Staying on amidst the rubble of Grozny

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The Independent Online
When the Russians started daylight bombing of the Chechen capital, Grozny, Yelena Andrianova descended from her book-lined flat to a dark basement. There she spent 45 days.

When Ms Andrianova, assistant professor of English at Grozny University, and her constant companion, a Siamese cat, Mishka, emerged from the bomb shelter last week, her flat was in ruins, her books burnt, and the poems of her late husband destroyed.

Her apartment block, just across the bridge from the presidential palace, was hit by bombs.Then it became a stronghold for Chechen snipers and took more direct hits But the end of the underground ordeal was not the liberation she had hoped for.

In slightly old fashioned but perfectly accented English, she described the first Russian soldiers she encountered as "very pleasant". They said they would come back in two or three days to help with evacuation. But the troops who come back were "very young , very drunk conscripts who threatened us". Other soldiers ran amok looting apartments.

In the basement storeroom of Middle School 22 she had bedded down with 50 other people, mainly Russians. It was cold and damp and lit only by two candles.A school tuba lay in the corner. Her neighbour slept on a portrait of Lenin while she rested on the poet Nekrasov.

When the bombing intensified it was only safe to venture out for food and water between 7am and 8.30am. The constant quarelling between her companions - rather than cold or hunger - was the worst hardship for Ms Andrianova.

The bunker was riven by bickering between the Russians and Chechens loyal to the rebel president, Dzhokar Dudayev "They defended Dudayev, we didn't. Every day there were political discussions: what's good, what's bad, what should be done what shouldn't be. Russians are very good politicians; we all know what to do."

As the war went on, the political climate changed. "Everyone agreed that Yeltsin is a good-for-nothing. As for Dudayev, most thought he was no better than Yeltsin but there were some who thought he was better. By the end of our stay, our political views changed and everyone agreed that Dudayev is a good-for-nothing too .Both sides are barbarians."

She kept the cat firmly either in her lap or in a zip-up bag and did not let him wander around because, at first, people tried to resist a cat joining the shelter.

Ms Andrianova, aged 59, is now living in the home of an ex-pupil in the Ingush capital, Nazran, with Mishka. Despite turning black from soot, he also emerged unscathed.

She remains unfazed by her experiences: "I'm not afraid, by the way. I found that the men who lived with us were very afraid to live in the cellar. My friend left only if he held my hand.There were some bullets but I never thought they were aimed at me. I thought they were just to frighten me "

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