ZNAMENSKOYE, Russia, January 2001 (AFP) - Chechen refugees from the fighting in their war-torn republic are certainly having a very bad time, but the living conditions of the rank and file Russian troops are at times hardly better.
Cramped living quarters, open-air latrines and an unrelenting diet of buckwheat stew form the daily round of the 200 interior ministry soldiers based at Znamenskoye, a small town in northwestern Chechnya near the Ingushetian border.
"Life's not a bed of roses, but at least we're getting enough to eat, which isn't the case everywhere in Russia," sighed Yevgeny, breathing in the scent of a heavily-sugared cup of pale tea.
Yevgeny's breakfast was a bowl of milk with macaroni plus four dry biscuits. In the evening he can look forward to his umpteenth meal based on "kasha", a formless, buckwheat gruel that is the basic fare of the poor.
"But we often have meat and cheese," Yevgeny said, shrugging off the austere regime. "And back home my mattress is hardly any softer than what we have here."
As for being paid late, sometimes several months late, well, that happens everywhere in Russia, he observed philosophically.
The local population 11,000 people has been swollen by some 2,400 internally displaced Chechens, most of them residents of Grozny who, after fleeing Russian bombardments, now find themselves living under canvas.
Federal forces captured the town of Znamenskoye, located on an inhospitable plain, in the early days of the Russian intervention in the breakaway republic in October 1999.
As a result it has been largely spared the devastation visited on the capital.
"The situation in northern Chechnya is totally under our control, though you never know what can happen with the terrorists," night-patrolman Oleg said, using the standard denigratory term by which Russians officials refer to the Chechen rebels.
"One of the barrack huts came under fire from a grenade launcher last month, during the night. No-one was hurt. But there are attacks like that almost everywhere in Chechnya," he said.
Though Znamenskoye is one of the few localities in Chechnya to have a properly functioning electricity supply, the dusty streets are not lit at night.
As a result they are no place to linger, and civilians hurry home for the night, the troops remaining under orders not to venture out.
"The town's out of bounds at night. Things are pretty quiet here, but it's Chechnya just the same," Konstantin said.
"What's more, we're not allowed to drink," he added. "Would you believe it?"
And the supplies officer raised his glass of vodka to the memory of the Russian dead who have fallen in the current fighting -- 2,500 troops according to official figures that are widely believed to understate the true toll.
Vyacheslav, a 36-year-old veteran of the 1979-89 war in Afghanistan and the first Chechen conflict of 1994-1996 saw the situation in starkly simple terms.
"It's not the Chechens we're fighting, it's the Muslims. I hate them all. They're not men," he said.
Konstantin's view of the conflict also owed much to conspiracy theory. "We're up against Arab mercenaries financed by the Muslims," he said. "In fact there aren't more than 100 Chechen fighters left. Do you see now why the fighting still isn't over?"