Children Find Bravery and Wisdom After a Brutal Little War

THE children of School Seven in downtown Grozny are more serious now, the teachers say, more like grownups.

The school was partly destroyed nearly a year ago, when Russian forces began bombing the neighborhood. In September, it became the first public building to be fully restored here in the capital of Chechnya. Last week, the heat even came on.

But life is not normal since Russia demolished this city to force the would-be country of Chechnya back into the Russian fold.

First there is all the catching up to do after losing four months of school to war last winter. Then there are evening curfews and the complete lack of playgrounds or entertainment. And there are the destroyed houses and lost brothers, sisters, and parents.

Lena, a towheaded blond Russian girl, for example, was buried under rubble with her three brothers and sisters last New Year's Day. Her leg still hurts. Her family now lives in her grandmother's small, unheated apartment.

But what bothers these children most is living with "alarm." The near-miss attempt on the life of the current head of government here just weeks ago occurred in this neighborhood. And the Russian soldiers that occupy the city still frighten these children, Russian and Chechen alike.

"Some of them are drunk and rude," Lena says.

"The Russian soldiers kill everybody," says Sasha, a small Russian boy who says the soldiers often fight among themselves. "They all drink a lot and don't know we're not made for guns."

These students, however, are the best off of all their peers. School One, for instance, was demolished in the bombing, and reconstruction has not started yet. Some 120 students still go to classes only two hours a day in a large unheated hall.

Ivan started a trend

Chechens are used to this kind of trouble. Very few Westerners had ever even heard of them before the Russians attacked a year ago. But they have lived in this valley and in the Caucasus Mountains that rise dramatically just to the south for at least 5,000 years.

Ethnically, they look like southern Europeans, but their ethnicity and language bear no known relation to any beyond the neighboring Ingush and Dagestanis.

Ivan the Terrible began expanding into this valley in the 16th century. But in 1817, Russian Gen. Alexei Yermolov launched a war to subdue the region. It lasted 25 years, consuming as much as one-sixth of Russian wealth and 25,000 lives each year.

Millions of the hardy mountaineers were then sent to the Ottoman Empire, where the Turks wanted to use them as militias.

Decades later, Stalin shipped as many as nearly 1 million Chechens east to the steppes of Kazakstan. A year ago, Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev told Chechens that Stalin's cruel exile of them gave them the right 50 years later to fight Russian troops.

"So perhaps in 50 years, these children will remember this war," says Natalya Estemirova, a teacher at School Seven who is herself half- Russian, half-Chechen.

"The last war," says a moderate Chechen official, "was as foolish as any in human history."

A pistol under her pillow

Mr. Dudayev, who now sustains a low-level resistance from the mountains, will not be remembered well in Grozny.

The Dudayev years were a time of escalating lawlessness in Chechnya. Prim young Asya Zaerayeva, of college-age then and living with her mother, slept with a pistol under her pillow. One by one, all but one other family moved off her street to be replaced by new families from the villages.

It was these village people with their strong clan, or teip, ties that fostered the infamous Chechen crime syndicates.

Dudayev gave them little resistance. Law and order increasingly fell away.

According to Russian allegations, Chechnya became a center for contraband smuggling - including drugs - and counterfeiting of rubles, dollars, and bank documents.

The teachers of School Seven were not paid at all for the entire year of 1994. The school had not been repaired since it was built in 1938, and the rebuilders this summer found nine tons of accumulated pigeon droppings under the fallen roof, according to Russia's Deputy Education Minister Vladimir Batsyn.

At one checkpoint in the countryside not far from rebel territory, a young Russian soldier from central Siberia, head shaved under a beret, thrusts out his lower lip in a scowl as he manfully checks the old cars and horse carts of passing villagers.

The soldiers' escape from misery

His voice softens, however, and his eyes flicker when he discusses exactly how many days he has left in Chechnya.

Hidden in the debris of the roadblock are two unopened bottles of vodka.

The conventional wisdom for traveling Chechnya is that the safest time to pass Russian roadblocks is in the morning, when the soldiers have slept off the previous night's binge and have yet to start the next.

Darkness falls at 5 p.m. here now, and each night a few more Russians soldiers are killed or wounded in attacks on posts or checkpoints. They gather around small fires, behind as much protective debris as they can find, and drink.

"They're always drunk," says a villager in Urus Martan, south toward the mountains from Grozny. They use their checkpoints to extort cigarettes and vodka from locals, he says.

'He's a man'

Chechens, as Muslims, seldom drink. The public drunkenness so pervasive in Russia would be shameful here. Chechens express their hospitality with tea and hot, meaty stews.

This was once a good-looking city, with Italianate architecture along a broad, tree-filled main boulevard. Now the trees have been killed by the battering they received. Central Grozny is far more ravaged than Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and nearly every surface in every neighborhood is pock-marked by hits with heavy-caliber ammunition.

Little has been reconstructed. Some debris has been cleaned up. Garbage dumps have bloomed between buildings, sometimes attracting a grazing urban cow. Telephone service is rare here. Many buildings still don't have heat. Jobs are nearly nonexistent. But Chechens often maintain a certain dapperness in their appearance. Some women wear fur, and many men sport black felt hats similar to bowlers.

Chechens are tough. Abbu, a student at School Seven, lost a leg when he stepped on a mine last year. But he does not mention it in discussing the war, admitting only that he misses his friends. He runs off down the stairs on his new artificial leg with barely a limp.

"He's a man," says a Chechen grandmother in admiration.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.