After the conflict

The Angel of Grozny: Inside Chechnya

Åsne Seierstad

Virago, 340pp, 14.99

On 6 January 1853, while serving as a soldier in the Caucasus, Leo Tolstoy recorded his thoughts about war. "When common sense asks: Is it right, is it necessary, the inner voice replies: No." Little has changed when, in 1994, the journalist Åsne Seierstad crawls through the same terrain during the first Chechen war. The ditch she has chosen for shelter is shallow; she flinches as "bullets rip twigs from the trees overhead".

Earlier she visits Konservny, "the mass grave outside Grozny where people came to look for their lost loved ones". The bodies are piled high in endless rows, many grossly mutilated. Most of them were victims of the Russian zachisti ("clean-up") operations.

Since the wars started in the early hours of New Year’s Eve 1994, roughly 100,000 Chechens have been killed. Seierstad braved the first months of the invasion in the thick of the conflict, coming face to face with the "pure sadism which poisons all wars". It is to her credit that, more than a decade later, she returned to continue her work, documenting the shattered lives of victims caught in the crossfire after the international news crews have moved on. Her clear-sighted, if novelistic, accounts of the orphans of Chechnya make for powerful reading.