Grozny's war-hardened orphans trying to be kids again

By Geoffrey York
Grozny, Chechnya


Someone recently gave a batch of Play-Doh to the 32 children of the Happy Family orphanage in Grozny. Within hours, they had shaped the colorful clay into realistic replicas of tanks and hand grenades, complete with detonator pins.

The children at this orphanage have seen many things -- war, death, bombs, destruction on an unimaginable scale. They have survived explosions, served as spies behind Russian lines and flung corpses into bomb craters to bury them.

Now they're trying to be children again, but when they play with their clay and their crayons, it's images of war that are created.

"I saw a person blown up and die, and I had to drag him away," said Ela Latayev, a small, dark-haired 14-year-old boy with a shy manner and a hoarse voice. "After the blast, my head wasn't working anymore. I was just walking around randomly. My whole body was shaking. I couldn't walk the right way. I didn't know what was happening. There were blasts all around me."

Ela, whose parents were badly injured by a bomb during the 21-month Chechnya war, became a member of a Chechen reconnaissance unit. He would sneak behind the Russian lines, looking for tanks or artillery positions, then take the information back to the rebel fighters. "I was scared and I thought I would die. I saw the dogs eating the corpses. We want to forget about everything that happened, but sometimes we remember. It's frightening to talk about it."

Less than a month after the withdrawal of the last Russian troops from Chechnya, a joyless and fitful peace has descended on Grozny. But while the victorious bearded rebels swagger through the ruined streets, it's the children and the elderly who carry the heaviest burden of the war's legacy.

Hundreds of old people -- mostly ethnic Russians -- are dependent on a dozen Red Cross soup kitchens in Grozny to provide their daily food. Often it's their only meal of the day. They take the soup home, saving the potatoes for a separate meal the next morning.

"They're very poor and sick," a Red Cross administrator said. "They are abandoned -- all of their relatives are gone. One woman fainted here the other day. All I could do was stop a car in the street and give (the driver) money to take her home."

Valentina Bornus, a 73-year-old Russian woman who survived the war in Grozny, is planning to leave Chechnya and join her sister in the southern Russian region of Krasnodar. But she knows she'll get a hostile reception, especially from the Russian Cossacks, who disparagingly refer to the refugees as Chechens. She feels caught between two ethnic groups. "The Chechens hate us and the Cossacks hate us. They think we are to blame, but the officials in Moscow are to blame. They destroyed our city."

Another group of 18 elderly Russians have taken refuge in the remains of an Orthodox church. The church itself was destroyed by shelling, but an adjacent building survived. Church services are now held inside this building, where candles burn in front of war-damaged icons. A few dozen Orthodox believers sing and pray in the church building, kneeling and crossing themselves.

Yekaterina, a 53-year-old Russian woman in a head scarf, shares a church room with three other refugees. During the war she spent three months in a cold, wet basement bomb shelter, and now she can barely walk. She fled her half-ruined apartment building because she was afraid of marauding criminals, who have become bolder since the war ended.

"They rob us all the time," Yekaterina said, crossing herself as she sat on a bench outside the church building. "They steal food. They kill people. They check out our apartments in the day, then come back at night to rob us. They break the locks. It was impossible to live there."

Desperate people can be found in every neighborhood. Outside the main government headquarters, a crowd of Chechen women pushed and shoved as they demanded permission to see a government official. They wanted to request financial help for food or medicine. Several armed guards shouted at the women, telling them to move back.

Grozny's streets are a wasteland of bombed-out buildings and huge piles of rubble. Russian officials made a half-hearted attempt to begin reconstruction in 1995 and 1996, but the city was devastated by another wave of rockets and shells last August. Almost every high-rise is a blackened empty shell, with massive holes punched in the walls by Russian rockets and artillery.

"The destruction is even worse than Stalingrad," said Bayari Islamov, owner of a private construction company in Grozny.

He estimates it will cost $13-billion to rebuild Grozny. If the money can be found, it will take 10 years to reconstruct the city, he said. And if there's no money? "Then only God can tell," he said.

Raising money will not be easy. An estimated 85 percent of Chechnya's factories are destroyed or idle. "But nothing is impossible," Islamov said. "The Chechens are a very hard-working and optimistic people. This is not the first time we've had to rebuild from the ashes."

He wants the government to preserve the central core of the destroyed city "as a memorial for the whole world to see what war does."

As snow fell on Grozny this week, dozens of children played on their sleds, seemingly oblivious to the devastation around them. But for most children, especially the orphans, the war will never really end.

"They're hostile, they hate everybody," said Khadizhat Gatayeva, founder of the Happy Family orphanage. "They can be very cruel to each other. They hit each other. At night they can't sleep, they cry in their sleep."

Gatayeva, an orphan herself, was a field nurse for the rebels during the final stages of the war. She saw the bodies of dead children in the streets, and she vowed to find a way to help children. After the war, she found two abandoned apartments and began taking in children whose parents were dead or badly injured.

"These kids are really something," she said. "They can break down and reassemble any weapon."

The orphanage is hopelessly overcrowded. In one small room alone, 23 boys sleep in 14 cots. On the weekend, three more orphans arrived. They had been living on the streets of a city in a neighboring region for three years.

Many of the orphans, including Ela, slept in abandoned kiosks or market stalls while the war raged around them.

Gatayeva, who delights in being called "Mama" by all 32 of the children, proudly showed off a letter written to her by Ela. "Mama, you are a mother wolf, and we are your cubs," the letter says.

In their coloring books, the orphans drew pictures of Russian bombs and rockets hitting Chechen homes. One orphan, however, preferred to draw a picture of birds and trees. Above the drawing, he scrawled a simple explanation: "Before the war, peaceful life."


© 2007 Chechen Republic Online