Grozny, Chechnya, December 1994: woman in front of recent bomb damage

A Focus Unshaken

Jonathan Sanders

Eyewitness leo tolstoy called Russian soldiers of 1852 “invasive brutes” for the destruction they visited on rebellious Chechnya. In 1994 kidnappings of Russian schoolchildren, as well as the declaration of an Islamic holy war of liberation from Russia, provoked Boris Yeltsin. Russia’s first democratically elected leader resurrected a response that might best be called brutalitarianism. Chechnya was its proving grounds.

How does a reporter represent a highly resistant people being clobbered by an ex-superpower’s irresistible force? How does a reasonable person capture a situation totally out of control? Cynthia Elbaum, a 28-year-old photographer, embraced the journalism of commitment. Cynthia loved Russian culture; she adopted the Chechens’ courage to resist it. Through acts of caring and daring—caring shown to her subjects; daring not be “objective” but to sympathize with their side—Cynthia got close enough to depict the shock of senselessness.

Free Russia’s sweeping press freedoms, subsidized airline service and the military’s lack of a press policy delivered hundreds of journalists to ground zero, Grozny. Reporters saw a surrealistic kaleidoscope of late 20th-century images. On Rosa Luxembourg Street, Europe’s only open-air arms market flourished. Rocket-propelled grenades went on sale courtesy of underpaid Russian soldiers. Chechen guerillas knew how to use such weaponry—they had learned as Soviet army conscripts.

Outrageous incompetence ruled. MiGs targeted a city center inhabited largely by ethnic Russians and old Chechen women. Armored columns advanced without maps. Raw recruits rushed into battle armed with weapons they had never fired. Other than making the fierce frightened, the Russian military had little plan, just lethal weapons.

Yeltsin declared a truce; his air force responded by bombing orphanages. Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev taunted Yeltsin to surrender. He dared Russian generals—his former colleagues when he commanded a Soviet nuclear bomber wing—to carpet bomb Chechnya. They did.

Rebels, who craved world attention, murdered international aid workers. Reporters were “disappeared.”

Veteran journalists straight from Sarajevo declared Grozny the scariest place in the world—a war zone without any method to the madness. Newcomers were greeted, “Welcome to Absurdistan.”

In Grozny, where the Kremlin ordered people it claimed as its own bombed into the stone age, Cynthia stayed on during the blitz. She kept her focus. Scared, she tenaciously clung to a vision that framed hands as a window into her subjects’ hearts.

On December 22, 1994, Cynthia approached this woman who had just discovered that a MiG had pulverized her home. After she snapped the shutter another Russian plane dropped a bomb. It killed Cynthia instantly. Friends found this photograph in Cynthia’s camera. She was, like the people she had the conviction to believe in, an unlucky casualty of a new brutalization of Chechnya

Jonathan Sanders covered five wars in the Caucasus for CBS News.

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