An international group protesting the use of land mines says that more people are killed or injured by land mines in Chechnya than anywhere else in the world. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines reports that almost 6,000 people died or were injured by land mines in the breakaway republic last year. The group says both Russian troops and Chechen fighters regularly use mines.
Prague, 11 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Sultan, a former resident of the Chechen capital Grozny, lives in a refugee camp in neighboring Ingushetia. He is one of the region's countless victims of land mines, which have been used liberally by both federal forces and Chechen fighters over the course of Russia's four-year war in the breakaway republic.
Sultan tells the story of how, in 2001, he traveled to Grozny hoping to return to his job as an engineer in an oil refinery. Instead, he stepped on a land mine -- losing a leg and altering his life forever.
"I went [to the area where the refinery was located]," he said. "The only thing I remember is walking there and stepping on something. When I regained consciousness, I was already in the hospital in Sleptsovsky, [a town] in Ingushetia. To cut a long story short, I lost my leg."
An international organization aiding handicapped people in Chechnya later provided Sultan with an artificial leg, and now he can easily walk short distances. But he has no work and no hope of finding any in the future. He says his relatives help support his family, and his wife is able to earn some money selling cigarettes and chewing gum.
Sultan says he tries not to worry about material prosperity. "If it was my destiny to be rich," he says, "Allah would have given me wealth even if I had no arms or legs." But he admits that life at times seems almost impossible.
"To be honest, I've been tired of this life for a long, long time," he said. "It's very hard to be handicapped. Sometimes I have moments when I feel it would be better not to be alive at all."
At the same time, Sultan says he knows there are many other land mine victims even more unfortunate than he: "There was a guy who was in the hospital at the same time as I was. He came from the Achkhoi-Martan District, the village of Osinovskaya. He and his younger brother went to collect nonferrous metals from a dump at the edge of the village. [They stepped on mines.] He was very unfortunate. He died in the hospital. His brother lost both his arms, his sight and one leg."
According to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, Chechnya has more land mine casualties than any other place in the world. In a report issued this week, the group -- which won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize -- says that 5,695 people were killed or injured by land mines in the breakaway republic in 2002, more than twice the number than the year before. It is an especially disturbing figure in a region whose population is less than one million people.
Officials from Chechnya's Moscow-appointed administration have played down the numbers, saying it is currently impossible to collect such specific data in the war-torn republic.
The Interfax news agency cites Chechen Deputy Interior Minister Akhmed Dakaev as saying, "I think the [ICBL's] data are extremely exaggerated. We do not have any separate statistics related to land mine victims, but official data indicate that far fewer people were killed or injured in 2002."
Mark Hiznay works for Human Rights Watch and contributed to the ICBL's land mine report. He tells RFE/RL information for the study was collected from the Russian Ministry of Health as well as the U.S. government and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). Hiznay also says land mines are fast becoming the primary weapon in the entrenched Chechen conflict.
"There are daily reports of casualties among combatants," Hiznay said. "Land mines continue be a weapon of choice both for Russian federal forces and for the Chechen resistance forces. You read constantly reports of roadside mine attacks, mining rail lines. And then there are also the issues of internally displaced persons returning to mined areas from previous parts of the conflict -- the civilians."
Hiznay adds that of last year's 5,695 casualties, 938 were children. Last year, Olara Otunnu, the United Nations special representative for children in armed conflict, said land mines had killed or injured several thousand children in Chechnya. At the time, he estimated that half a million land mines had been planted in Chechnya -- making it "one of the most land-mine polluted zones in the world...very much up there with Afghanistan, Angola, and Sri Lanka."
Russia is among several of the world's major land mine producers that have not signed the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, which forbids the use, stockpiling, production, or transfer of antipersonnel mines. China and the United States have also rejected the so-called Ottawa Convention. An international conference to review the treaty is scheduled to be held next week in Thailand.
(RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service contributed to this report.)