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Life among Grozny's ruins

The Kremlin takes journalists on a tour to show that Chechnya is returning to civilian normalcy. But is nightly mortar fire normal?

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / December 16, 2002


Chechnya's single, state-run television channel paints a rosy picture of normal life returning to this war-ravaged republic: homes being rebuilt, services restored, and people enthusiastically embracing the latest Kremlin-authored peace plan.

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But off-camera, some of the TV employees tell a different story.

Like many ostensibly pro-Moscow Chechens met during a journalists' tour of Grozny that was hosted and tightly managed by the Russian military, the workers said that severe Russian security measures and nightly rebel activity make life among the Chechen capital's ruins far from normal.

Even in the presence of Russian security minders, some Chechens whispered about relatives and friends who disappeared after being detained at Russian checkpoints, known as blokposti, which dominate every major intersection in the city. "There is not even the most elementary safety. People can't be sure they will even be alive tomorrow," says Ruhman Musayeva, a TV producer.

Once a graceful Caucasus foothills city of 1 million, Grozny has been shattered in two wars. While a few hundred thousand people may still inhabit the less severely damaged suburbs, its center is a landscape of wrecked buildings, minefields, and rubble. Each evening the Russians raced to get their visitors inside the Khankala military base before darkness fell and the pounding of artillery, the whump of mortars and the rattle of machine-gun fire began.

The theme of last week's tour, which our hosts repeated like a mantra, was the return of order to Chechnya under Russian rule, after a decade of war and semi-independence under separatist leadership.

"Before [Russian forces returned to Chechnya] this was a lawless territory where bandits did whatever they liked," says Colonel Ilya Shabalkin, head of the FSB security service's regional operations. "Now the important things are provided, such as food, housing, warmth, and security. The Russian forces here are not fighting a war; they are carrying out specific, targeted operations to catch individual terrorists. They are acting under the law."

There is some truth to the Russian claims. Even the worst-hit sections of Grozny clearly have gas and electricity; a few schools and hospitals are open; and a handful of wrecked apartment blocs in the city's center are under renovation. "There are some repairs being done on about 10 percent of Grozny's buildings," says Ruslan Timurov, a construction worker at one site. "But it's very slow. The electricity goes off all the time, and we have to finish at 3 p.m. so we can get home before dark. It's very dangerous here, especially in the downtown area."

In the wars, Grozny's water supply became tainted by underground oil, and now all supplies are trucked in. The search for water for bathing, cooking, and sanitation is a daily struggle.

But such problems pale beside the terror even pro-Russian Chechens say they endure when passing through the blokposti and during zachistki, periodic Russian security sweeps. "My husband was dragged out of his car by Russian soldiers last summer, he was kicked and punched," says Roza Yusupova, senior nurse at the Grozny hospital. "He was lucky. Many men from our village have been taken away and never returned."