’s too loud. Unless they’re all deaf, they know we’re here already.”
The Lieutenant began crawling back to the street.
“It’s nearly dark,” he whispered, looking back at his men. “Time to get prepared.”
At approximately 10pm, under a moonless sky with battle raging ever closer, Lieutenant Volfovich led a company of men out into the open. The target was the administration building and from there it would probably be room-to-room. He could barely see the men around him: only shadows crouching low as they moved methodically, almost mechanically forward.
“Gasoline,” whispered a voice to the left.
“Shhhh,” whispered another. “Keep it down.”
“Both of you keep it down!” whispered a familiar voice to the right. It was Korotchenko.
“We’re near the mines,” whispered the Lieutenant. “Try to watch your feet.”
The Lieutenant got on his knees and felt his way forward, reaching a row of grass and carefully touching it. It was saturated, and it reeked: gasoline.
Suddenly, as he stood back up, there was a large explosion to the right followed by a chain reaction of detonations on the edge of several buildings, sending waves of fire along the rows of grass. A chorus of small arms fire opened up almost simultaneously, cutting down several men as the area lit up.
“Take cover!” yelled the Lieutenant while running for a small flight of concrete steps on the right. He slid under and poked his head out. Most, like him, had apparently made it but several bodies were visible.
“Alexander!” cried a familiar voice. It was strained; rather difficult to hear amid the withering fire. “Alexander!”
He honed in on the source, about 15 yards away. It was Sergeant Byalik.
The Lieutenant placed his rifle on the ground, got to his feet and took a deep breath, before shaking his mildly singed hands and scurrying out to his wounded comrade.
“I’ve got you, Sergei!” he shouted, grabbing his left leg. “I’ve got you!”
While pulling his comrade back to cover, the Lieutenant felt a projectile whiz past his chin. He threw a glance at the building above and saw a dozen muzzle flashes near the top floor.
“Where were you hit?” he asked, pulling Byalik under the stairs.
“My thigh. And I dropped my weapon.”
“Your thigh? That’s not all your blood...“
“I think it’s Nikolai’s,” came the faint reply. “I was right behind him. I think he got a mine.”
The Lieutenant was momentarily dazed, but snapped out of it when a volley of bullets slammed into the stairs. Out of reflex, he picked up his weapon and fired several rounds at the main building before putting it back down. He rolled onto his back and unclipped the radio from his waist. It was time for a change of tactics.
“Bring in the armour!” he barked. “We either hit’em or we quit! I want shells poured into the main building! There’re two white portable rooms on the left, a multi-storey building on the right, stairs out front: about a dozen spooks near the top! Take’em out!’
“That’s this one,” said Byalik, his voice trembling.
The Lieutenant put the radio down before facing him: “We’ll take our chances here. Has to be done.”
Within a few minutes the sound of approaching armour was followed by the sound of bullets rapidly smashing into it. The Lieutenant peered around after reloading his third clip. A rocket slammed into the top of the leading tank and deflected off, slamming into a brick building on the other side. Meanwhile, several near misses churned up large quantities of mud. The sound of revolving turrets was followed by several slightly quieter moments as the tanks ground to a halt.
Then the earth shook.
The men plugged their ears as the buildings were pummelled at close range and from several tanks apparently perched on the edge of the woods. Debris rained steadily down with each shell that crashed into the building above but it wasn’t enough to pose a danger, and after a minute the big guns fell silent.
The initial calm was disorienting. Beside the odd burst of sporadic fire the only fighting to be heard was from elsewhere in the village.
“It’s OK,” shouted the Lieutenant after a few moments, his ears ringing.
Byalik didn’t understand so the Lieutenant pulled his hands down before taking another peek. More armour was approaching, this time packed with men.
“I’ll send a medic,” he said, handing his weapon to Byalik. “Ask before you shoot.”
He then grabbed his radio and crawled over the rubble on the left.
“Unbelievable,” he marvelled, surveying the building above while passing a partially disabled tank. The top stories no longer existed, a mixture of rubble and flames. The crackle of fire was all around, as were the cries of the wounded. Nearly every building had been hit, many were in ruins: friendly fire casualties were virtually a given.
“Are you OK, Lieutenant?” enquired a voice near the entrance of the main building. It was Junior-Sergeant Labzenko.
“Yeah,” he replied, staggering through a large hole. The building was already crawling with comrades: some securing prisoners and inspecting bodies, others preparing to enter the corridors. He stopped for a moment and looked up at where the roof had been only minutes earlier, before handing the radio back to Labzenko.
“Get onto Nerzorov. We need all our medics immediately, but not without protection.”
The school grounds were officially secured at midnight for the loss of nine dead and 35 wounded. Nearly 20 enemy bodies were found in the rubble and another five were killed resisting capture. Forty prisoners were taken, most with weapon in hand, many already wounded.
Some eight hours after entering the village, the Lieutenant lay down under the sky in the administration building. Several men were sleeping nearby, while others guarded the exits. They would have their turn for some rest in a few hours.
“Lieutenant... Lieutenant!” said the Colonel.
The Lieutenant sat up and looked around in order to get his bearings.
“How long have I been sleeping?”
“It’s 4am,” said the Colonel. “Samashki is ours.”
“What’s the total?”
“30 KIA, a hundred and fifty wounded. On the other side: 70 dead, a hundred captured. Figures not yet finalised.”
“So few?” asked the Lieutenant, extending his hand.
The Colonel pulled him up before replying. “We’ve interrogated several prisoners. There were many more".
“Hundreds. Even here, in the school, there were stockpiles of heavy weapons and foodstuffs. Count yourself lucky. If they'd have stuck around your whole company may have been wiped out.”
“They fled?” asked the Lieutenant, stumbling over toward the barely existent front wall. He could see men sleeping beside their vehicles as others walked casually around.
“To Ach-hoi Martan: five km north. There may have been militia collaboration.”
“Any sign of Basayev?” asked the Lieutenant, looking back at the Colonel.
“No. Maybe he fled as well.”
"We’re staying for two days,” came the swift reply. “We patrol the place, rest up, then leave.”
The men saluted each other before the Colonel headed for the left corridor. The Lieutenant sat back down on the rubble strewn floor. He knew he should get some more rest. Although the Colonel didn’t spell it out, the equation was clear. In two days they would be going to Ach-hoi Martan.