Thursday, 14 April 2011

The Cosmonauts Return

Children with U.S and Russian flags wait to cheer the returning space men.

It was a damp spring day, but warmer than last time I was reporting on returning cosmonauts back in the depths of winter. The three returning crew Aleksandr Kaleri, Scott Kelly and Oleg Skripochka walked up and laid flowers at the base of the statue of Yury Gagarin. It’s an almost hallowed place here at Star City, the cosmonauts training centre north of Moscow. It was just two days before on the 12th April, fifty years ago, that Yury Gagarin became the first man in space.

Yury Gagarin's statue

The three had landed from in a special pod in March after their stint on the International Space Station. After some weeks of acclimatisation this was their official welcome home. In the Hall of Cosmonauts came the showers of flowers, salutatory speeches and applause for six months of orbit, maintenance and experiments.

When I covered the launch of these three men last October it was with Scott Kelly’s brother Mark watching with me. He too is an astronaut and was due to meet his brother in space when Scott was commanding the ISS and Mark was leading the discovery space shuttle's last mission. They would have been the first brothers in space. Unfortunately the discovery's mission was delayed until after Scott came back.

It was also a moment of technical improvement back in October 2010. The Soyuz rocket they were flying was the first of a new generation with a new flight control computer. It did its job well, bringing them to the ISS and back again safely.

For their time circling earth the three helped to measure the effect of radiation on models of the human body and its tissue. The mannequins 'Mr Rando' and 'Matryushka' were stuck out into space to sample radiation levels which scientists rate as the biggest threat to cosmonauts, being twice the level of that on earth.

In the 'Expose-R' experiment organic material from plants, bacteria and insects was subjected to the same treatment to see what organisms might have survived millions of years ago and gain some insight into the mystery of life's origin on earth.

They also received space vehicles from Russia, the U.S, Europe and Japan.

It had been a busy six months, conducted smoothly. This celebration was thanks from star city, from Russia and from the wider world.

When I talked to Scott after the presentation we reflected on the fifty years since Gagarin’s first historic flight. “What do you think will happen in the next fifty years of space exploration,” I asked. “Maybe Mars?”

“Maybe,” replied Scott with a smile, “I’d certainly want to live to see that.”

With space pioneers like Kaleri, Scott and Skripochka, he just might.

Left to right- Scott Kelly, Aleksandr Kaleri and Oleg Skripochka
lay flowers at the base of Gagarin's statue.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

North Caucasus Journal- Day 8- Makhachkala

Sevil Novruzova, her brother was radicalised and died in
a gun battle with Russian security forces.

We finished our journey through the north Caucasus with an interview in Dagestan's capital, Makhachkala, with Sevil Novruzova. Her brother Ramil became a militant and was killed in a gun battle with police in 2008. She noted, with tears in her eyes how he became radicalised at university while he was supposed to be studying law. One day after he left university some of his friends left. As people across the North Caucasus say, they ‘went to the forest’. Ramil started to bring them food. Sevil confronted him and told him if he didn’t stop she would force him to. He left home the next day without a word to anyone of even packing a bag. She never saw him again.

Police told her that Ramil and a group of militants were surrounded in the woods soon after. They said they tried to make the militants give up, and thought they were about to surrender. However their leader wanted death and glory and started shooting, dragging them into a gun battle in which Ramil and all the others were killed.

Sevil curses the extremists who brainwashed him and forced him to give up his life. It’s an example of the worst kind damage that the North Caucasus insurgency really does. It tears apart families and communities. Sevil blames the militants.

But others differ in their opinions. Rasul Magomedov, the father of Miriam Shirpova who blew herself up at Moscow's Lubyanka metro station in March 2010, massacring twenty six innocent bystanders, blames the police. He says it was there brutality that forced his daughter, a sharia wife of a militant who had been killed in a shootout, into her actions by making her an outcast of society. His views are controversial in Russia, some even see them as siding with the terrorists, but they are held by many see that at the very least Russia's police in the North Caucasus are corrupt (true, we had bribes extracted from us three times and resisted other attempts), at worst they are thugs who themselves terrorize the local population. All of this argument doesn't help Sevil or Rasul who have lost loved ones.

We spent nearly two weeks in the North Caucasus. I’ve included just the interesting days and parts, and interesting they were indeed. We've met people affected in all sorts of ways by the region's troubling insurgency. We discovered some of the complexities the conflict forces on people, and the anger and hurt it causes. But we've also seen great generosity, rich culture and religion that don't have time for any of the region's ideological excesses. There’s a sense of getting on with daily life here despite its frustrations and risks. But like so many things here in the North Caucasus a solution will not come quickly, and like the ethnic, religious, cultural and political mix here, it will not be simple either.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

North Caucasus Journal- Day 7- Makhachkala to Kizilyurt

A car bomb had ripped into the local FSB building two days before.

We turned up at the Dagestan police headquarters on a sunny morning and went to meet a couple of the officers there. The sea breeze wafting in from the Caspian makes Makhachkala's air fresher than Grozny's. My colleague remarked that I may be have been the first Brit ever to enter the police HQ. The secretary of some apparently important policeman spent an inordinate amount of time trying to make us feel they were doing us a huge favour and listing how little they would let us see. In that Caucasus bureaucrat way she was reasonable but infuriatingly useless at the same time. We expected the usual pattern, a lot of promises leading to a long wait and no filming or interview at the end of it.

When our two officers walked in, both besuited and admittedly looking like experienced professionals on the outside, we could tell instantly they had not thought for a second about our coming. One left to check whether they could even let us go anywhere interesting at all while the other and the secretary smoked and relaxed. A policewoman sauntered in, and sauntered out again when she saw the secretary was busy. "My friend," remarked the secretary to the policeman leant against the wall behind her chair. We waited. He left. We waited more. Eventually a man came and showed out the cameraman and assistant to film the police building. At least we'd have their Romanesque pillared turquoise HQ on tape.

They said they would take us to Kizilyurt, a town to the west whose police station was attacked two days before, wounding seven police officers. More waiting. Then suddenly we were off, trotting out onto the noisy, hectic streets of Makhachkala. We passed a checkpoint to the police HQ, attacked regularly with automatic weapons, even once by a man on a bicycle with an rocket propelled grenade in his backpack. Police work here is certainly dangerous. Though many accuse the police here of brutality, they take it as well as dish it out.

The two plain clothes officers drove us out in a typical lada, busily speaking a mixture of one of the local dialects and Russian. There is no real Dagestani language, like there is Chechen or Ingush. This territory mixes a lot of different ethnicities, their customs and their languages. All the signs are in Russian, but the gabble on the streets is a patchwork of convenience.

The Sunday before there had been local elections here. Unsurprisingly Putin's party, United Russia won 66% of the vote. 40% of people supposedly voted, reflecting people’s response to the official encouragement to place one's ballot. Many people here are disenchanted with what they see as a sham of an electoral process. Who knows whether this vote was rigged or only United Russia supporters were pressured to vote. But the next opposition party was far behind.

After an hour’s drive we arrived at the town of Kizilyurt. In one of the central streets we saw the aftermath of the attack. Huge chucks have been gauged from the walls of the local FSB (Federal Security Service) building and the roof so badly damaged it was having to be replaced. Around it a police building, a house and a shop had had their windows blasted out and were blackened by fire. Pieces of glass and metal still littered the pavement.

One of the bullets had passed straight through the front door,
whizzed past the face of a policeman behind and hit the far wall

The commander of the local police came to greet us. Askhabali Zairbekov was a busy man with a grey crew cut and sharp eyes. He spoke fast and shouted a lot, but smiled and laughed equally quickly. "It’s virtually a partisan war here," he said. I could see what he meant stood in front of the bomb blast. We left a crane in the street lifting concrete blocks to reinforce the approaches to the building and went inside. In his office we watched the CCTV footage of the attack. A bomb in a second car left behind was deliberately timed to explode five minutes after the policemen ran out in response to the gunfire from the first car which sped off. Mr Zairbekov was keen to point out that his men ran straight out even though they were running into the path of the bullets. He emphasised, “they’re not cowards.”

 Local police commander Askhabali Zairbekov surveys the damage and
shouts at police and workers to reinforce the station.

Speaking to locals we heard of their anger at the disruption of everyday life. At the local train station one policeman, Akhmed Magomedov, told us the town was ringed with villages whose inhabitants support the hardline Wahhabi form of Islam, and those who wanted to launch attacks. "They proclaim they are doing the work of Allah but most of our policemen are Muslims too,” he adds.

He joined the police at 21. Then it was just a job. Now, eight years later, he's more thoughtful. He says that someone with brains would set off on a secular track, making money for themselves and their family. Those who are idiots do nothing with their talents and fall for the promise of religion which offers them paradise. "How do you fight people who don't value their own lives?" he says with a shrug.

Akhmed Magomedov talking to local taxi drivers in the market.

As the sun set over Kizilyurt, it didn't seem a hopeless or brooding place. It felt like a town trying to bustle and busy its way along, all the time pestered by vicious and hurtful setbacks. The people here are in a difficult situation. Their response is summed nicely by Akhmed himself. "What to do," he says, "if I didn't do it who would?"

Outside the station they were reinforcing the barricades
so the same thing couldn't happen again.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

North Caucasus Journal- Day 6- Grozny

Kadyrov's brats. Why not let the poor old ladies hold
 the guns and you do some work for a change?

Today we went to the stadium of Chechnya’s biggest football team Terek Grozny to interview Chechnya's sports minister, who's also happens to be the club's vice president, conflict of interest anyone?

The experience was one of the more frustrating instances of gaining an interview. We were sent right round the stadium from entrance to entrance, each time waved on by one of the gun toting jobsworths I call Kadyrov's brats (the security/militia/all-round hooligans Kadyrov armed and uses to keep his iron grip on the power).

Stopped by one of Kadyrov's brats.
Our previous permission to film meant nothing to him.
Outside Kadyrov's chosen objects of investment (mosques and palaces mostly) Grozny is still a shell. Many streets, even outside the centre have a reasonably smart facade but they are still ruined underneath. For example our hotel (stuffed in above a furniture shop, only had running water for an hour or two a day. The cafe across the road advertised that it was ‘open for breakfast' but served just tea or coffee’. In another telling indication we were here to interview the vice president of a football team who don't even train here, they train 400km away in Kislavodsk, a much safer town. Good to see the team has the same confidence in Chechnya's safety everyone else is told to have.

However it hardly seems the team need to be worried. For once inside the Terek stadium we entered plush, modern European surroundings. Some British clubs would give their front teeth for facilities like this! And this is the old stadium. A new one is due to be completed in May to hold 35,000 fans (pics). The reason behind this? Well perhaps it’s somewhere to put the piles of cash being thrown to Kadyrov by the Kremlin. But it’s also a way, reason the authorities, to distract the large, young male population of Chechnya from shooting and blowing up people.

Terek's new stadium under construction.
Maybe they'll feel safe enough in it to actually train in Grozny.

The sports minister was late, really late. Apparently he had a government meeting, but I don't know what the sports minister of Chechnya could have been talking about for so long. After a couple of minutes of typical bland ministerial platitudes (worth a dramatic delay of 4 hours, no), we finally set off, delayed, for Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan.

They yellow sign in the stadium says,
"We are against Facism, Extremism and Nationalism."

The journey was, as we had become used to, cramped and uncomfortable, but we were stopped only twice and had no bribes taken. We arrived late at night to a hotel that was a lot more comfortable than the Grozny dump, and went promptly to sleep. I noticed again how many mosques were built or being built, mostly in Chechnya but also in Dagestan. There almost seemed no room for houses to fit in around them. I wondered, is this a sign of these republics’ semi-autonomy, granted them by Moscow, or perhaps a plan for an Islamic emirate by the long, subtle route. Either way, they should get their watches fixed first.

Monday, 4 April 2011

North Caucasus Journal- Day 5- Nalchik back to Grozny

Today the FSB finally let us film a checkpoint and sent someone with us to make sure they let us. As a result, rather than the torrent of abuse we received last time we tried, we managed to film some good shots of the police at work. We then set off back for Grozny to talk to some of the leading figures at the local football club Terek Grozny. They recently hired Ruud Gullit as their coach. A nearby Dagestani team has signed Roberto Carlos. The rationale being pursued by local administrations, funded and supported by the Kremlin is to distract the region’s angry young men into sport. To a degree it might be working. As a local official said, when the team first went for training in a nearby town people stood and stared on the roadside. They didn’t even know Chechnya had a football team. When they saw it, people realised the decade of bloody war the territory had been through must over. Well, open fighting at least.

On our way back to Grozny we were shafted by the Ingush police again, 200 roubles this time. No car check; they just wanted the money. What a way to fight terrorism.

When we arrived in Grozny again it was a hazy and busy afternoon. Looming up through it all was the city's central mosque, one of the largest in Europe, built under Ramzan Kadyrov’s reign. It’s a strange symbol for a territory supposedly resisting the creation of a Caucasus emirate. It might be a supremely cunning long term plan of Ramzan's to bring about a Muslim state subtly. But one thing that is striking is the sheer number of mosques springing up all over Chechnya. The future of the region will be intimately linked to the type of Islam being imbibed in them.

Friday, 1 April 2011

North Caucasus Journal- Day 4- Back to the mountains

Usually there are 5-7000 tourists here. Today there were twenty.

It was our second attempt to reach the Elbrus ski resort in the mountains. We had a different driver, but crammed into the same style of yellow soviet ‘Volga’ taxi. We were stopped in the Elbrus district capital, Turnaus. The policeman demanded 100 roubles (£2) from the driver or said he would do a more detailed check and we would have to take the car's panels off. This time he paid the money. The policeman didn't even do his job and check the car properly.

Again the sun was bright and the mountains stunning. Today there weren't even clouds to mask their peaks. We managed to pass all the other checkpoints. The Elbrus tourist region, I noted, is surprisingly developed, at least on the outside. There are alpine style stone and wooden hotels and chalets. There aren’t so many lift systems but what there are are modern. Again the pistes were few but they looked smooth and well kept. The trouble was it was a ghost resort. The lifts were stopped. The pistes were empty.

On February the 18th this year three tourists had been shot inside their minibus on the their way to the resort by islamic militants. Later the same day they had blown up on the resorts cable car runs. Attacks here are usually on the police or on vocal critics of the militants. These were tourists from Moscow which made the attack unusual and frightening to that industry most vulnerable to securty panics.

They told us there are usually 5-7000 people here in high season. Now there was only 20. Most local stores hadn’t bothered to open. Skiers and ski instructors said it was embarrassing. Not only had the militants managed to bring the entire season to a crashing halt. The army was scaring everyone away and had summarily announced, without a word of warning or consultation that the season was over because of that favourite Russian security service phrase, ‘an anti-terror operation’. Some businessmen had taken out credit to build new hotels of shops. They were likely going to go bankrupt, I was told. The Russian government wants to put money into the Caucasus resorts to help develop the old soviet holiday infrastructure there. But by far its greatest ambitions lie to the west in the black sea city of Sochi and the mountains outside it which will host the 2014 winter Olympics. The aim is make the region an international ski centre, and also to encourage people to get into business instead of joining the militants. For the moment, their local tourism plans are in tatters and everyone is worrying that Sochi is now a prime target in 2014.

Welcome to Elbrus! Locals and the government have had a bad setback in developing what is a beautiful resort.

On the way back we tried to film an army checkpoint but were met with a hail of abuse, apparently the official permissions we had meant nothing here. Local officers had given the order, no photos. When we got talking with one of the soldiers we found he was a good guy. He was bored and cold waiting day after day in the middle of this valley. However he shared the local jealousy that Sochi, hundreds of miles away to the west, was being given all the money and attention for tourism development.

He agreed that the security presence was counterproductive. It may make the resort safer but it just scares people away, strangling local tourist businesses. That night we spoke an FSB officer, trying to gain that elusive permission for photographing the checkpoints. He, not surprisingly, was more upbeat. But even he thought the republic was being held back. He estimated that around 40% of Kabardino-Balkaria was involved in tourism. But it could be 90% if the industry was allowed to grow properly. The risk is that the longer it takes to make the mountains safe, the less tourism industry there will be left for tourists at the end of it.

It seemed the only tourists enjoying the peace and quiet were the cows.