Life stirs again among the ruins

GROZNY DAYS
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The Independent Online
Outside in the courtyard old men sit playing chess. Beneath the balconies teenagers play table tennis (with a line of bricks for a net). In front of their houses people sit chatting and laughing till late. A southern summer's evening of perfect tranquillity.

Just occasionally there is a burst of shooting to remind you that the reality of Grozny is different. Or you can move out of the courtyard (before the 9pm curfew) and behold the scene of destruction that once shocked the world - so long ago, at the beginning of the year. Ruins, ruins, and more ruins. Grozny, the capital of the would-be breakaway republic of Chechnya, now stands as a monstrous and unhappy pile of destruction.

Here at No 16 Victory Avenue, the family with whom I am staying consider themselves lucky. Sure, they lost many of their most treasured possessions when their front room was destroyed in the shelling. Sure, Luisa, the daughter, lost the popular city-centre cafe into which she had sunk the family savings. Sure, 14 people in this block lost their lives in the shelling. And Aslambek, the elder son, was badly injured by a shell fragment: it is still unclear whether his eye is operable.

By Grozny standards, though, all that counts as good fortune. None of the houses in this courtyard was completely destroyed. Fourteen is a tiny number to have died. And the Russians did not come shooting into the cellar, in which 108 people - Chechens and Russians together - were huddled. Instead, a little boy and his father went to fetch the Russians to show them where they were hiding, and to persuade them not to shoot.

Mahomed, the 23-year-old younger son, remembers: "The two Russians seemed so frightened. We fed them, and gave one of them a new pair of shoes - his shoes had fallen apart. They were very afraid. They held their guns up all the time they were eating." As the soldier gazed at the old and young crowded into the cellar he told Mahomed: "We were told that there were no civilians in the city."

This, then, counts as luck: to be alive, when tens of thousands are not; to have a home, even if part of it is destroyed; to be able to eat, drink and talk, on a summer's evening.

The city is no longer especially dangerous - though it gets creepy as curfew approaches. The chattering crowds suddenly vanish, leaving only a strange silence. When I got caught out one evening it was an unpleasant trot home, distracted by occasional distant shooting, to the comforting embrace of Victory Avenue (no running water, and one of the rooms is still bombed-out; but the electricity is back on, and the food and banter are good).

During the day, you feel almost safe, at least if you obey the obvious rules. Occasionally, there are "incidents" - such as when a gun-seller at the market got into an argument with a policeman and shot him dead. Most of the time, though, this is not so much a lethal city as a city whose heart has been ripped out.

But there is a marked lack of mutual hatred between local Russians and Chechens. For the moment, at least, it is almost impossible to find anybody who blames the local Russians for what has happened. "What have our Russian neighbours done wrong?" asked one Chechen. "They lived through everything, with us."

In one village, the scene of a particularly hideous civilian massacre, slogans describe the Kremlin as "the centre of world terrorism and banditry". But the slogans are careful not to preach ethnic hatred. Instead, they declare: "Russia! Save yourself from fascist dictatorship! Yeltsin is Russia's shame!"

Russia itself still does not seem to know what it wants - and nor does Chechnya. The mere fact of being allowed to stay alive - chess, gossip, and ping-pong - is not enough to rebuild a country. Russia has destroyed Chechnya out of pique, barbarism, and plain stupidity. It is now unclear how the region can ever be safely reborn.

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