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`We Chechens have always had to fight - first Genghis Khan, now Boris Yeltsin'

"MY BROTHER kept a pet sheep called Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin, but she was killed by shrapnel," said Ruslan Kurumov, a paramedic who had just escaped from Grozny, the Chechen capital. "Now he has given the same name to a pet turkey."

Mr Kurumov and his wife, Aiza, have taken refuge in the small three-roomed house of a medical friend, Dr Boris Bokov, who left Grozny for Ingushetia before the first war, in 1994. They are filled with despair at the destruction of their lives and derisive of claims on Russian television that Russia is reopening schools and distributing aid. "When we hear the Russian bombers coming, we say `here comes humanitarian aid'," said Dr Bokov, a benign man in his fifties who grins as he explains the difficulty of packing 13 people into his home.

There are quips about Mr Yeltsin and laughter at a Russian propaganda stunt which went wrong. A small Chechen boy was asked on television how he likes life in the Russian security zone in northern Chechnya. "Not at all," said the boy. "Why not?" asked the interviewer. "Because you are here," said the small boy stoutly.

But overall the mood among these middle-class, well-educated Chechens is one of weary despair. Mrs Kurumov, a doctor who did pregnancy testing in a Grozny hospital, said: "Now we have a dead feeling. After the first war we had hope. Now I am ready to leave this country, but where can we go? Not to Russia, where they say all Chechens are bandits."

Mrs Kurumov is particularly offended by Russian claims that before the present war Chechnya was living in primeval darkness. "Grozny was in ruins, but our hospitals and schools still worked," she said. "My children missed only four months of school in four years. They laugh when they hear claims that kids in Chechnya haven't seen sweets since the Russians left."

But as the refugees talk, a picture emerges of lives lived in conditions of extraordinary violence since 1994. Sitting in Dr Bokov's sitting room is another of his friends, Ruslan Garazhiev, a dark-haired, 39-year- old man, who looks healthy enough until he rolls up his shirt sleeve to show his left upper arm, which bears a hole the size of a pineapple.

He explained that in the spring of 1996 he was working for the Russian Interior Ministry as a police inspector in Grozny. At this time the Russian army still held the city. "At five one morning, masked men started to hammer on the door of my apartment. I didn't know who they were. I took my pistol and when the first man came through the door I stuck two fingers in his eyes."

Mr Garazhiev said he did not know if he was being attacked by Chechen fighters or Russian soldiers. "I fired my pistol at them and they fired back," he recalled. "I was hit twice in the belly and once in the arm. My belly still looks like a map. My wife jumped through the first-floor window to escape. I kept shouting out to them that I had run out of bullets."

As the shooting died away, it emerged that Mr Garazhiev's apartment had been attacked by Russian special forces - to this day he does not know why. He said that at the time he was working on two big bribery cases - the Russian administration in Grozny was infamously corrupt - and someone involved might have denounced him as a Chechen agent. The Interior Ministry cannot have taken the charges seriously because it paid for the hospital treatment in Moscow which saved his life, and still pays him a pension.

Asked how Chechens survived in the ruins of Grozny over the past three years, Mrs Kurumov said: "Everybody did a little buying and selling, though I never found out who had the money to buy. People made just enough to buy food."

The only industry to flourish - apart from kidnapping - was a peculiar one. There are small oilfields close to the surface around Grozny. People would make home-brew petrol. It was a lethal business. Mr Kurumov explained that people would dig pits into which crude oil would seep: "Then they would heat it in a barrel and siphon off the vapour to produce a low-grade fuel. Often there were explosions with many people killed. The process also produced terrible pollution."

Dr Bokov's friends all admit the banditry and corruption of pre-war Chechnya, but feel that the Russian government has started a racist campaign to label them all as gangsters and terrorists. Even Mr Garazhiev, who worked for the Russians, sees the present conflict as the latest effort to exterminate the Chechens.

He said: "The Chechens have always had to fight to survive. Over the years we have fought Genghis Khan, Tamburlaine, Peter the Great - and now Boris Yeltsin."