Chechen conflict's young victims

By Dana Lewis
Source: MSNBC
Date: March 24, 2000


Eight-year-old Mansur Eskayeva was outside playing in the Chechen village of Akhan Kala in February when the Russians started bombing. He hasn’t spoken a word since. “Mansur has 2 pounds of shrapnel still inside his body,” his mother Asya says, holding up X-rays to the dim light in this hospital in Russia’s southern Caucasus. “This is what the war is doing to children.”

       THE BOMB THAT hit Mansur shattered bones in his legs, broke a rib and blew off half his right arm.
       Now he stares emptily day after day in a hospital in Ingushetia, Chechnya’s neighboring republic, one of thousands of Chechen children caught in the fire between rebels and Russian soldiers.
       Throughout the bombing campaign, Russian officials repeatedly maintained that they were doing everything possible to limit civilian casualties and care for more than 200,000 refugees that fled the fighting. But in Ingushetia, which bore the brunt of the refugee exodus, there is disturbing evidence of civilian suffering, especially among children.
       On my first visit to the Ingushetia's Sputnik refugee camp last November, on the eve of a tour by U.N. human rights officials, the Russians had fired up an impressive soup kitchen serving hot meals to thousands of displaced Chechens. On a recent visit to the camp of 10,000 people, the kitchen was closed and padlocked. Camp officials say the Russian government cut off funding a month ago with no explanation.
Twelve-year-old Bekan Bityevi offers a tour of his tent. Bekan fled Grozny over four months ago when Russian bombers destroyed the house where he lived with his four brothers and sister. Three of the brothers are missing and feared dead.        Bekan’s mother and father died in the first Chechen war in 1994-1996, a fierce battle which Russia ultimately lost, forced to hand Chechen separatists de facto independence.
       Inside Bekan’s tent, which he shares with his surviving younger brother and sister 25 others, it is almost pitch black. The electricity is only powerful enough to light one low-powered bulb. Bekan and his siblings eat dinner — their one meal a day, stale bread and noodles — by candlelight. In Sputnik camp there is no meat, no vegetables, and one loaf of bread per person every two days.
       Two-thirds of the camp’s children are sick, according to doctors, who see increasing epidemics of flu and malnutrition. And the physical breakdown of children is only the beginning.
       In one of the camp’s many tents, a counselor runs a therapy class for traumatized children, kids who saw things most people cannot imagine. Bekan Bityevi takes his seat at a table with a dozen others. When he’s asked to draw his fears, like the others his pen traces out the threatening shapes of Russian attack planes, burning buildings and bombs.
Bekan says that he watched his neighbor die. “She was walking with her 3- or 4-month-old child when the planes started bombing. She started running in order to save the baby. Then she lay down right on the baby so that it wouldn’t be hit by bullets. And a bomb landed right by them.”        Bekan doesn’t cry. He tells his horror story with the same blank stare found on many of Sputnik camp’s young faces.
       “I saw a woman without legs and arms, without anything. Dead bodies. I saw a lot of frightening things,” he says.
       Camp therapist Kometa Muradova says that the children are deeply traumatized and suffer around-the-clock. “Their houses were destroyed, they lost their loved ones, their dogs, their cats. Every child has their world and they’ve been thrown out of it. For them, the enemy is war.”
       And the sounds of conflict are always near. Over the camp, two Russian bombers swoop low in the sky — heading for Chechnya. Children point at them in fear. Nearly everyone stops walking until the jets are out of view. The children of Sputnik fear open spaces where they can be attacked. They also fear closed spaces from hiding in basements for so many months during the fighting.        Eleven-year-old Milana Slipova was trying to leave a basement in Grozny with her father two months ago. But before they could even get out the door, the bombs struck.
       “I was in the basement and we were getting ready to go outside,” she says. “A shell hit and killed my father, who was with me. I was frightened and started crying. My relatives saw that the shell hit and the house was destroyed and they came and got me out.”
Now those same relatives are crowded into a tent on the edge of Sputnik camp. Inside, Milana’s aunt writes a prayer for her shell-shocked granddaughter. Every day, Milana places it under her pillow and reads it to make the nightmares disappear. “I’m afraid to go to sleep because I see everything that happened over and over again,” she says.        Her grandmother sobs when I ask what food and clothing they have. Just some rice and bread. Milana has only one set of clothes and a pair of worn out shoes. Her jacket becomes her pillow at night to cover the prayer before sleep.
       Outside, pieces of wood used to anchor the tents to Sputnik camp’s muddy ground are the only toys for children. Every boy seems to have carved one into a toy rifle.
       “They have only seen war and they can’t imagine any other games,” child therapist Kometa Muradova says. This is the next generation to hate and to fight the Russians.
       “They think they should replace their brothers or fathers at war” says Muradova.
       When I ask young Bekan if he can ever forget or forgive Russian soldiers for what’s happened in Chechnya he shakes his head over and over, looking cold and determined.

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