"Normality" under the bombs
By Janine di Giovanni
Janine di Giovanni reports from outside the Grozny suburbs on the torment of a Chechen village of the damned.
Main escape routes
THE bombing began shortly after lunch. I was talking quietly to a Chechen man in what I thought was a safe house when the unmistakeable sound of a bomb falling nearby stunned us into silence. It was not a distant bomb: this was very close. "Bunker! Bunker!" he screamed.
We stumbled into our shoes and grabbed warm clothes. It only takes half a minute from the moment your brain registers danger until the time you arrive in a safer place, but that time stretches like hours. I remembered enough to know I had left my documents in my rucksack back in the house: in this kind of situation, the most precious thing one has is documents.
A young boy raced into the house and brought them out, along with blankets and a kerosene lamp. I ran and jumped into the blackness of the bunker, a 10ft-square hole in the garden where two old women wrapped in blankets and headscarves were already cowering with fear.
Three other women climbed down the rickety wooden ladder, carrying a two-year-old boy. He appeared too shocked to cry, but the 22-year-old girl holding him, her nerves frayed from the shelling, began to scream for her aunt to come down. There was another loud explosion. "Why us? Why us?" cried one of the old women.
"Because February 1 is a holiday, and the soldiers get paid, so they get drunk and like to kill people," one man explained.
The women began to pray, their voices drowned out by explosions. We sat together in the dank cold and waited. Finally, a villager came and shouted down into the darkness: "They hit the house two doors away.
"Four children coming home from school were killed. One woman was hit in the back. Her whole back is pierced by a rocket . . ." I thought of the children I had seen that morning, walking on the snowy unpaved road to school with plastic rucksacks on their backs. School had just recently opened. They had seemed so excited and so normal as they had walked along holding hands and throwing snowballs at the horse and cart riding by.
Inside the bunker, there was nothing to do but sit and wait. The helicopters circled over for the rest of the day and then, as night fell and the curfew began, so did the shelling. Every time we tried to climb out of the bunker, we heard the whir of propellers close by and ran back in. Clearly, the Russians had decided to give the village a thrashing.
Civilians always suffer during war, but this village, nine miles from Grozny, which has been occupied by Russian troops since November 11, has had more than its fair share.
In Chechnya, its name is symbolic with tragedy, in the same way that Srebrenica is to Bosnian Muslims. It is thought to be the most-destroyed village in Chechnya and even though it has already been taken by Russians, for some reason it is still being punished.
A group of villagers gathered in front of the bombed house, watching the flames lick around the structure before the beams collapsed. "You see what they do to us? Do you see?" Said, a former fighter, screamed at me. "Why does England stand by and do nothing?" (For an incomprehensible reason, all of the villagers I spoke to have a fascination with England and keep asking: "When will we be allowed to join the Commonwealth?")
A quick, furtive tour shows a village that has been brought to its knees. Every house has been gutted by fire, bombing or looting. Every family has lost someone: one old man, Zia, lost 60 relatives in a 1995 massacre.
"Since the first war, we have endured five catastrophes, including the occupation," Magamir said. The worse was the one that Zia's family endured, on April 7 and 8, 1995. Russian Special Forces entered the village and rounded up about 360 women, children and old men - the young men were in the mountains fighting.
"Then they forced them down into bunkers, threw gasoline on them and burnt them alive," Magamir, who ran a chicken farm before the war, said. "The only explanation we have for their behaviour is that they were on drugs. War is always bad, but how can you burn living people?" Some people did not die by burning: some were shot, but they also lynched a child and put a sign underneath him: 'The Russian Bear has awakened.'"
There have been more recent events. Since the occupation, the Russian soldiers arrive periodically to "cleanse" the place, stealing, looting and killing a few civilians as they go. Manasha, a 62-year-old mother, lost her son three weeks ago when he attempted to leave the village to find food in the next one. "We had no more food - all he did was go look for some," she said.
At the Russian checkpoint, a group of soldiers fresh from a recent battle west of here, shot him and his three friends at point-blank range. Their parents could not get the bodies for three weeks.
Last night, when we came out of the bunkers to huddle by a radio listening to the news on Radio Liberty, a villager arrived to say that some locals had shot down one of the helicopters that was harassing them, and the Russians were furious. Another arrived to say five houses were on fire on the next street from rocket grenades.
Finally, another arrived to say the Ingush-Chechen border was sealed and no one was going in or out. We continued with our soup and listened to the shelling. Taisa, a beautiful 21-year-old who cooked for us, shook as she poured tea. "I have lost all appetite since the shelling began," she said.