Aluminium Queen - Part 2
Date: April 7, 2002
You have been through physical suffering, fear, cold, you've lost all your property and the desire to have any more children, how else has the war changed your life?
I've aged twenty years. I used to be pretty, now I've turned into a monster. My sight is poor and I can't remember anything. I was fit as a fiddle and now I just whinge and lick my wounds. We all have breathing problems. All around us oil wells are burning and I can feel my lungs filling up with tar. I've lost a cosy flat and any chance of having a happy family again. We live in a flat of one of my husband's friends. We have nothing left of our own.
Even though this flat belongs to someone else and in Europe it would be hard really to call it a flat, you apparently try to make it cosy. If you had enough money, if somebody gave you the money and said: "You can only use it to buy something for your flat." - what is the first thing you'd buy?
Curtains. Even though the wallpaper is hanging off all the walls and in the kitchen the ceiling is giving way, even though it's impossible to keep this place clean, because I find it dreadfully exhausting to drag buckets of water up to the fifth floor, and even though there's a hole in the wall big enough for a fairly large elephant to pass through - which we've patched with a bit of tin - I'd put up curtains. They're the most important thing in a flat. They totally change the atmosphere. Except that the money for the aluminium isn't even enough to buy bread, let alone curtains.
What is it like, a day collecting aluminium?
I get up at five-thirty. It's still dark. I try to rustle up some breakfast if there's a scrap of flour left. I heat water, do some washing, tidy up. Then I wake the children and dress them. The curfew ends at eight in the morning. At ten to eight, my elder son and I are ready to leave. We have the bottom half of an old cart and ropes in order to take as much scrap as possible. At eight o'clock we set out. All day long we rummage in trash heaps and ruins and crawl through bombed houses. We have already combed the immediate neighbourhood and thus we have to walk long. Around four o'clock we are already making our way home so as to get through all the Russian roadblocks. When the light is starting to fade it's dangerous: they can shoot without warning. I expect they're just as frightened as I am, so they'd sooner shoot me than take the risk that I might be a kamikaze guerrilla. I spend the whole day plodding through ruins and even though I no longer resemble a human being I crawl back happy at the thought I've brought home a couple of pans and a cooking pot with a hole.
And when you get home?
I still have to go and get water...
You say your husband spends the day meditating?
I suppose so. Our husbands aren't allowed to go for water. It's degrading. Since time immemorial it's been strictly a woman's job.
You fetch water and feed your children and husband?
Exactly. Then we sort through the day's finds by candle light. I gouge the plastic parts out of the pans. They wouldn't take them from me otherwise.
Whom do you sell the metal to?
There are middle men here who make big profits out of transporting the stuff to collection centres in Russia. Previously I sold it to Russian soldiers, who were only interested in aluminium. They didn't want any other non-ferrous metals. I know that it is all taken out of the country. For a pittance. And fools that we are, we took apart an enormous oil refinery and exchanged it for bread. I'm ashamed of the fact that even the scrap that remained in this republic is being sold by us to foreigners for a few pennies. But we have to eat something. For a kilo of iron I get six roubles and that's a loaf of bread. For that I slog for a whole day, along with both boys. I even take the older girl with me. My elder son doesn't attend school because of that.
When we first met, it was cold and you and the children were in summer clothes. How do you survive the winter?
As soon as the first snow falls it's almost impossible to find any iron. During the summer I collected just enough aluminium to by one jacket for the two boys. They share it and take turns to go outside. For the one it's too big and for the other it's too small. So far the girls have nothing, and the same goes for my husband and me. On the odd occasion my neighbour lends us an old sweater. All our things went up in flames in the old flat. We didn't even find anything in the ruins underneath the concrete panels. Maybe some of it was saved but there are hundreds of women like me roaming the city. In the same way that I find things in the ruins that I can make use of or get a few pennies for, it could well be that someone found something they could use in "my" ruins. And by now some other ragamuffin has my things at home.
Women trudge through the ruins, dragging their children with them while the husbands sit meditating? Or did the rest take machine guns and go off to the mountains to play guerrilla?
Most of the husbands sit at home. I'm also frightened to let mine out into the street on his own. When he has no choice but to go, I prefer to accompany him. I protect him, not him me. My husband is tall and well-built, which is the type that has most to fear from the Russians. They could pick him up at any moment without any reason and I wouldn't see him again, or he'd come back crippled. It's better for him to stay at home.
Doesn't he find it embarrassing to sit at home while his wife is out running between mines searching for aluminium so that he can eat?
He finds it terribly degrading and he's more and more desperate. No one in your country can imagine what a Chechen feels like having a woman feed him. There is no greater humiliation. It has never happened here before. My husband and I have lived together for 13 years and for the first time we scarcely exchange a word. He lies there for days on end with eyes open, and says nothing. He was never one to lie down during the day, even for a moment. He made sure the family had everything we needed and he took a pride in doing so. Admittedly our husbands never display affection in public or hold hands with us, but they worship the ground we walk on. Their main aim in life is to make sure their wife and children have plenty. They don't even have to sleep with their wives or chat with them. They don't even have to show their faces at home, but they always make sure the family has money. Rather, that is the way it used to be till recently. The war turned everything upside down. In the past if you couldn't feed your family you weren't considered a man. That's why many women here didn't have jobs. The husband wouldn't allow it. He'd consider it a disgrace.
Could you always totally rely on your husband?
Previously, yes. Not now. He's more distraught than I am. There are suddenly lots of abandoned women in Chechnya. Many men have abandoned their families. I know women with nine children who have been deserted by their husbands.
This is something new in your country. Aren't you afraid too that your husband will get fed up with sitting at home all the time and will simply run away one day?
These days husbands desert their families much more often than in the past. I don't blame them. I feel more sorry for them than anything else. It could be that they can't face being confronted with their own helplessness and if they can't help their families they prefer not to be around. Between you and me, it's easier to feed nine children than nine children and a grown-up man who also gets on your nerves. He can't feed you or protect you from bullets. I think my husband is struggling with those emotions too.
When humanitarian aid is being distributed women often come up and say: "Give us something for our neighbour. He's too embarrassed to stand in line." Don't you find it unjust that you, as a woman, are not ashamed to beg for humanitarian assistance while your husband is prepared to desert his family on account of his own pride?
No. I'd cease to have respect for my husband if he were to line up with women.
I think that although women are generally regarded as the weaker sex, here in Chechnya they have proved themselves to have greater psychological and even physical stamina and strength than men.
They do. Our men have lost what they consider the most important thing in life - their own dignity, which in our country is to certain extent interconnected with their ability to ensure one's family's material security. They've been deprived of money and the opportunity to earn it. There's nothing worse for a Chechen man than to be poor or to do humiliating work to earn money. And for women, what counts most of all are their children. They are prepared to do anything to protect them. Even to humiliate themselves. A man always thinks of himself first and then about others. And now our heads of families have realised that they are dependent on those they always used to lord it over. This is worse than a military defeat. It pains my husband, for instance, to see my hands ruined from the aluminium. In the past women here in Chechnya used to work but they never did dirty jobs. The Russian women specialised in that. Now we're all in the same boat. We and the Russian women dig trenches.
You say that it's not so dangerous for a woman to move around a city full of Russian soldiers, but what about good-looking young women?
I know what you are getting at, but that's something we don't talk about here. Only a handful of cases received publicity, the rest were hushed up. There are cases of girls going out and not coming home. A lot of our young women are in prisons all over Russia. If they come home, they'd be better off shooting themselves. If anyone laid a hand on them they'd be written off for good here in Chechnya. It's a kind of law. A sullied daughter is worse than a dead one to her father. It's a terrible disgrace. She'll never get married and no one will say a kind word to her, even though it's not her own fault she was dishonoured. So you see the war has dishonoured us too, not just our menfolk. But we don't go on about it the way they do.
Did you ever beg? Is this a taboo for you? Would you rather die of hunger than stand in the street with your hand out?
I could never stand and beg in Grozny even if it meant my children dying of hunger. That's something only Russian women can allow themselves to do. But when we were refugees in Dagestan, I used to go secretly from house to house, without my husband knowing, and ask for food. Never in my dreams did it ever occur to me that one day I would have to knock on someone's door and ask for ordinary water.
You say you led a normal life until the war broke out. Do you think "normal times" will ever return?
I think I'll still be a collector of aluminium when I die. Maybe my children will live to see something normal. So that they don't think it's a holiday when they have macaroni. They are growing thin before my eyes. Most of all I'd love to take them to the real seaside. At present the possibility of assuring them even a slightly decent future is beyond my wildest dreams.
Apart from the real seaside, what's the most important thing for them now?
I expect you think I'll say warmth and full stomachs. That too, of course, but what I'd really like is for them to have at least an average education. So that they can have their own little corner to feel good in.
And what about you? After all, your life isn't over yet.
No, it isn't, but I'm aware that I've reached a new stage in my life and there is no turning the clock back. I used to enjoy wearing fashionable clothes, now I literally put on old rags just to keep from freezing. Now the most primitive things are what matters to me. Building a home of some kind, fixing it up, finding work for my husband and myself and getting paid for it. Watching my children study, taking them to the theatre the way I used to go when I was small. That's what happiness means for me.
Do you mean you still think about your children learning to read and write at a time when you are suffering from hunger?
You'd be surprised. I agonise over the fact that they can't go to school. It's very important for me how they'll study. Proper education will help them find a place in this world. Before the war my elder son was doing well at English and Arabic. I know it matters more to him than a warm winter jacket.
When the whole family comes together in the evening, do you chat, do you tell the children stories? What do you do, in fact, when there's no electricity, water...
Nothing. We listen to the bombing. The children creep into bed, I cook something by candlelight and my husband says nothing. The only "intimate" conversation with my husband tends to be on the theme: when will I get round to patching his ragged underwear?
Is there any chance at all that warmth and a full stomach will become something taken for granted in Chechnya?
That's not up to me to answer. There are only two things I think about now: food and Russian soldiers. I worry about them hitting our house. As soon as it gets dark they start firing every kind of weapon like mad. I sit here with the children like rabbits in a burrow, hoping it won't fall in on our heads. I say to myself selfishly: "Let them hit anyone in this damned city, just as long as it's not me or my children. Then I'm ashamed. I'm terribly frightened and yet I'm ashamed of it. I imagine my girl friends sitting in the ruins with their children, just like me. We're a herd of terrified rabbits, a couple of which cop it every day. Only a few people like me have stayed in the city. Either they haven't any other possibility of leaving or they've decided to put up with it just so they can be at home and not abroad. Some have stayed because their ageing parents refuse to leave the city; they haven't the strength to run away and want to die at home. My parents are dead but my brother, my sister and my old grandmother live in Grozny. I don't want to leave them either.
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