Optimism rises from rat-infested rubble

CHECHNYA DAYS

Grozny - For a long time, I felt I knew the definition of optimism. It was, I thought, a man in Vorkuta, an unutterably bleak Russian coal- mining city north of the Arctic Circle which used to be a Stalinist labour camp.

Although it was early summer, temperatures were stuck below zero and there was as much chance of seeing a tourist as of spotting a cactus. This man made his living by persuading passers-by to pay him for the privilege of being photographed next to a moth-eaten, stuffed reindeer.

Now, several thousand miles to the south, he has a challenger. She is sitting before a pair of dark-blue curtains in a television studio that looks like one of those kiosks you go to to get a new set of passport photos. One almost expects her to giggle, so strange is her proposition. "Apartments for sale," she says, before reeling off a list of addresses with all the confidence and fluency of a Mayfair estate agent.

"There is water, electricity, and gas," she continues. No mention is made of the fact that the water supply is polluted by the city's damaged sewage system, or that the electricity supply regularly breaks down, or that the gas pipes are peppered with so many bullet holes that people set light to the leaks to stop them from exploding.

Nor does she have anything to say about the neighbourhood, which is likely to comprise an assortment of rat-infested piles of rubble, interrupted by tall, burnt-out, Communist-era apartment blocks. After 21 months of war, the residents of Grozny, capital city of Chechnya, can no longer see the chaos which surrounds them.

We are watching Marso television, one of several makeshift Chechen-run television channels which broadcast intermittently on the Caucasus republic's airwaves in the aftermath of its war with Moscow. Even the most patriotic Chechen would probably concede that this would not, under normal circumstances, be anyone's first choice of entertainment. But there's nothing much else to do once the sun has set over this ruined city.

Although Grozny now has dozens of new cafes, they close at night. There are no bars; alcohol has been banned by the Islamic republic's separatist- dominated government.

The city-centre is busy enough by day - teeming with new Japanese and American cars driven by former Chechen fighters (one bearing the sticker: Drive Carefully. Future President Inside). There are even traffic cops. We were fined $5, for an illegal left turn, regardless of the fact that 200 yards away we saw a car driving down the pavement. But the nights are eerily still.

So, television it is. After a while, the property commercials give way to a man in office clothes miming to a popular song as he wanders through some woodlands. Then there is a Hollywood "hot-rod" film starring Charlie Sheen, great fun for anyone prepared to endure a movie dubbed from English into German, translated into Russian, and broadcast on the blurry airwaves. The merest hint of sex is censored.

But the Chechens seem to approve. "We hate Russian television. We can't watch it in front of our families. It is too embarrassing," explained our host Hassan, proprietor of a rickety house in central Grozny which has become a watering hole for foreign correspondents over the past two years. He rails against the "pornographic advertisements" transmitted from Moscow", in which - horror - actors are seen kissing.

But the fledgling broadcasts are symptoms of an instinct to survive. Russian troops are still withdrawing from the republic after a war that has left tens of thousands dead. It is uncertain where the money will come to rebuild its shattered society. Yet, an entrepreneurial spirit is unfurling amid the mayhem.

Four months after the end of the war, you can buy every necessity in Grozny, from soap powder to soap operas. And if you have the guts, you can buy a house - even though this might qualify you for the title of the world's most optimistic person.

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