Dispatches from Chechnya No. 21

From Under the Rubble: Grozny, January 2002

GROZNY, January 21, 2002 – The humanitarian situation in the city of Grozny, and throughout the Chechen Republic, remains very grave. Landmines continue to be used throughout Grozny, various neighborhoods are subjected to regular artillery fire, and civilian casualties from shelling and landmines remain high.

Russian military divisions periodically conduct so-called “mop-up operations” throughout the city. During these operations, dozens of people, most of whom are not guilty of any crime, are arrested.  Many of those arrested never return home, or return severely beaten and crippled. At the end of last year, in the Ivanovo neighborhood of Grozny, four men between the ages of 30 and 40 disappeared. Their mangled bodies were later found in a forested strip on the outskirts of the city. Such events are not uncommon. The Russian army frequently carries out round-ups in various areas of the city. Most of the arrests made during such raids are of people who are not registered to live in Grozny. Most of those arrested are eventually released, often for a ransom, but there have been instances where people arrested for lack of registration permits disappear without a trace.

Throughout Chechnya, and in Grozny especially, “death squadrons” – bands of armed men in masks – terrorize the population. Any socially active citizen is in danger of being killed in his own home in the middle of the night by one of these bands.
Although there are a handful of officially registered political parties and other organizations in Grozny, it is impossible to speak of any real political life in the conditions of continuing warfare. All of Chechnya’s active non-governmental organizations are based in Ingushetia or in Moscow. It is impossible to imagine how the elections that the Russian government is preparing to hold in Chechnya will be able to take place under such conditions.

Occasionally, Russian forces station at the base in Khankala will shell residential areas of Grozny, such as micro-regions in the Lenin area and the community of Staraya Sunzha. At night there is frequent disorganized weapons fire. Usually this comes from drunken Russian soldiers at checkpoints shooting into the air, but occasionally residential buildings are targeted.

The interim government of Chechnya, together with representatives of the Russian military, has repeatedly announced that the number of military checkpoints in Grozny will be significantly decreased. In fact, their number has only grown in the past few months. Guards at the checkpoints serve no law enforcement function; they harass passing civilian motorists and extort bribes, often closing roads in order to extract money from local drivers. The checkpoints are nothing more than a source of corruption and lawlessness.

Despite assurances from the official media that Grozny is undergoing large-scale renovation work, the city remains in ruins. All government and administrative buildings have been destroyed, as have some 80 percent of residential buildings and half of all schools, along with mosques, an Orthodox church, and a synagogue, which before the war held a music school. Recently there has been some restoration work on those school buildings that remain standing. Damaged roofs have been replaced, heating systems have been installed and cosmetic repairs have been made in the classrooms. But this is practically all that has been renovated in a city razed to the ground.

  Nearly half of the funds earmarked by the Russian government for rebuilding the economy and infrastructure of Chechnya never leave Moscow. The money and supplies that actually make it to Chechnya are embezzled by local officials. Corruption in Chechnya occurs on a massive scale has taken on unprecedented forms. The directors of several local ministries have gotten to the point where they are demanding that their workers give up part of their salaries, which are already very small and irregularly paid.
Private homes destroyed during the war are now being repaired with better-quality materials. If they are repaired at all, government housing receives only cosmetic renovations. Large apartment buildings, where the sewage, water, electric and heating systems have been completely destroyed, are having their walls plastered and repainted. Such buildings remain unfit for habitation.

There is no sanitation system to speak of in Grozny. The streets are littered with construction debris, rotting food and all sorts of other wastes. Many roads are flooded with water from the destroyed sewage system. The city’s central market – the only place where people from Grozny and the surrounding regions can buy food – is particularly filthy. Vendors selling fruit, bread and meat set up their stands amid piles of decaying garbage swarming with stray dogs and cats. The likelihood of an epidemic is extremely high. The city of Grozny has long maintained a department of sanitation and epidemiology, but it no longer functions. The lack of potable water poses a great risk to the health of Grozny’s residents. People in most of the city have access only to well water, often from wells located more than 500 meters from their homes. People living in large apartment buildings must carry their water up five or ten flights of stairs. Water in these wells usually contains traces of petroleum products or is contaminated by sewage. Drinking such water causes serious health problems, but so far there are no plans to provide the residents of Grozny with clean and purified water. In northern areas of the city, water is transported in cisterns and must be purchased.

Most homes and apartments remain unheated. Bombed out windows have been replaced with plastic sheets, which let in little light and provide no insulation. People live in sooty, filthy rooms, which are often very damp as well because the roof leaks.

Shipments of glass from humanitarian organizations are appropriated by the local administration and sold in the central market at commercial prices. Residents heat their houses using small homemade gas jets, or they use their cooking stove as a heater. Gas stoves are made by hand using a metal tripod supporting a thin metal screen, heated by gas drawn directly from a gas pipe through a rubber hose. These stoves are in fact very dangerous, because if the gas supply is cut off during the night and then turned on again, people in the house are in danger of asphyxiation. Even without this problem, people wake up in the morning with severe headaches from breathing air full of gas vapors.
Despite the horrible living conditions and constant danger, people are returning to their half-destroyed homes simply to escape the degrading and hopeless conditions in the refugee camps.

Many apartment buildings are surrounded by landmines or contain unexploded bombs, shells, and missiles in their walls and roofs. But if a few apartments in such buildings remain intact, people live in them.

The ecological situation in Grozny also leaves much to be desired. The city is enshrouded in a cloud of black smoke from burning oil wells. Although the fires at most of the wells have been put out, they flare up periodically and the thick black smoke settles over fields already burned black by the war. In addition, the crude extraction and refining of petroleum are causing irreparable harm to the city. The illicit oil industry has become a genuine disaster for Chechnya. The Russian army protects this industry in return for payments from the owners of the wells.

The health care system in Grozny has not improved at all over the past few months. Hospitals still lack the most basic medicines and equipment, and patients must pay for their treatment. Many people in the city are suffering from the most severe forms of chronic diseases. Psychological and stress-related disorders have also become common among the residents of Grozny. However, the majority of them do not even intend to seek psychiatric help, some because they are unable to pay, and others because they feel it wrong to think about their psychological health when so many people are dying around them.

One of the most troubling aspects of life in Grozny remains the criminal situation. The city is swarming with police and Russian soldiers, but criminals have free reign. Nearly every night there is at least one murder, and bands of thugs roam the streets looking for loot. Many crimes, including burglary and murder, are committed by the Russian soldiers themselves.

Drug addiction, alcoholism and theft are becoming increasingly common among young people. If previously this was characteristic of out of work teenagers, now it involves even university students.

Nearly 70 percent of Grozny’s adult residents are unemployed and have no means to support themselves. Pensions have been paid fairly regularly over the past few months, and these minuscule payments are often the only source of income for an entire family of 7 to 9 people.

Despite the inhumane living conditions, the people of Grozny maintain the hope that one day the civilized world will remember their plight.