Old, ailing and abandoned in Chechnya

Rescue effort collapses for nursing home residents trapped by Russian bombs

November 30, 1999|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- As Russian bombs blow apart the remnants of the Chechen capital of Grozny, 85 residents of a nursing home are trapped there, cold, hungry and awaiting a violent death instead of a quiet one brought by old age.

Over the past six months, doctors, nurses and housekeepers have steadily abandoned them, first because Moscow stopped sending the payroll, then because staff members feared for their lives as war engulfed the region.

Rescue appeared imminent over the weekend, until a Russian official boasted publicly that a secret government mission had saved the old people. Angry Chechens called off negotiations and refused to release the residents -- most of whom are ethnic Russians, according to those involved in the rescue attempt.

"It was a criminal mistake," Yevgeny Gontmakher, head of social development for the Russian government, said yesterday. "And the consequences are serious."

The Hungarian Ikarus buses from neighboring Ingushetia had arrived in Grozny last week but had not yet picked up the elderly passengers when Sergei V. Kalashnikov, Russia's minister of labor and social development, began telling Russian reporters in Moscow about the mission.

"He told lies," Gontmakher said. "He said the old people had already been evacuated. The operation failed because Kalashnikov made this information public ahead of time."

Gontmakher said the buses, which were to carry out the evacuation Saturday, were sent back to Ingushetia on Friday night with a letter from the Chechen minister of public health.

"Chechnya can cope with this problem itself and does not need any help," the letter said.

The Katayama Home for the Elderly is in a neighborhood on the northeastern edge of the city that has been under heavy bombardment the past few days. There have been no public reports from the home since Friday.

"The fate of these people is not known," Gontmakher said.

About six weeks ago, Moscow newspaper reporter Anya Politkovskaya alerted officials here to the plight of the Katayama residents. They had no heat and little food. In recent days, only one staff member remained, refusing to leave despite the danger and months of unpaid wages.

Orphanages had been evacuated weeks ago, with about 40 children taken from Grozny to Kharkov, Ukraine. Any civilian who had the means was getting out of the city as Russian troops moved ever closer. Few remembered the old people, weak, disabled, bedridden.

"The government agencies said they had no money to do anything," Politkovskaya said yesterday, after returning to Moscow from Ingushetia in great disappointment. "When it became clear there would be no money, we decided not to waste time and appealed to our readers for money."

The newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, raised $1,100, she said.

"I went to Ingushetia with that money, assuming half would go for the buses and intermediaries and the other half would be given to the old people," she said.

It was difficult work, tracking down negotiators and transportation in a region beset by war and up to 200,000 refugees. Gontmakher helped find places in nursing homes throughout Russia for the elderly residents.

"When we began, there were 97 residents," Politkovskaya said. "But they had nothing to eat. There was no heat. Those who could walk went out on the streets to beg for food and bring it back to the others.

"We lost 12 people. They went begging and never returned. Either they died in bombing or they're hiding in basements somewhere."

In October, a Chechen woman brought a videotape to a Moscow human rights organization, showing the Katayama residents clearly undernourished, badly dressed and poorly groomed. They had no electricity; heat came from an outdoor fire.

Many of the residents are in their 70s, Politkovskaya said, and some are over 90. Most are ethnic Russians or Ukrainians, she said, and only 15 are ethnic Chechens. A few suffer from mental illnesses inflicted by the stress of the last Chechen war, from 1994 to 1996.

She speculated that Chechen fighters decided to keep the nursing home residents as a bargaining chip after they heard Kalashnikov boasting of their rescue.

The fighters invited journalists to visit Grozny to negotiate, she said. Her editors forbade such a trip. She would only become a hostage herself, they said.

"We were at the last steps, and everything fell apart," Politkovskaya said. "Is there any hope? No one knows."

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