Family forged in war, fed by love


Adoption: A Chechen couple has taken in 67 children orphaned in fighting between Russian troops and rebels, and more are on the way.

July 28, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KARABULAK, Ingushetia - Khadijat Gatayeva and her children are not related by blood. But they are inextricably bound to each other by love and grief.

The 38-year-old Chechen nurse and her husband, Malik, a construction worker, have adopted 67 children from a variety of ethnic backgrounds over the past six years - orphaned infants, abandoned adolescents, or children lost in the carnage and chaos of Russia's brutal wars in Chechnya. And as the latest war drags on, they continue to show up on the Gatayevas' doorstep.

Many have been disfigured in the fighting. One boy lost most of his fingers after he picked up a mine. Another has malformed teeth, the legacy of starvation. An 11-year-old lost a leg to shrapnel last year. Several children had been raped. Many had seen a parent die.

A Chechen woman whose husband was killed came to Gatayeva a few weeks ago. The woman, who was injured, could no longer care for her two girls, ages 4 and 6. She got down on her knees. "Please, Khadijat, take them," she begged.

Gatayeva wanted to help but couldn't afford another child. She was headed to Germany to talk to some of her home's foreign sponsors. "Wait a bit, and when I come back I will decide," she told the woman. She was buying time, hoping relatives would step forward. If no one else can be found, she said, of course she will adopt the girls.

"If a woman or a man brings children here and asks for help, we cannot deny it," she says, speaking by phone from Germany. "Chechens are people with great pride. If they ask for such things, they really have no other way."

Today, most of Gatayeva's children, whose ages range from 18 months to 19 years old, live together in a clean brick compound here in Ingushetia, which like Chechnya is part of the Russian Federation. Ingushetia is home to more than 150,000 refugees from the war in Chechnya between Russian troops and separatist guerrillas. Many refugees have lived for 3 1/2 years in poverty in muddy, crowded tent camps.

At Gatayeva's home, the children live protected by high walls, learn Russian and mathematics in school, milk the family's 17 cows - and go fishing in a stream across the lush pastures. But every time a helicopter or fighter jet roars overhead, they fall silent.

"Basically, all the children here need psychological rehabilitation," says Akhmet Dushev, who is paid by a foreign charity group to help run the household.

Rasoul Shidayev is a dark, lanky teen-ager who shyly mumbles his replies to a stranger's questions. His father drove off April 7 to try to buy construction material to rebuild his war-damaged house in the Chechen town of Belgatoy. It was the last time he saw his father alive.

Witnesses said the man had been stopped by federal troops. He was found dead; his car was missing. Crippled with grief, Rasoul's mother could no longer care for her five children. "She became deranged," one of Gatayeva's workers says. So neighbors brought them here.

Weeks after his arrival, Rasoul remains haunted by the bloodshed in his homeland. "I think about my friends who are still there," he says. "I think about the relatives of those who are killed and how they suffer. I think about whether they will survive the war."

Yelena Vesemgurieva's father had vanished during the first Chechen-Russian war, from 1994 to 1996. Her mother, emotionally shattered, had abandoned Yelena, then 9, and her 6-year-old brother. "We had no relatives; we had no one," she says.

She and her brother spent a year begging for food in the city markets, hiding in basements from the gunfire, air raids and artillery shells. After the fighting ended, they met Gatayeva and her husband. At first, they didn't believe these strangers wanted to give them a home. "We thought they wanted to kidnap us," says Yelena, 15.

One 19-year-old girl spent just a few weeks in Orphanage No. 1 in Grozny, the war-ravaged Chechen capital, six years ago. Even today, though, the mere mention of the institution's name evokes bitter memories. "There was a man there who pretended to be a teacher, and the thing he loved to do was beat girls," she says, her eyes narrowing.

Gatayeva knows all about Grozny's orphanages. After her father died, she was sent to live in No. 5 in the 1970s. It was an ugly place, she says, a warehouse for unwanted children. She hated it.

After the first war ended in 1996, homeless boys and girls began appearing on Grozny's streets; they had hidden for months from the fighting in the city's ruins. "It was appalling to see children in basements, in ruins, in the streets," she recalls.

When seven orphans showed up for treatment in the clinic where Gatayeva worked, she didn't want to send them back on the street. So she started to look for an orphanage to take them. All were full. Many reminded her of her former home. And the children rebelled. "When they realized I was looking for an orphanage for them, they begged me never to put them there," she recalls.

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