Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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New York Times
December 4, 2001
In the Remains of Grozny, the Remains of Living

GROZNY, Russia-- In a city where virtually every building has been bombed, burned, shelled beyond recognition or simply obliterated by war, a spanking new edifice has risen downtown. An immaculate stucco tower set between bookends of shattered brick, it is the headquarters of Grozenergo, Grozny's electric company.

That there is no electricity in Grozny, and has not been for two years now, is beside the point.

Grozny also has ambulances, though seeing as there are no telephones, no one can readily summon them. Grozny has a police force, too, although it stays home nights because after dark, both rebels and Russian soldiers fire at anything that moves. It has a daily 8 a.m. traffic jam, in which autos and trucks line up impatiently behind the explosives experts who sweep the main streets for mines planted during the night.

In short, Grozny has the trappings of a normal city, save that no normal person would choose to live here. So, of course, some 100,000 people do.

"What's normal?" said one man, a fellow who will be called simply Abdul because assisting foreign journalists here is not an approved diversion. "I go to sleep at night not knowing whether I'll wake up in the morning. I go outside in the morning not knowing whether I'll come back."

To most outsiders, these 100,000 people have been all but invisible, lumped with other Chechnya residents in abstract stories about human rights in a brutal war. But with Chechnya again drawing outside attention after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, it is clear that they are not like others at all.

Most rural Chechens escaped destruction in a conflict for which Moscow blames Islamic extremists and terrorists. Not so the people of Grozny, who did and still do bear the brunt of the violence, from both the rebel and the Russian side.

You can see their laundry flapping from the balconies of the one or two intact flats in bombed-out apartment buildings. They scrawl "zhivut lyudi" on the facades of homes — people live here, that means in Russian; save looting and target practice for abandoned houses, please.

At night, you can spot them by the foot-high flames that spurt from pipes hung outside almost every occupied dwelling, tribal torches in an urban jungle. Grozny has no water, phones or power, but it has an embarrassment of natural gas, free for the taking. Everyone takes.

"We are fortunate that there's a natural gas pipeline that transits Chechnya from Dagestan," one resident said drily.

Grozny has been a ruin so long that life on tenterhooks has become normal, supplanting whatever existed before. Once a city of broad, tree- lined avenues and Soviet-style buildings, Grozny was all but destroyed two years ago in a ferocious Russian bombardment. It has remained rubble, the backdrop for a guerrilla war between Russian troops and shadowy bands of separatists.

The Kremlin's representatives assured citizens last week that Chechnya "is under control and mostly at peace." In Grozny, that is true only in the loosest sense.

In daylight, Russian soldiers control roughly 300 checkpoints throughout town. They conduct periodic sweeps — dreaded "mopping-ups" in which neighborhoods are sealed off, homes searched and young men hauled away en masse.

But mere yards beyond the checkpoints, in the endless ruins of former homes and gutted, upended automobiles, Grozny is a no man's land. At night, the checkpoint soldiers retreat into their makeshift blockhouses and cede the city to criminals and rebels, with their automatic weapons and remote-controlled mines.

It is hard to tell which the citizens fear most, the soldiers or the enemy. "Nobody rules the city," Abdul says.

In February, the Russian government restored Grozny's status as Chechnya's capital, and opened a regional administrative center to underscore the return to normalcy. One cannot easily see the center, much less visit it. Three defensive perimeters surround it.

The government says it will rebuild Chechnya. It has allotted roughly $500 million for starters, some of which has gone to build Grozenergo's tower and the new government center. In excursions around town this week, a few workers were seen filling huge potholes, and one crew outside the city appeared to be stringing a power line.

But mostly, it is residents who are rebuilding.

In Grozny's Oktyabrsky district, all but leveled by Russian bombing, a 40-year-old named Akhmed is reclaiming his family's shattered home, using materials donated by a Danish charity.

Akhmed said he feared for his wife and toddler daughter at the hands of the rebels. "They can do whatever they want with you," he said. "They don't care if you're civilian or military." But leaving Grozny would mean sacrificing home and belongings. Aside from a squalid refugee camp, there is nowhere to go.

So he and other residents swallow their fears, and build semblances of ordinary lives. They sell bootleg gasoline refined from waters of the polluted aquifer beneath the city — Grozny has no filling stations — and run roadside stands to hawk soft drinks and snacks.

The least fortunate subsist on charity: the Chechen Red Cross gives 12 loaves a month to 32,000 invalids and pensioners, half of them in Grozny, and sees 5,000 patients a month in a circuit-riding doctor's office built into a van.

The lucky can buy fresh food in Grozny's central market, scene of many terrorist bombings and one devastating attack by Russian artillery two years ago that took 150 lives.

They sink wells in less polluted parts of the aquifer, and jury-rig power supplies. Akhmed pays $5 a month for a tiny electricity ration from a neighborhood generator. In a garage in Abdul's neighborhood, an engine lifted from a Zhiguli sedan, converted to run on natural gas, supplies 16 homes with enough power for one light and one television for several hours each evening.

Abdul is one of the exceptionally lucky. His three-room cottage, which not long ago housed 68 refugees, was pierced by but one artillery shell, and it failed to explode. Gas-heated hot water pulses in his radiators. His well water, while not potable, is good enough for washing and shaving.

At night, Abdul holds court at a thick wooden table, overlooking a fenced-in courtyard. On the table are chicken and pasta, tomatoes packed in salt, fresh bread, green onions, horseradish, the ubiquitous bottle of vodka. Candles bathe everything in a pale yellow glow: on this night, the Zhiguli engine is down for repairs.

Then, a thunderous explosion splits the air 200 yards — or was it 400 yards? — away. Automatic rifles begin chattering. Abdul's wife rushes into the kitchen, clutching her chest in fear, and his guest starts.

But Abdul, utterly unfazed, takes a draw on his cigarette, the fifth or sixth of the young night, and exhales slowly. "Normal," he says.

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