Mostly deserted and in ruins, Grozny struggles to find hope

Few Chechens muster up the determination to live amid rebels, army troops

October 27, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GROZNY, Russia - Though Russian forces overpowered Chechen guerrillas in Moscow yesterday, Russian army Capt. Dmitri Popadin and his men here in the Chechen capital seem destined to remain on duty indefinitely in an uninviting fortress overlooking a lonely stretch of road.

They live inside Checkpoint 137, an outpost built of giant concrete blocks scavenged from piles of rubble and pockmarked apartment blocks that once constituted a city. For weeks at a time, they peer through gun slits at the traffic passing north from the city.

They can't play soccer in the weedy fields or shop in Grozny's crowded open-air market because they would be tempting targets for the scores of Chechen separatist guerrillas in the city. So mostly they sit in their compound, watch television and wait to go home.

"There's a bridge that leads to the city," the 25-year old Popadin said last week. "We're here to protect the bridge." A year ago, guerrillas fired at the checkpoint from the ruins of a nearby factory, and none of the gunmen were caught.

So Popadin thinks of home. "I do want to go, of course," he said.

In Chechnya, it seems everyone is a hostage - to war, hatred and history.

For almost two centuries, Russians and Chechens have been fighting in the foothills and valleys of the Caucasus Mountains. In the past decade, two wars - one from 1994 to 1996, the second beginning in 1999 and with no end in sight - have raised the level of savagery.

Since 1999, an estimated 80,000 people have been killed in this republic, which by the generous estimate of the Russian government has a population of about 1.1 million. Russian military officials say they kill about 100 Chechen fighters a month, but Russian casualties are nearly as high.

Bombings and shootings aren't rare catastrophes here. They are dull-as-dust facts of life. This is a city that looks to have been not merely shelled but pulverized. Roughly every second building has been destroyed, the others reduced to shells. Except for the market, the streets are utterly deserted - Grozny now mostly a city of fighters, the fearful and ghosts.

`I am Chechen'

Louisa Andiyeva, a Chechen editor for the Russian government's Chechen-language television station here, works in a building with windows bricked up, to guard against snipers.

She doesn't leave the station with her camera crew without an armed guard. And she knows that, because she works for the Russians, she has already been put on what she calls a "black list" by Chechen patriots, marking her for death.

Her parents are poor, and someone in her family needed to earn a living. So the 30-year-old former literature student took the job. For about $140 a month, she produces several shows, including one called I Am Looking for a Job, featuring young Chechens offering their skills to employers.

"I am Chechen," she said. "My blood is Chechen. We all have in our families victims who perished. But we don't all have to hate Russia. I have Russian neighbors. I have Russian friends."

None of these arguments would do her much good if guerrillas like those who invaded the Moscow theater come knocking at her door.

Raisa Kachyeva, another employee of the station, spends her evenings sitting in her candlelit apartment listening to gunfire. There is no official curfew, but anyone approaching the checkpoints at major intersections after 9 p.m. is liable to be shot by nervous Russian troops.

"There are no people in the streets at night," Kachyeva said. "It's as though the city were dead."

Security troubles

Even in daylight travel is dangerous. Last year two of Kachyeva's male cousins left their village and never returned. Their brothers found fresh tire tracks on the banks of the Argun River, and not far away a shallow grave. Kachyeva's cousins were 29 and 33 years old.

Their families never bothered to report the killings to the authorities, safely assuming nothing would be done.

In Chechnya, no one can be sure that the person working at the next desk isn't working for the guerrillas. Two weeks ago, a bomb ripped through a district police station. The explosion was timed to take place during a meeting of senior police commanders. Twenty-five died.

Chechen authorities aren't sure if the motive was political or personal. But they admit that the Chechen administration is probably riddled with people who sympathize with the guerrillas.

"We do not conceal the fact that very many people penetrated into the Ministry of Internal Affairs who should not be there," said Nikolai Kostyuchenko, the senior civilian prosecutor for Chechnya. "There was a case in the Shelkovskoy district when militants fired at the police from a car," he said. "One of the militants turned out to be a policeman."

Life here is dangerous enough to have persuaded tens of thousands of Chechen refugees to remain in tent camps rather than risk moving back into permanent quarters and become the target of snipers or Russian troops, who have a reputation for harassing, extorting and occasionally murdering civilians.

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