Our self-righteous prime minister is complicit in the endless atrocities in Chechnya
The corpse of someone you do not know is not necessarily a frightening or moving sight, unless some detail brings it home that this stranger was a breathing, thinking, laughing being.
It was like that at a common grave for civilians killed in the Russian bombardment of Grozny in early 1995. When I visited, on VE Day, there were about 700 dead already buried. A dozen bodies were being dug out of the rubble each day, and a Russian policeman was carrying out instant postmortems.
The victims were mainly elderly, wrapped up against the cold in clothes that were already ragged even before the dust and blood caked them. They were grey all over, lumpy, anonymised. I don't know why, but when the policeman, Dima, thrust his gloved forefinger into one of the dead men's mouths and pulled it aside to look at the teeth, the corpse became human again, and the shame and sadness of Russia's state murder of its own people burned in the heart.
It was eight years ago last week that Boris Yeltsin and his ministers ordered the Russian army to restore Moscow's control over Chechnya, a region incorporated into the Tsarist empire by force in the 19th century and mercilessly scoured by Stalin. The army failed in 1994. It is failing now. In the course of this failure, tens of thousands of civilians have been slaughtered, crippled, raped or robbed, and young chancers on both sides have come to hallow terrorism, kidnapping and murder with the cause of nationalism and religion.
There is something else which has not changed: the failure of western governments - the British government prominent among them - to treat Russia's Chechen crimes as the hideous charge sheet against Yeltsin and his successor, Vladimir Putin, that they are. It seemed vile enough back on VE Day 1995 - the 50th anniversary of the end of the second world war - when Bill Clinton and John Major were jollying with Yeltsin in Moscow while the corpses were stacking up in mass graves in Grozny. That was a mere five months into Moscow's struggle with Chechnya. Now, eight years on, Britain has a leader unparalleled in self-righteousness where the oppressed of the world are concerned - in Kosovo, in Iraq, in Afghanistan. On Chechnya, he is worse than silent: he is complicit in the horror by his effusive, superfluous warmth towards Putin.