From Nazran to Grozny

Date: September 11, 2002
Source: Neue Zrcher Zeitung AG
By Elisabeth Petersen


The author of the following travel notes lives in Zurich. Though Grozny, the Chechen capital, is largely closed to foreigners, she recently managed to travel there with the aid of local acquaintances.


We leave Nazran, capital of the Russian Republic of Ingushetia. After just a few kilometers, we pass its border with Chechnya. The roadblock manned by Russian soldiers is already in sight. My first stab of fear. Will they send us back? What kind of men are these? How will they treat us? Will they check us thoroughly? All the nasty reports I've heard about such roadblocks flash through my mind: holes in the ground, internment camps, people made to "disappear." Ruslan, our driver, is castigated by the soldiers. Doesn't he know, they bark, that the bribe money is to be placed among the ID papers and not just pressed directly into their hands?

We make it through the first of about 20 roadblocks. My heartbeat slows again. Rich green, gentle hills, herds of cattle and sheep, broad rivers winding through the landscape, and behind it all the snow-covered Caucasus Mountains. This is the same landscape described by Lermontov and Tolstoi. In the midst of this natural beauty, the soldiers behind their barricades and in their control posts present an incredible picture of powerlessness. They are not just soldiers, they are mercenaries who stop the few cars on the roads not to check them over, but to earn some extra money. Each checkpoint costs us. Our driver tucks more or less money in among our papers, depending on how he judges the situation.

A Classroom Among the Ruins

Shortly before reaching Grozny, we pass the remains of a once-huge oil refinery. A few still-smoking pipes reach up into the morning sky. The road is absolutely straight. I'm surprised by the many stands selling things along the roadside, against a sprawling panorama of wreckage. We overtake two tanks, in front of which men carrying minesweepers walk, trying to remove the mines that were laid by guerrillas during the previous night.

We drive past a completely destroyed factory building. Some chunks of steel lie crookedly on the grounds. "This was Adam's factory," says Fatima, my companion on this journey. I had met Adam a few days earlier in Nazran. For close to 20 years he had been the manager of this plant, which produced photographic equipment. Now he lives in the rubble of Grozny, in a cellar of which he has set up a "classroom." His pupils are anywhere from seven to 16 years of age. "Parents beg me desperately to educate their children. Many of them have never been able to attend school at all," Adam recounted in Nazran. He teaches them whatever he remembers of literature, history, mathematics and physics. "Whatever comes into my head, what I still know from my own schooling." There are no textbooks, notebooks are scarce. Many teachers have left Grozny to live somewhere else in the world, or else have ended up in refugee camps.

We drive through Grozny. I am shocked at the magnitude of the destruction, street after street, house after bombed-out house, one pile of rubble next to another. House façades bear hundreds of bullet holes, like marks of the pox. Scenes that I know only from photographs of Berlin or Dresden as they were in 1945.

As we pass a low-lying rubble heap, I'm told that "It's from the first war" (the first Chechen war, that is). I think to myself: First war, second war - how can you explain such furious determination to destroy? How can you destroy something that has already been destroyed? Grozny is a city whose fate it has been to be periodically plundered and set aflame for the past 200 years. How can you smash a "nest of criminals" for the nth time? Trees raise their scorched limbs to the sky; here and there a branch shows some fresh green shoots, a sign of life.

Opposite a former police station on the edge of Grozny, we visit School No. 72. The once-stately, light-blue building has been sparsely repaired with foreign aid. Nearly all the windows have panes again; a few bullet holes are still to be seen on the building front. I enter, walk down the corridors, visit the classrooms, listen to the out-of-tune piano, glance at the peeling walls, watch the children eating their mid-day porridge.

Eyes Full of Fear

It is their eyes that arrest me. I remember my own postwar schooldays in a small village school in Bavaria. Much was similar to this scene: drafty windows, dusty floors, blackboards nearly unusable, the toilet out in the garden. But the looks in these children's eyes are quite different. It isn't the fact of the different country, or the 40 years that have elapsed, or the different language. It is the fear written in the faces of these children, their teachers, the cook, the school superintendent. A fear I have encountered everywhere in Chechnya and Ingushetia.

It is a fear alien to us, a fear that never stops, fed by the events and experiences of past weeks, months and years. A fear compounded of the profound brutality of Russian soldiers, of mutilated corpses, ceaseless humiliation and torture, the wailing of sirens, the impact of bombs falling on the house next door. Experiences beyond words.

Back in Switzerland, I hear from Fatima that Adam was hauled out of his room in Grozny one night by Russian soldiers. After four days in a holding camp, he was released. "He's alive," Fatima tells me. But what a life.


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