In Grozny, clinging to remnants of culture lost

Civilization takes root amid ruins of Chechnya

January 05, 2004|By Douglas M. Birch | Douglas M. Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GROZNY, Chechnya - When Dr. Sultan N. Magomadov walks through this city of ghosts, he sometimes recognizes a familiar shape half-buried in the rubble.

With his slender fingers, the 74-year-old physician will toss aside bits of wood, metal and masonry. Careful not to soil his crisply ironed shirt, he'll tug out a piece of Chechnya's lost culture: a medical book, perhaps, or a collection of Tolstoy's short stories.

Three times in his life, Sultan has lost nearly everything he possessed - to tyranny, to terror and to war. Each time, the diminutive scholar has rebuilt his life. And he always starts by collecting books.

"This is the fourth time I have started a new library," he says.

Mixed with the soil of Grozny are the rust and dust and ashes of its past. Potholed roads pass weedy fields and blasted hulks that were once libraries, museums and institutes. Walk over the dirt paths that coil through the city, once home to 400,000 people, and you tread on vanished carpets and paintings, lost family albums, disintegrated Bibles and Qurans.

Sometimes Sultan's wife, Zainap Magomadova, 66, will stop and gaze in awe at the concrete skeleton of a neighborhood.

"At one time, people lived here with their own destinies, their own lives," she says. "No more."

Four years after Grozny was nearly wiped out in a Russian assault, life here has improved - a little. There is electricity in many neighborhoods. Women in long skirts shop for soap and tart Caucasus apples in the markets. Perhaps a few dozen of the thousands of buildings destroyed have been partly rebuilt.

Lingering conflict

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin long ago declared the war in Chechnya over. But Grozny is by no means at peace. Roadside bombs are still common.

"You can be blown up on the street," Sultan warns a visitor.

Chechen suicide bombers, sworn to separate their republic from Russia, continue to strike, killing 44 aboard a commuter train in southern Russia recently, and then five passers-by outside a Moscow hotel.

Meanwhile, in Grozny, pro-Russia death squads are active. Soldiers in masks raid apartments at night and kidnap young men. Each year, scores are never seen alive again.

A short walk from the Magomadovs' apartment, a young man recently shot and killed two Chechen policemen. Angry police shot the attacker, neighbors said, then detonated a hand grenade on his face, so his relatives couldn't have the solace of identifying the body.

And so the debris of war, the litter of corpses, grows deeper. But in a few places, like the Magomadov home, the roots of civilization remain.

Gracious hosts

One recent afternoon, Sultan and Zainap celebrated the festival of Uraza-bairam, the Chechen name for the Muslim feast of Eid al-Fitr that breaks the monthlong fast of Ramadan - handing out candy to children, and welcoming neighbors and friends.

For 50 years Sultan, who has sharp blue eyes and snow-white hair, has used X-rays to diagnose diseases such as tuberculosis and cancer. The good-humored physician peppers his conversation with quotations from George Bernard Shaw, Tolstoy and Chekhov.

He is a warm host, if a little formal and old-fashioned. (One of his granddaughters has sketched a portrait of him on the living room wall. It consists of a large tie.)

The petite Zainap wears gold earrings, a skirt and a modest scarf that, in the style of most Chechen women, only partly covers her hair. She is a dentist - the first Chechen, she says, ever to graduate from a Soviet dental school - with a generous heart.

Cash, not grain

The conversation turns to Chechnya's traditionally tolerant Muslim traditions. As the war against mostly Orthodox Christian Russia drags on, young Chechens are increasingly turning to radical Islam. Perhaps to compete with the guerrillas, pro-Moscow Chechens are adopting a more fundamentalist approach.

Chechnya's chief mufti, or religious leader, decreed that only gifts of traditional corn or wheat should be given as gifts during Eid al-Fitr. Money is a modern innovation, and therefore non-Islamic.

Sultan says the poor need cash, not grain.

"If people like this mufti rule this country, nothing good will happen," he says.

Chechens make do

From the outside, the Magomadovs' bomb-scarred building appears to be deserted. But four of the 12 apartments have families living in them. There are no phones or running water, so residents improvise.

Using scavenged bricks, Sultan and Zainap have walled off two rooms destroyed by a bomb. They've pasted a plain, silver-white wallpaper to cover cracked walls. With the help of their son, they've rewired the apartment themselves, tapped the gas main with a length of copper pipe and even have their own hot-water heater.

Twice a day Zainap walks 100 yards through the swampy courtyard behind her building. Past a scraggly stand of trees, a broken gas pipe sticks out of a pile of bricks. It gushes flame. In a dank stairwell, she turns a faucet and fills two plastic buckets with water. Then she lugs them home and up four flights of stairs.

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