GROZNY, Russia - Zura Uzuyeva was cleaning the dishes in the courtyard of her small brick home in the Oktyabrsky district of the Chechen capital last week when the staccato drone of a Russian attack helicopter permeated the neighborhood, the volume rising as it approached.
"My wife had called us to dinner, and we had been sitting at the table, all four of us," said her husband, Shamsudin Uzuyev, a former high school principal and teacher of chemistry and biology. "My sons and I then went inside, and she stayed there in the courtyard to wash. I had hardly opened the door when the missile struck."
From his crouched position, Uzuyev turned and through the smoke saw his wife lying motionless on the bricks in the shade of an apricot tree. Blood was flowing from her head wounds, caused by the blast, which also ripped a hole in the kitchen roof. Zura Uzuyeva died as her sons, Adam, 25, and Bislan, 21, both college students, knelt beside her.
Among the gaping hulks of half-destroyed buildings, skeletal roof lines and mounds of rubble of the Chechen capital, military violence is part of the daily routine of the estimated 145,000 people who have returned to the city to live in poverty, deprivation and fear.
A year after Russia's large-scale assault on rebellious Chechnya, and months after Moscow declared that the military phase of the "counterterrorist" operation had concluded, Grozny is trapped between war and peace: war that Russia cannot bring to conclusion, and peace that cannot take hold until a new Chechen political leadership emerges to tame or supplant the warlords and "bandits" whom Moscow is determined to crush.
Residents complain that they live in repressive conditions of undeclared martial law, subjected to random searches, arrests, extortion and intimidation at more than 100 checkpoints with gun emplacements, razor wire and barricades. About 7,000 Russian troops are stationed in the city, choking the movement of people and basic foodstuffs.
To be on the street past the 9 p.m. curfew is to risk being shot by nervous Russian soldiers or caught in crossfire between Chechen rebels and Moscow's troops. Even ambulances are not allowed to operate at night.
In the space of three days this month, 20 people died, 16 of them in a car-bomb attack. Three Russian soldiers were gunned down in a street market while selling pilfered military gasoline to Chechen traders. And Zura Uzuyeva was felled by the helicopter assault on a civilian district where as many as 20,000 people are camped in damaged and darkened homes.
On Oct. 12, the Russian military command said federal checkpoints in Chechnya had come under fire 19 times during the previous 24 hours, with four soldiers killed. Twenty-nine Chechens were arrested in the same period on suspicion that they were rebels.
Residents complain that young men suspected of collaboration with the rebels continue to disappear; others are beaten or ransomed back to their families. Many Chechens have sent appeals to the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, to lift the siege.
"When a ship is sinking, it calls for help, sends out an SOS signal everywhere," wrote Luiza Timogova and 29 of her classmates at Grozny University to Putin this month. "Apparently, your circle is not letting you know the real truth about the situation in Chechnya, and the situation there is such that people are living in inhuman conditions, in conditions of persecution and tyranny."
There are also acts of humanity. Russian soldiers at one checkpoint took charge of five orphaned boys this fall and were feeding them army rations until Grozny's social welfare department found space for them at an orphanage.
"There are a lot of good people on both sides," said Tamara Magomadova, Grozny's director of social services.
The Russian military commander in Grozny, Maj. Gen. Vasily Prizemlin, insists that harsh measures are necessary to prevent terrorist attacks, such as the car bomb that exploded Oct. 13 outside a police station and the mine blast that injured four Russian soldiers in a convoy the next day. The missile attack that killed Zura Uzuyeva followed the mine attack on the convoy.
Despite all the violence, Chechens are trickling back to Grozny. Deputy Mayor Saidali Umalatov said the population reached 165,000 this month, less than half the prewar level of 450,000, but more than the 90,000 to 100,000 estimated by some aid organizations. Last winter, during the peak of the Russian assault, it plummeted to 10,000.
Moscow's hand-picked Chechen leader, Akhmad Kadyrov, has just promised that the republic's government and ministries will move back to Grozny this month from temporary quarters in nearby Gudermes.
A new mayor, Bislan Gantimirov, imprisoned for embezzling reconstruction funds after the 1994-1996 Chechen war, was appointed by Moscow and vowed to fight "terrorism"` and "breathe life" back into the city.
It will be difficult even to find quarters for the government.