In Grozny, struggle has just begun

March 26, 1995|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

GROZNY, Russia -- The dazed and the numb have begun to leave their cellars, to blink in the bright dusty sunshine, to get on with life in a city that lacks water, electricity, medicine, shelter, even hope.

Watched by soldiers wearing black bandannas across their faces like cattle rustlers in the Wild West, the survivors of Grozny plod along the long, pulverized streets, along block after block of unrelenting rubble, the people puny against the devastation.

The war in Chechnya has passed on to other places. Now the people here are trying to gauge just what it will mean to rebuild some portion of their lives.

"Whom God loves he punishes," said Father Anatoly of St. Michael the Archangel Cathedral, a smashed and burned-out shell on Lenin Prospekt. "Maybe he meant that we should purify ourselves through this suffering."

About 130,000 people are believed to be alive in Grozny, a quarter of the population of four months ago.

A new administration is in place. The police are being reorganized. Russian and international aid agencies are beginning to truck in food and water, set up distribution points, open clinics.

Crews from the Ministry of Emergency Situations have taken a few steps toward rebuilding the city: They have razed what was left of the old Chaika Hotel.

But their work is barely noticed. For more than a mile in all directions, virtually every building is destroyed or so heavily damaged that it will have to come down.

The city is strewn with land mines. Water has to be trucked in from 35 miles away, and there is less than two quarts per person each day, which is not adequate.

There are no jobs. The budget for free bread distribution runs out April 1. Medical workers fear epidemics of cholera and dysentery as the weather grows warmer.

"I've never seen this before, this destruction, this tremendous destruction," said Dr. Michael Schubert, a German physician working for a British aid group called Merlin, who came here after a stint among the refugees of Rwanda.

"I've never seen so many people being so desperate. So many people don't understand what's going on."

No medicine available

While epidemics of contagious diseases threaten the city, people with chronic ailments -- diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, cancer -- are failing without their usual medications. Probably thousands more, Dr. Schubert said, are suffering from severe psychological stress.

A woman carefully arranges her makeup. A man sits by what used to be a window in what used to be his house, reading a month-old newspaper as if it contained the latest news.

What part of this is a healthy attempt to re-assert something normal, Dr. Schubert asks, and what part is denial that anything at all has gone wrong?

"Just call me Rimma the Believer," said a gaunt 63-year-old woman who was carefully washing a dish towel in a bucket of dirty water on the street.

"I live underground now," she said, as if it were a great joke. "We take care of ourselves. I have no complaints. Glory to God!"

The Russian Army launched an assault on the center of Grozny Jan. 1, and it failed miserably. For more than three weeks the Russians then poured artillery fire, bombs and rockets onto the city, while fighting forward block by block.

Finally, at the end of January, they pushed most of the forces of Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev out of the main part of the city and began to establish their rule.

Most of the residents had fled. Those who remained were predominantly elderly, predominantly women, predominantly ethnic Russians.

Life in the cellars

They spent the winter in cold cellars. They foraged for food. They buried their dead in shallow graves beside trees stripped down to angular trunks by bullets and shrapnel.

Everything in Grozny is riddled with bullet holes: the wall above the icons in the church house that adjoins St. Michael's, a helmet lying in an alley, a truck near the Presidential Palace that has been reduced to a fine filigree.

Troops from the Interior Ministry patrol the streets in dust-churning tanks and armored personnel carriers.

A line of soldiers stands guard behind sandbags and barbed wire at a building commandeered by the Interior Ministry. Across the street lies a body -- a warning, apparently. A broken piece of rope is tied to the right ankle. Someone has draped a sheet over the head and abdomen.

At night, in the blackened city, one is safest returning to the cellars. There is gunfire in every direction.

"At 5 o'clock Grozny practically closes up except for those with automatics," said Salambek Khadzhiyev, a candid 54-year-old former chemist who has been installed by the Russians as chairman of the new Chechen government.

"It can't get worse," said Zarmekhan Bokova, a widow who is living in the wrecked remains of her house.

FTC "I spend all day standing in line for food and water, and trying to keep my stove lit and warm. At night, everyone's home wondering if they're going to be shot. There are no rights, no laws. It's the worst thing imaginable."

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