Aluminium Queen - Part 1
Date: April 6, 2002
Prague based NGO Gender Studies has for several years been publishing books of memories of women of various ages and generations reflecting female points of view on historical events and milestones of communist and post-communist regimes. Apart from former Yugoslavia, one of the hotspots of the post- communist era since the early 1990's has been the conflict in the North Caucasian republic of Chechnya.
Interviews with a few women whose lives have been drastically marked by war were recorded within several months of 2000 by Czech journalist Petra Prochazkova, who was staying in the Chechen capital on a short but very intensive work assignment. Petra later decided to quit her journalist career and turn to helping those who stayed in the ruins of the bombed-out capital.
The decision to collect interviews with six Chechen women into a book is an attempt to spread information through personal encounters with the victims of the war.
With the consent of the author and the editor, Prague Watchdog is republishing one of the interviews from the prepared book, which will be published in Czech and English this year. The interview with the "Aluminium Queen" is divided into two parts.
I met her in the Moscow Street. She was walking along nimbly, or as nimbly as her shabby rubber galoshes permitted. Two even shabbier children trailed behind her dragging a cart with three and a half wheels, full of old iron. Elza would collect scrap in the ruins and gouge the aluminium components out of it. To look at her hands and teeth you'd think she was around sixty but her eyes and face betrayed that she must be under thirty - which she was.
What did you do before the war?
I was born in Chechnya, here in this city. I attended school for eight years - primary and vocational school. Only I couldn't find a job in my field after I left school - I'm a specialist cake baker. A confectioner and baker. Unfortunately I completed school just when our country was starting to fall apart like rotten meat. I tried my hand at everything - plastering, selling at the market. In the end I managed to find a regular job as a kindergarten assistant.
What do you prefer, wiping children's bottoms or baking cakes?
I didn't train to be a confectioner just because there was anything better to do. I love sweets, though you wouldn't tell by looking at my figure after two wars. I just love the unique soft touch of flour on my fingers. I close my eyes and breathe in the smell of cakes and pastries when they are already baking in the oven. I thought up new recipes and improvised. I was happy when I heard people smacking their lips. Even now, when my children spend their time wandering the streets and my husband sits in the corner silently fuming over the fact he's got no job, I still close my eyes and try to recall the feel of flour and the smell of the cakes. It really turns me on. As the scarcity gets worse, I dream more and more often about buckets full of white flour that I could bury my hands in.
Do you receive humanitarian aid?
No. It seems that I'm supposed to register somewhere, but I don't know where. I don't know where to go to ask or what I'm supposed to do. The places where they give things out always have terrible queues and people fight to the death in them. Old women tear each other's hair out and old men kick beat each other with sticks. And all on account of a bottle of oil, half a kilo of sugar and ten kilos of flour. A hungry horde is worse than a pack of wolves. I'm not on any lists. I'd go and fight over a bit of dry crust and when my turn comes they'd tell me I won't get anything. So I prefer to collect aluminium.
And for the money...
At most I manage to bake a loaf of bread or some pitta. A loaf costs five roubles, oil costs twenty. Everything is terribly expensive at the market. When the first war started in 1994, I was so well stocked that I managed to bake cakes for the next six months. Now I haven't a thing. And every day my children ask me: "Mummy, why don't you bake anything?"
Did your mother bake you sweet things?
No, she died young. I got married when I was sixteen and my mother died soon after. I lost my father at the beginning of the second war, at the end of 1999.
Did he get lost or did he die?
I don't have a clue. He left the house on December 2, and never returned. I'm still looking for him. Luckily I still have two brothers and a sister. When Mum died my youngest brother was six, so I'm a bit like a mother to him.
You married when you were sixteen, an age when some girls are still playing with dolls. Why were you in such a hurry to get married?
That's not unusual here. It's part of our tradition. When someone takes a fancy to you and the parents agree, you generally have little opportunity to protest. Although no one will drag a girl to a mullah against her will. It's just that girls here are accustomed to doing what their parents say, so they don't protest too much. But I found my husband for myself. I fell in love and happily got married. My father didn't object and nor did my husband's family. But if one of the esteemed elders had said I wasn't respectable enough, there would have been problems. If the worst came to the worst my fiance would have to abduct me. Or we'd have to give each other up for good.
You don't regret marrying so young?
No. We were in love. An unmarried girl, even if she's thirty, can't leave the house on her own. There is no leeway. The laws in Chechnya are very strict. So when I got married I was actually freeing myself from parental control. Admittedly I came under the control of my husband, but that is something else. We enjoyed our young years together. It all depends on who you marry.
Who did you marry?
A normal guy. We lived a completely ordinary life. No luxury, but no poverty either. My husband worked in a bakery and received a regular wage - it seems like a fairy-tale these days. I cooked and there was something in the larder. Sometimes I'd do odd jobs. There are a few construction works that I can do. I like rendering and plastering, tiling. I'm not a trained professional but I've managed to pick it up fairly well on my own. So my husband and I would make a bit on the side. We would agree to build a house or do general repairs and get a few pals to work with us. Then we'd deliver the lot fully finished. We got decent money for that. Just before the war I found that kindergarten job and my husband got a full-time job as a plumber in a factory. He was earning good wages. We really lived a completely normal life.
What does that mean? What was your flat like, and your kitchen?
Normal, that's all. I had everything I needed. Decent beds, nice furniture, china without cracks. We had a bedroom, living room, children's room, a bathroom with hot water and a spacious kitchen. It was enough for me. When I think back at those days, it strikes me, for instance, that I dressed my children too well. I used to buy them really expensive stuff and myself too; I'd try and find the most fashionable shoes. I could afford whatever I liked. What more can a woman want? I enjoyed housework. My husband bought me a modern iron, a Sony television, a video, and a washing machine, so I almost didn't have to exert myself physically. There was running water, there were no gas failures and we took electricity for granted. You pressed the switch and the light came on. That was before the war. Then everything started to go to pieces. The state fell apart and everything else with it. And it affected even the simplest things.
How do you do your ironing these days, now that your luxurious iron is no use without electricity?
With a lump of iron. It's the remains of an old iron from the days when there was no electricity in our country. I heat it up and try to iron with it. Sometimes I say to myself: "We're surrounded by ruins, filth and mud. We've no clothes to our backs, we live like pigs and here I am trying to iron..."
So what makes you do it? Many people think these days: "Give us some rags, no matter what they're like; they can be old and torn, just so long as we're warm..."
When I'm tired I also tell myself there is no point in ironing, or washing clothes for that matter, let alone trying to look at all decent. I look around me and see that we're all gradually giving up worrying how we look. People who wouldn't have been seen outdoors in unpolished shoes go happily out in galoshes tied on with torn, muddy plastic. I do too. I don't care what I look like. But sometimes I get shocked when I see myself in the mirror. Then I say to myself: "I mustn't let myself turn into an animal and think only about food and warmth." That's why I do the ironing. Ironing is actually a way of showing I'm not an animal.
My interview with Elza took place over several sessions. From the summer of 2000, Elza and I would meet with great regularity and a sort of fragile friendship grew up between us. It was fragile because at first I mainly represented for Elza her main source of material welfare. At our first meeting I gave her two kilos of sugar and a small packet of tea and some sunflower oil. A few days later I visited her at her home. I brought her a box of old clothes and she thanked me profusely. But she behaved somewhat differently than the other women I supplied with food. She didn't pester me or ask when we'd come again. She didn't weep or complain in particular. Gradually she started seeking me out, discretely at first and later quite overtly. It was obvious that apart from the aluminium I was her only source of income. From time to time I helped her out with some sugar or an old sweater. She looked out of place in the crowd of women who thronged our gate. She would always stand a short way off and wait until I'd served everyone. She never asked for anything of her own accord. She would greet me and ask us how we were. In December 2000 I managed to obtain three mattresses for her. They clearly do represent a turning point in our relationship, although neither of us suspected it at first. Elza came to pick them up with the same cart she used to drag scrap around. At first I didn't recognise her. She was dressed to the nines, but her cart gave her away. She had borrowed high-heeled boots from someone and put on what once had been a luxury fur coat that she had cadged from her neighbour for a couple of hours. Her head was covered with a gold-embroidered scarf. She looked quite outlandish in that queue of paupers. People started whispering that she didn't need the mattresses. Elza flung herself into my arms and in front of everyone stuffed something in my pocket. The consternation in the eyes of the bystanders indicated what the crowd was thinking: the humanitarian worker was giving out stuff for bribes. Elza kissed me, loaded the mattresses onto the cart and set off homewards walking coquettishly along the street lined with burnt-out ruins of houses. No one noticed her hands. They alone betrayed the fact that the fur coat was borrowed from the neighbour. Elza's hands were raw, her nails were frayed like old rags and the fingertips were so cracked that blood and dark pus ran from them constantly. I took a look at the piece of paper she had slipped into my jacket. On it was written: "I invite you and Ruslan to celebrate my birthday on 12th December. I don't want anything!!!" There were 16 exclamation marks.
It was the nicest and jolliest birthday party I ever remember. There was no alcohol or cake, but we did have candles - each of us brought our own. There was a terrible shortage of candles in Grozny. Elza was dressed much more modestly than on the day she came for the mattresses. On that occasion she had dressed up to celebrate the first humanitarian aid she had ever officially received. Ruslan and I racked our brains for a long time over what we should give Elza for her birthday. The evening before the celebration we had a ding-dong row over whether to give something practical or choose a symbolic gift. Towards morning we took a rag doll from a humanitarian aid consignment and wrote on it in red crayon: "Aluminium Queen". We drew six teeth - which was about the number Elza had left, combed the hair to resemble hers, put some dirt on the hands and dressed the doll in ragged clothes. "She won't take offence," Ruslan assured me. "She's not stupid." He was right. Elza has a refined sense of humour and although she has not had much education, she is endowed with exceptional intelligence and sensitivity. The rag-doll "Elza" still hangs in the half-wrecked flat at No. 32 Kosiora Street in Grozny, where the Aluminium Queen dreams about curtains and buckets of flour.
Before you were married you lived with your parents. Do you recall ever being in such straits as you are now?
Never. We weren't badly off, even though my father was an invalid. At the time of the USSR all people with health problems received some kind of assistance. Not like now. Dad received an invalidity pension and state support. Mum worked in a bio-chemical factory named "50 years of Chechnya-Ingushetia". Poor thing, the work she did was very strenuous. She used to pour dyes and I think that the toxins she inhaled over those years shortened her life. My grandfather died soon after Mum. Since then, I'm more often at funerals than weddings. Eventually, I lost my father too in the last war. But otherwise we lived normally.
Until the first war. I celebrated my birthday with my husband and some friends on 12th December 1994. I was 24. The previous day Russian troops entered Chechnya. I remember that birthday party quite well. Russian tanks had already arrived on our territory but Grozny was still calm. The Russian air force had bombed Grozny airport several times since November 1994 but everyone thought it was just intimidation and took it fairly calmly. It didn't bother me particularly. I said to myself that they were trying to force us to toe the Moscow line and that the high-ups would come to some kind of agreement. And I couldn't care less how they did it. It's true that a lot of people I knew took part in demonstrations for free Chechnya and my husband and his friends were always arguing over whether our national flag should be like this or like that, and whether the wolf on our coat of arms should be sitting or lying down, but I didn't take part in any of those discussions. Men don't talk to us women about politics. Some of my girlfriends used to take part in the demonstrations and some of them started wearing our national costumes. I rather liked that. But none of us had the faintest notion what was ahead of us. So on 12th December we laughed and were merry even though something very weird was already in the air.
Do you recall the moment when you finally realised that war had begun and you were part of it whether you liked it or not?
I left the house on 13th December before nine in the evening. At that moment they started bombing Khankala - a part of the city that had always been a military base - first Soviet, then Russian, and then, during Dudayev's time, Chechen. Now the Russians are back there again. In those days we weren't living here in this housing estate but in the Michurin district. That was right next door to the unfortunate Khankala. I quickly returned home and all of a sudden bombs started falling on the neighbouring blocks of flats. Everything was burning. Our block was fourth in the row and I realised that we could be bombed too at any moment. I took the children - we didn't even have time to put on clothes - and we dashed out into the street. That was their first shock. Even though they look normal at first sight these days, apart from my sick daughter, their nerves are shattered. Just try raising your voice to them ever so slightly. Sometimes I lose my cool and tell them off over some trivial thing. Their eyes open wide and I can tell they're terrified. Not like normal children being ticked off when their mother ticks them off, but like terrified animals forced into a cage and tortured.
When I asked you which of the wars you found worse, you thought for a long time and in the end you didn't answer. Don't your experiences of those two wars get mixed up? Can you still remember a time when gunfire wasn't a part of your daily life?
I find it does get mixed up, but there are some moments of that first war that come back to me more and more often. My younger daughter Mata was born on August 3, 1996. At that time, Chechnya was under the control of the Russian army and the city looked like a military camp, more or less the way it does now, but less ruined. Three days after she was born, during the night of the 5th August, our partisans entered Grozny. A new phase of the war started. I was with the baby in the 4th city hospital. Early on the morning of August 6, the Russians started bombing. They probably thought there were insurgents there. My little girl was only three days old, but she must have been aware in some way of the explosions, the gunfire and the hysteria. And it remained in her. For good.
What did you do when the bombing started and you were holding a three-day-old baby in your arms?
People started running in all directions. I wrapped my little girl in a blanket and ran out into the street. I don't even know how I managed to get back to the flat we were living in at that time. By then, the block of flats in the Michurin district had long been razed to the ground and we had moved to the Minutka Square. That doesn't exist any more either, but in the summer of 1996 the houses were still standing there. All that's left of them now is a little pile of rubbish. I ran there like a madwoman. We spent the next 21 days in that room with the new-born baby, the three other children and some of the neighbours. We were completely cut off from the outside world. It was a total blockade. We were afraid to step outside the door. There was non-stop gunfire. We ate what was left in the flat - preserves, crackers, tea, and I baked dry cakes over an open fire from our remaining flour. We burnt the window frames and the furniture. There was no more gas, let alone water.
On the twenty-first day, did you run out of food or patience?
The Russian high command announced that civilians had 48 hours to leave the city. Then they said they were going to flatten it along with the partisans and anyone who ignored the ultimatum. The rebels had managed to occupy a large part of Grozny and force the Russians out. That was what annoyed Moscow. On the twenty-second day we went out into the street and walked from Minutka to the outlying district of Staraya Sunzha. I don't know how many kilometres it is, but plenty. We set out at eight o'clock in the morning, myself, my husband and the four children. I carried the baby in my arms. I had a bag attached to my back with some things and food I had found in abandoned flats. But there I couldn't carry much. My husband took something and so did my elder son Said-Selim, who is now twelve. My younger son, Kureish, who was ten not long ago, just about managed to make it on foot. Aminatka, who is now eight, was terrified and didn't want to go at all. What we couldn't take remained in the flat. At that moment I couldn't have cared less. Hordes of terrified people staggered through the streets. No one knew where to make for. Gunfire could be heard from all directions, but people fled, without knowing whether they might be heading for the centre of the fighting. So we fled too.
Had you no idea where to go either? Was it a chaotic escape from the bombs or a flight into safety?
At first I had no idea what way to go. My husband said he had heard something on the radio about humanitarian corridors that civilians could use to leave the city and find safety. In fact he wanted to go his own way because the Russians didn't let young men use the corridors. But we didn't find any corridor. Twice we found ourselves right in the middle of the fighting, so in the end we set off in the direction where there seemed to be a bit less shooting.
That was the first time you ran away, but not the last. Did your experience that time help you survive the last war?
I have a feeling that this time it might have been even worse. On 5th November 1999 we fled the city again in the middle of falling bombs and deafening gunfire. Eventually we had to ford a river twice in deep frost and crossed some fields before setting out in the direction of Dagestan. It is a few dozen kilometres to the border. On top of everything we weren't sure that the Dagestanis would accept us. In the summer of 1999 our troops attacked Dagestan and ever since relations with them had been extremely tense. I'm not surprised, it was none of our business. I expect someone paid our lot to start a conflict with Dagestan, who helped us during the first war. You see it's mostly all about money. I don't believe that stupid talk about freedom much any more.
How did your children cope with the difficult march?
My daughter, who was three at the time, nearly didn't survive. When she was born she spent her first three days under blockade and then we dragged her with us like a piece of rag. The situation had only started to calm down and everything started off once more. The child became very ill. I only prayed that she should die without too much pain. For many days she only drank tea. She couldn't even take a piece of bread in her mouth. On the day we decided to leave the city she had almost no strength left. I took her in my arms and wrapped her in rags, like that time when she was new-born. Except that this time she was much heavier for me to carry. The girl was heavier and I was weaker. We waded through water, so the five kilos of flour I had brought from home got wet. All I had left were three jars of preserves. The boys walked on their own and where the water was too deep, my husband carried them. So we waded right up to the frontier with Dagestan. There we came upon the Aksay river. The water came up above my waist. On the other bank stood the Dagestani OMON (special police units) who didn't want to let us enter their territory. They started firing at us. They could have hit us but I suppose they didn't mean to. Bullets hit the water all around us. The soldiers waved their arms and shouted to us to return. We made three attempts but each time they drove us back. When the night fell, we found a place we could cross. I closed my eyes and felt snowflakes starting to fall on my face. We were drenched and frozen to the bone. We shivered and lost all hope of reaching anywhere. But Allah wanted us to survive. We crossed the water during the night. Just beyond the river there was a village inhabited by Dagestani Chechens - they're known as Akinians. We knocked at the first gate and asked for hot water for our children. When they set eyes on us they wouldn't let us leave the yard. We stayed many weeks with the family of Doku Sikhaeyev. He maintained us and never said anything about us leaving. He had a big family with several small children and things weren't easy for him. I found it agonising. Several times I told my husband: "It would be better to live on the street than be a burden on strangers and wait for them to give us a crust." In the end a lonely widow took us in because she was afraid of being at home alone. She didn't want a penny from us and shared everything with us. By then we had no money left. We started to sell the few things we had brought with us. Once, in a fit of temper, I tore off my elder son's wrist the watch he'd received for his birthday. And then in spite of dreadful yells and protests I took it off to the market. I had to do it. I'd already sold my own watch and my husband's. We lived that way for seven months. In May we returned home to discover we had no home left.
Have you not seen the old lady since?
I don't have any possibility of going there. I can't even afford thirty roubles for the bus fare. The post doesn't work, so I can't even write to her. But I often think about her. We have this old custom. Several weeks after his marriage the newly-wed husband comes to introduce himself to his mother-in-law. At the wedding he is not allowed to set eyes on her. In fact he's not actually present at his wedding and is not even allowed to bump into his wife's relatives on the street. I didn't manage to introduce my mother to my husband. So the old lady we lived with in Dagestan is a bit like a mother-in-law to him.
Do you ever regret having had children during such dramatic times?
I expect it's a sin, but I regret having had any children at all.
Because it's too much of a burden on you? Do they get in your way?
That's not what I mean. Of course it's easier to wade across a river without a child in your arms. But I had in mind something else. These days I can't even provide them with the basic thing - food. They are cold because I have no clothes for them. The eldest one rummages with me in the ruins for aluminium. They can't even go to school because they have no shoes. Maybe they'd be better off if they'd been born to someone else and somewhere else. One of my daughters is seriously ill. She bears the marks of the horrors of war that we've been through together. Now she has mental problems and a serious bone disease. Her limbs are all twisted and the condition is getting worse. Until the first war she was fine - a great big child with rosy cheeks. She started walking at the time the Russian forces launched their air raids on the city. They bombed us day and night and the helicopters fired missiles at anything that made a noise. She saw it all and, what's even worse, heard it all.
And what about you?
Adults see things differently than children. On the one hand it's worse for them because they're aware of the real danger and apart from shivering with fear on their own account they are also afraid for their children. Children chiefly think of themselves, of course, and don't understand what is going on. That protects them. They don't think about what will happen the next moment, they simply know what is happening now. Whereas I say to myself on the contrary: "Fine, we might survive this air raid but it's time to worry about the next one."
You're still young and it's the custom in your country to have big families. Do you want to have more children?
Definitely not. I've no strength left. In the evening when I crawl in after rummaging for aluminium I sit down. It's dark and I know I have to go for water. I say to myself: "We'll just have to die of thirst, I'm too tired to go." It's three kilometres to the nearest pump and the water is horrible and stinks. In the end I go because I have to give the children some tea, at least. But I know that one day I might simply decide not to go. I'll just let the children scream with hunger and thirst. I would never have believed it in the past, but now I know I'm capable of that.
(to be continued)