Zurab Ismailov was returning to his downtown Grozny home from school one afternoon last October, following his usual route, when he was suddenly hit by something that he says felt like a speeding train.
Witnesses say the youth must have stepped on a landmine buried in the muddy pathway, and then fallen on another, because they saw two explosions.
Zurab is a recent victim of what is being called "the mine war" in Chechnya. The explosives that injured the boy were almost certainly planted by Chechen rebels and targeted against Russian patrols that often used that path. Sometimes the tactic succeeds; more often it is innocent passersby like Zurab who suffer.
"It is estimated that about 500 'terrorist acts' in the past year, most involving landmines, have killed 87 Russian interior troops," who handle most of the routine security in the breakaway republic, says Yury Gladkeyevich, an analyst with the AVN independent military news agency. "It is hard to guess how many civilians have been affected, but the numbers must be great."
Experts say Chechnya, which has seen two brutal guerrilla wars in less than a decade, has at least half a million unexploded mines lurking amid its roads, forests, and ruined buildings. During both wars, armies have moved back and forth across the tiny, mountainous republic, often leaving forgotten minefields and booby traps behind them. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been uprooted by the fighting, forced to flee into unfamiliar terrain where they frequently fall victim to mines.
"Both sides use mines very extensively," says Aida Ailarova, an expert with the UNICEF-funded National Office of Mine Action in Vladikavkaz. "Even if the war stopped tomorrow, it would take years to make Chechnya safe. But as long as the conflict continues, no one will seriously begin de-mining operations."
Hundreds more mines are being planted every day. Russian counterinsurgency forces seed Chechnya's remote mountain roads and forest pathways with sophisticated antipersonnel mines, hoping to catch the elusive guerrilla units that move mainly by night. The rebels rig crude homemade devices and ingenious booby traps in urban areas and mine the main roads used by Russian convoys. "The rebels want to keep the situation unstable and the Russians constantly on edge," says Mr. Gladkeyevich. "Mines are a cheap and easy way to accomplish those goals."
But the toll on hapless civilians is agonizing. International aid agencies estimate there are at least 10,000 mine victims in Chechnya - 4,000 of them children - in urgent need of physical therapy, prosthetics, and psychological counseling. The only clinic in the north Caucasus region capable of delivering these services is the UN-funded Prosthetics Workshop in Vladikavkaz, not far from the war zone. But its director, Vladislav Yesiyev, admits the clinic can only handle about 15 patients a week.
"The numbers are daunting," he says. "When you consider that growing children need to be refitted for prosthesis every six months, you realize that we cannot resolve this problem alone. We try to deal with the most desperate cases."
Arriving at the clinic on a recent day, after a long and dangerous bus ride through Chechnya, Zurab says he is glad to be alive and anxious to be fitted with an artificial leg and start walking again. "I don't blame anyone," he says. "I just want to stand on my feet and go back to school."
Among the others waiting for prosthetics in the Vladikavkaz clinic was young Bebulat Murdulov. The Murdulov family fled their home near Shali, in central Chechnya, during a flare-up of fighting between Russians and rebels last summer. They returned a week later to find the house undamaged, but when they entered the front door, an explosion killed the father and maimed Bebulat, who had been walking just behind his dad.
Aid workers say little will change as long as Russia's counter-insurgency campaign grinds on in Chechnya. For now, various charity groups and UN agencies are distributing thousands of wheelchairs, crutches, corsets and walking sticks to victims through various Chechen non-governmental organizations. UNICEF, together with the Chechen education ministry, is preparing a course, to be included in the Chechen school curriculum, to educate kids about the various types of mines, where they are typically concealed, and how to move across hazardous terrain.
"It's chilling to think of small children having to learn about such things in school," says Ms. Ailarova. "But these kids are literally growing up in a minefield, and they need this information to save their lives."