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First Chechen War-25 Years On

11 December 2019 marks the 25th anniversary of the beginning of the First Chechen War. Though by no means the only conflict to beset the imploding Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the War in Chechnya came to epitomise the chaos and wanton destruction of the former superpower's demise. It pitted a poorly trained conscript army against driven and passionate independence fighters who were picking up from where generations left off in the 19th century. Being waged within the borders of Russia proper, the war also appalled a shocked and disorientated population witnessing Russians killing fellow citizens. Initially Russian generals thought that the pacification of Chechnya would be a matter of days or weeks. The troops they sent across the border and toward Grozny, the Chechen capital, however soon found themselves bogged down in an icy quagmire and grim house-to-house fighting.

Though President Boris Yeltsin is said to have had grave doubts about the invasion, telling the Speaker of the Duma at the time that he feared it would 'turn into a second Afghanistan', he was under pressure from a strong consensus among his ministers answer Chechnya's secessionists moves at a time when dozens of regional conflicts were erupting across the former Soviet Union. Chechnya's Chief Mufti Akhmad Kadyrov widened the scope of the conflict by declaring that the Chechen struggle was a form of Jihad (or Holy War) against Russia which drew an estimated 5,000 foreign volunteers into Chechnya from across the world. Chechen fighters sheltering in neighbouring republics who clashed with Russian forces also threatened to widen the conflict across the entire North Caucasus.

Over the course of the coming two years, widespread human rights abuses on both sides and the indiscriminate bombing of Chechen towns and villages turned the majority of the Russian population against the senseless war and drew the ire of Western powers.

Facing mounting casualties and near widespread condemnation from across the world, by 1996 Yeltsin was looking for a way out of the conflict. The Russian army had been repeatedly humiliated by numerically inferior Chechen forces and morale in the army had started to collapse, with reports of human rights abuses mounting. Though a peace accord was concluded in late 1996, the Chechen imbroglio was far from finished and by 1999, following terrorist bombings inside Russia and the invasion of neighbouring Dagestan by Chechen and foreign militia, Russia launched the Second Chechen War.

Panos photographers Heidi Bradner went to Chechnya a number of times during the First Chechen War, when both Russian and foreign journalists were allowed to work inside Chechnya. Her images, and those of many other journalists and photographers who covered the conflict, were instrumental in fuelling the outrage against the war and its human costs both in Russia and across the world.
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