By Peter Heinlein
Intro: Russia's breakaway region of Chechnya is slowly recovering after 21-months of war. The defeated russian forces have pulled out, and children are again playing in the streets. But as voa's Peter Heinlein discovered in the Chechen capital Grozny, the youngest of Chechnya's fighters are being haunted by images of war as they try to become children again.
At first glance, Ela Latayev seems like an ordinary 14-year old boy. His thin frame and baby face make him look even younger than he is. When visitors arrive at the happy family orphanage in Grozny, Ela and 15 other children are crowded around a television set, laughing as they watch an american comedy video.
But Ela is no ordinary 14-year old. He is a combat-hardened veteran of Chechnya's civil war. When asked about his role in the fighting, his eyes narrow, his voice seems to change. He tells of his work in a reconnaissance unit behind enemy lines.
I was scared. All the time i thought "I'M GOING TO DIE". It was frightening. I saw corpses. I saw dogs eat russian corpses.
Ela says he lived on the streets after a russian rocket destroyed his home and badly injured his parents early in the war. He says he still has nightmares of the horrors he witnessed.
I saw a man blown to pieces, i saw people die, i had to drag bodies away. People running around in their underwear because a bomb had hit their house. And i thought, this is going to happen to my family, too.
The founder and director of the "HAPPY FAMILY HOME," 30-year old Khadizhat Gatayeva, served as a field nurse for the rebels during the final days of the war. An orphan herself, she decided to devote her life to children after seeing several youngsters lying dead in the street.
She opened the "HAPPY FAMILY HOME" four months ago in two abandoned apartments. She has taken in more than 30 war orphans, all of whom call her "MAMA."
But she says the job has proved more difficult than she imagined, partly because the children have such deep emotional scars.
Those kids, you can imagine, after two or three years in the war, these kids are angry. Hostile. Not just at the russian troops who bombed and killed them, but at the entire russian nation. Their psychology is not normal.
Ms. Gatayeva says the children are obsessed with war. She displays pictures they have drawn of russian helicopters shooting into burning buildings while gunmen carrying Chechen flags fire back from the ground.
When the home recently received a donation of some modeling clay, the children immediately shaped it into replicas of hand grenades, complete with tiny detonator pins.
Any of these kids can break down and reassemble any weapon, do whatever he wants with it. These kids, they're unbelievable.
A psychologist who has volunteered to work with the children calls them a lost generation. She says the war has done permanent psychological damage.
Mr. Gatayeva is more hopeful. she reaches into a drawer and pulls out a letter written by 14-year old Ela Latayev. He has drawn a picture of a wolf, the symbol of the chechen fighters. Underneath are the words, "MAMA, YOU ARE OUR MOTHER WOLF, AND WE ARE YOUR CUBS."