French university students help Chechen peers find a route to Paris

Milana Bakhaeva was first touched by war at age 5, when Russian soldiers razed Yandi, the village near Grozny, Chechnya, where her family lived.

"The resistance fighters told us to leave, because they didn't want civilian casualties," Ms. Bakhaeva recalls. "Everything we had was stolen, and everyone who stayed there was killed."

Between 3,000 and 5,000 civilians have disappeared since Russia's second war with Chechnya started in 1999, according to estimates from Human Rights Watch. Nearly 150,000 have been killed, including roughly 40,000 children.

"There isn't a family who hasn't lost someone," says Aslan Iznur, a compatriot of Bakhaeva's.

Bakhaeva's family moved to Grozny, where she was eventually able to enroll at university. But the perils of war cut her education short. Fearing for their safety, her family moved to Ingushetia, then back to Grozny. Bakhaeva hoped to leave the country but was stymied both by finances and the difficulty of obtaining a visa.

"Everyone left; everyone wants their children to leave," says Mr. Iznur. The feeling that paralyzes the country, he says, is a conviction that, "If you're of Chechen origin, you don't have a chance."

But thanks to the efforts of a group of French university students, Bakhaeva and Iznur have both seen their lives turn around. One day recently Bakhaeva sat outside her studio apartment at Cité Universitaire in Paris, her long brown hair blowing in the spring breeze, and answered questions about her studies. Last fall, she and Iznur were among eight students selected to study abroad from the University of Grozny under the auspices of Etudes Sans Frontières (Students Without Borders), an organization started by French students.

Bakhaeva is enrolled in a master's program in journalism and political science at France's prestigious Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris, better known as "Science Po." Her ultimate aim: to start a publication to give young Chechens a voice. Iznur hopes to study business.

A program allowing young Chechens to study abroad was first proposed in 1997 by Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen president killed last month. Seeing the frustration of the youths in his country, he asked Western countries to help educate Chechen college students.

But only Saudi Arabia and Pakistan responded. "There are a few hundred [Chechens] who went [to study abroad]," says Laure Salefranque, secretary-general of Etudes Sans Frontières. "Many are in Koranic schools, because that was the only opportunity they were given."

Then Ms. Salefranque and three other French students intervened.

"We wanted [Chechen students] to have a democratic education and develop intellectually," Salefranque says. "Chechnya is like a ghetto; it's hard to leave and hard to get back in. They have the impression that they're alone in the world."

The students decided to create a group modeled after Médecins Sans Frontières, the Paris-based nonprofit group that sends doctors into war zones and other areas where care is needed. "We went to the presidents of [French] universities and asked them to give the students a free education; we asked Air France to give them free tickets," says Salefranque. "Everyone agreed."

The French students also solicited other donations and got political backing from Jack Lang, former French Minister of Culture, and Bernard Kouchner, founder of Médecins Sans Frontières.

The group's first success came when they brought Bakhaeva, Iznur, and six other Chechens to Paris last fall to begin two years of study in France.

Next year, they hope to bring 18 more students from Chechnya to France and others from Rwanda. At the same time, Etudes Sans Frontières is working to create ties with American and British universities, because many of the students they hope to help speak English.

"What all these students have done is remarkable," says French writer André Glucksmann, an outspoken opponent of the war in Chechnya. "The people in Grozny need to know there are people out there thinking of them. This is an antiterrorism mission. We need to signal to the Chechen people that there is a future."

Almost all the Chechens in the current group say that when their studies are finished they want to return home and help to rebuild their country.

It will not be an easy task. Last September, male and female Chechen rebels seized a school in Beslan, Russia. The hostage-taking and kidnapping ended in the deaths of 344 civilians, 172 of whom were children.

Since the incident, many Chechens say they live under even tighter scrutiny by Russian troops, with some complaining of harassment and even torture. Before the incident in Beslan, they say, young Chechen boys were treated as potential terrorists, but now young Chechen girls also live under a cloud of suspicion.

Some of the Chechen students feel guilt for leaving their homeland, says Salefranque. The young men, in particular, sometimes think they should be home defending their country. Iznur says half of his high school class was lost to war.

But for the most part, the students try to remind themselves that they will be bringing knowledge and expertise with them when they return home.

"I want to open a business," says Svetlana Muzaeva. "I couldn't finish my studies in Chechnya. We're in constant danger, but not everyone has a way out."

"What is the future for young people who have spent half their lives seeing only war?" asks Bakhaeva. "They don't have a childhood."

It is a matter of opening their eyes to new possibilities, she explains. "When children grow up with war, all they want is war," she says.

The degree to which Chechen children are surrounded by violence, she says, makes it all the more vital that they have access to learning. They need education, she says, "so they know what it means to be a human being."

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