`All they can do is kill me' - and perhaps they did

GROZNY DAYS

The Grozneft Hotel had, it seemed at the time, already hit rock bottom. When I checked in last December it had no working lavatories, no heat other than wonky electric cooking rings carted from room to room and only the most pathetic approximation of running water - an asthmatic tap on the ground floor dribbling brownish fluid. The electricity came and went depending on the time of day and accuracy of Russian bombs.

I shared a pestilential room on the third floor with an American journalist. We were both in Grozny for what was then the start of Russia's botched, brutal military adventure in Chechnya. At night the windows rattled from artillery and air raids hammering the outskirts of the city.

A more immediate hazard, though, lurked just a few feet away. This was the stained, hair-clogged sink in our room. Night and day, a grotesque stench spewed from its plugless plug hole. We tried blocking it with rags, masking the odour with mouthwash and whisky. But nothing could stop the last-gasp halitosis of this doomed city.

The only other guests at the Grozneft, aside from CNN and other foreign television crews, were young Chechen fighters. They wore green head-bands, carried Kalashnikovs on their shoulders and grenades in their belts and described themselves as members of Dzhokhar Dudayev's suicide squad. Even they checked out soon after we got there, leaving the corridors littered with empty ammunition boxes and greasy packing paper.

Presiding over the decay was a relentlessly cheery Russian woman called Galinina Kosminina, 44 years old and mother of three children. She apologised for the mess. You must come back later, she kept telling us: things can only improve. She did what she could to stop the rot spreading, washing bed sheets when there was enough water, boarding up broken windows and scrupulously scrawling the name and passport number of each guest in a neat ledger at the front desk. She clearly found comfort in the ritual.

She lived with her mother and children upstairs. Most of her time, though, was spent in a cubby hole of a room near the hotel entrance. With chaos closing in on all sides, this was her little oasis of order. On the wall hung a red Oriental carpet. A glass cabinet, its doors taped with black and white family photographs and sunny postcards, held a collection of Russian classics and a vase with plastic flowers. She served coffee in chipped cups on a little wooden table decorated with a soiled lace doily.

Before I left I stopped to say goodbye. Had she not thought of leaving? Why not take her family to stay with relatives in the Russian town of Stavropol? "We're not afraid of anything any more," she replied. "This is my home. All they can do is kill me. I'm not going anywhere."

I pray to God she changed her mind. I went back to the Grozneft Hotel last week. The room where Mrs Kosminina used to sit is obliterated. The entire building has had its insides sucked out, so powerful was the blast of whatever it was the Russians dropped on it.

Most ruined buildings in Grozny give some idea of what went on inside before the apocalypse. From shattered apartment blocks dangle bathtubs, furniture and carpets. Smashed television sets and twisted tricycles lie amid the rubble of bomb-broken homes. Along Lenin Prospekt, probably the most ravaged part of the city, you can still see the ticket booth and torn posters for American action films at the Kosmos cinema. In a hairdresser's salon, shards of shattered mirror sprinkle the floor around uprooted barber's chairs. The Aeroflot booking office has a timetable on the wall and, on the roof, a metal sign, twisted and charred but still recognisable as the shape of an aircraft. On nearly every door is the same plaintive plea scrawled in chalk or paint: Zdes Zhivut Lyudi - "People Live Here."

At the Grozneft Hotel, though, nothing remains but the outside brick walls. All signs of life have been vaporised. As somewhere to stay or as a piece of architecture, it will not be missed. Like the departure of Mr Dudayev's mad and mostly bad regime, it is a loss that should start few tears. But also eliminated, swept away with the stink of Mr Dudayev's misrule, is the brave, desperate hope of people like Mrs Kosminina. She stayed not because she applauded Mr Dudayev but because she loathed what he had done to her city: nothing, she imagined, could be worse. She was wrong.

In Grozny last week I kept thinking of her words I had jotted in my notebook during my previous stay: "This is my home. All they can do is kill me." Walking away from the wreckage of her hotel I noticed for the first time a metal sign on the wall. It gave the address: Peace Street.

Andrew Higgins

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