Fatima's life lies in ruins, like Chechen capital

Date: November 30, 2002
Source: The Globe and Mail
By Mark MacKinnon


GROZNY -- Fatima has lived the life of an average Chechen.

Forty-eight years old, she was born in exile in Kazakhstan, where Stalin had deported the entire Chechen nation in an effort to stamp out its inborn nationalism. She's since lived through a traumatic return home, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the declaration of Chechnya's independence and the subsequent two bloody wars with Russia.

In the past eight years, the fighting has stopped only briefly in this breakaway republic, a period during which bandits effectively ruled at gunpoint.

Fatima has seen her city bombed to rubble, her friends killed and her own home destroyed twice. And there's little hope her nightmare will end soon.

"Look at these buildings," she implored a visitor in her hospital room, casting her hand toward a window that showcased the crumpled apartment blocks and fire-scorched stores that were once downtown Grozny. "Our lives are like these buildings. Completely destroyed."

While Fatima, who was afraid to give her last name, was recovering in hospital from dysentery, her family was living in the last remaining room of what was once, she said, a splendid flat. They have no electricity or running water, and have to light fires at night to stay warm.

Her 19-year-old son left Grozny three years ago to flee the harassment that young Chechen men -- often suspected by Russian troops of co-operating with the rebels -- have to endure. Her daughter and only grandchild still live at home, while her husband takes what odd jobs he can find, hoping to make ends meet.

"It's a terrible life," she said plainly. "There's nothing good about it."

There is little evidence that anything good has happened to Grozny, Chechnya's capital, in a very long time. Once a laid-back European city in the foothills of the Caucasus mountains, it is now a ruin, resembling Cologne at the end of the Second World War or the northern half of Kabul today.

In what was once a downtown, there is not a single building left unmarred by heavy-weapons fire. Whole apartment blocks have been reduced to piles of smashed concrete and twisted metal. Smaller houses have been cut in half as the war quite literally exploded into people's living rooms. Even telephone poles are pockmarked with bullet holes.

As a result, while many here disagree with his actions, many Chechen civilians say they understand the desperation Movsar Barayev must have felt when he led a band of men and women that took more than 800 people hostage at a Moscow theatre last month. Mr. Barayev's biggest demand was an end to the fighting in Chechnya and a withdrawal of Russian troops, neither of which looks set to happen soon.

If the Russians enjoy a firm grip on Grozny, though, it is only by day.

By night, it is the Chechen rebels wreaking havoc with small, almost symbolic actions to make sure everyone knows they're still fighting.

Last Monday night, the doors of the main Russian military base in town burst open so that an ambulance could whisk a soldier, 24-year- old Eduard Ilyazov, to medical care. A victim of a land-mine blast, he was in serious condition, with wounds to his chest and leg inflicted by what the United Nations this week declared to be the most heavily mined area on the planet.

Astonishingly, a press release handed out to a group of foreign journalists visiting the city this week declared that "the situation is now normal."

Even as Russian soldiers were trying to highlight for the journalists what little rebuilding they had done in Grozny, two explosions rocked the city, just hours apart. Three soldiers were later reported dead, killed by a blast in Grozny's central market. Eight more were reportedly killed in a clash a day earlier in another part of the breakaway republic. Gunfire, interspersed with small explosions, rattled the capital every night.

Colonel Boris Podoprigora, assistant commander of the Russian forces in the region, said that while the Chechen rebels no longer possess the capability to fight set-piece battles, they still roam the republic in small groups at night.

The rebels still have about 1,500 active fighters, broken up into small groups that are often at odds with each other, Russian officials believe. Arrayed against them are about 80,000 Russian soldiers who now control all the major population centres, if only by day.

"When we speak of having all of Chechnya under control, we speak of the quantity of territory under control. But as for the quality of territory, that's another pair of shoes," Col. Podoprigora said.

Since the 19th century, when czarist forces first invaded the region, Russia has never had full control over Chechnya. A long line of anti- Russian Chechen resistance fighters, from Imam Shamil, who was a thorn in the side of Czar Alexander II, to Dzhokar Dudayev, who infuriated Boris Yeltsin with his declaration of Chechnya's independence in 1991, are still seen as heroes in the republic. The word Chechen itself is derived from the Turkish term for "ungovernable."

The first Chechen war was a separatist struggle, beginning in 1994 and ending two years later with the rebels having scored a shocking victory that won the region de facto independence from Moscow. The second war began in 1999 after then Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin blamed a series of mysterious apartment blasts around Russia on the Chechens. Mr. Putin, now President, has made winning the second war, which he calls an "antiterrorist fight," one of the priorities of his term in office.

Milana, a 20-year-old medical student, said she and her classmates are afraid to go outside once the sun goes down, and instead spend their evenings with their families in unheated apartments.

"The soldiers come out at night. They are the terrorists, not us," she said, using a word that both sides bandy about with ease.

Milana told a story of one night two weeks ago when she worked at Grozny's Hospital No. 4. Dozens of teenagers were brought in bleeding that night after their school bus had been attacked, she alleged, by a Russian tank.

"Some of them were missing their legs," she continued, her eyes ablaze with anger. "The tank driver was just drunk. This is what life is like in Grozny. This is what they don't want the outside world to see."


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