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?

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.

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."

One of the few bright spots is the State Oil Institute, which is preparing some 300 students in hopes that Chechnya's once-booming oil industry might one day be restored. But after a largely upbeat interview, Vice-Rector Sharpudi Zaurbekov, glancing nervously at Russian security officers in the room, says: "The biggest problem here is that our students keep getting detained at blokposti when they travel to and from school. (The Russians) say they are suspected of rebel activity. I have to go and intervene personally each time." This has happened about 15 times in the past year, he says, adding:, "Thank God none of our students has disappeared permanently."

The issue of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of missing people is the most sensitive of all. Russian military minders, citing security concerns, forcibly prevented journalists from making contact with about 20 elderly Chechen women who attempted to reach them, bearing portraits of sons and husbands who have disappeared. One of the women, Yakhita Bakriyeva, later slipped past the minders, saying she wanted the world to know about her cousin, Umar Ozdomirov, a member of the renowned Vainakh Chechen folk dancing troupe. "They took him at the blokpost near Grozny's central market last July," she said. "We've appealed to the police, the military procurator, the Red Cross, to everyone we can think of, but there is still no information about him. We are beside ourselves with anxiety for him."

Colonel Shabanov, while admitting that "some violations" of the law may occur at blokposti, says most of the 1,630 official complaints lodged by Chechen families with military prosecutors are "fictitious." He alleges the women protesters were paid rebel agents. "We have evidence that these cases (of missing people) are mostly bandits who have died fighting our forces, and their families later claim they were taken by the federals," he says.

The Russians are now planning to bring back tens of thousands of refugees who fled Grozny over the past three years to the relative safety of UN-supplied camps in neighboring Ingushetia. Ten "temporary settlement centers" are being set up in Grozny for them, although the human rights group Memorial has reported that only half are so far habitable. One, a seemingly well-heated and adequately protected former kindergarten, houses about 500 people removed from a refugee camp at Znamenskoye, in northern Chechnya, last June. "It's possible to live here, but we would rather have stayed in Znamenskoye, where it was safe, " says Nina Abzailova. "But they began tearing down the tents, and everyone had to leave."

President Vladimir Putin has pledged that refugees will not be forced to return. Russian officials here repeat those assurances, but there is also a hard edge to their statements. "It's time to liquidate those rebel rest-houses in Ingushetia," says Shabanov.

Savdat Kalimuliyeva, another resident at the former kindergarten in central Grozny, fears for her three children. "Every night there is shooting and bombing all around. We cannot sleep, we just huddle together in fear. I am terrified for my 16-year old son. What if they take him?"

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