When Chechens lay down their armor and gather together to forget the war

Even in wartime, with their rifles at the ready, Chechens don't quite fit the stereotype of brutality that surrounds them.

Despite the flurry of reporting over Russia's military crackdown on Chechnya, which seeks independence from Russia, the tiny Caucasus republic and its people could soon fall back into obscurity. But amid the conflict lies the opportunity to discover who the Chechens really are.

In the capital of Grozny I met a Chechen woman named Dasha, childless and recently divorced. Her situation is rare among Chechens, who value the family and clan loyalty above all else, and will do anything to avoid family breakups.

Chechen men say they have four women in their lives: mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives. Several admitted they had carried out blood vendettas, or planned murders to avenge family honor. One killing, according to the perpetrator of the crime, was carefully planned for two and a half years and took place in a mosque.

The second youngest of 12 children, Dasha is still very close to her immediate family. In her purse she carries several Polaroid snapshots showing her parents and siblings during happier times. Weddings, anniversaries - all the pictures showed well-dressed people eating, drinking, and laughing.

``We were so happy when [Russian President] Yeltsin was elected. We had parties for week,'' Dasha said, the pictures reminding her of past celebrations.

``But now look what he's doing to us, breaking our hearts,'' she says.

One photo was different from the rest - and more fitting for today. Taken two years ago, it showed her father - who was still alive - when he was a sprightly 103 years old. The slightly blurred photo depicted a wizened old man with a long gray beard, posing in front of an oriental carpet mounted on a wall, cradling a Kalashnikov rifle in his arms.

Good company

Isa, our host in Grozny, seemed to fit the freewheeling Chechen ``mafia'' stereotype.

A big gold-toothed biznesmen with a square chest, he wore a camouflage army vest over his polyester Adidas track suit, the pockets stuffed with pistols and grenades. His white Volvo, a rarity among the muddy Zhiguli and Lada cars rumbling away from the city, was his treasure.

In the apartment downstairs from Isa lived Granny Valya, an elderly Russian woman on her own. You might think that she and Isa would never speak. But thanks to the big Chechen, the almost house-bound grandmother receives company daily along with moral and financial support, and all the latest gossip from town.

``I've never had any problems with Chechens,'' Granny Valya told me, as Isa, whose own flat had been without water for months, came to fill buckets with freezing water from the tiny trickle in her bathtub. ``My daughter died six years ago. They even helped me find an affordable coffin and bury her. I'm Russian, but I'm also Caucasian.''

Two mornings later, we saw big Isa with his eyes red from crying - something Chechen men don't often do. His cousin, he said, had been killed by the Russians, shot while driving his truck up north.

Despite the tragedy, Isa was still able to manage a smile and a firm handshake for all the people in the room. Later that afternoon he went to see how Granny Valya was doing.

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