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#11 - JRL 7038
Fear, fatigue and the smell of gas for war-racked Chechens
January 28, 2003

The smell of gas spreads through the air once darkness falls on the Chechen capital, as fires burn to offer some light in a city where electricity is rarely provided.

Not that there is much for the light to illuminate: buildings riddled with gunfire, many reduced to rubble, fallen victims whose remains stand as a testament to the two wars that have decimated the southern Russian republic since 1994.

Around one million people lived in the once vibrant capital when the first conflict between federal forces and separatist rebels broke out, and rights groups contest Russian estimates that some 600,000 people are currently living in the shelled-out city.

In daytime, Grozny seems to belong to another century. Lying on a steppe between the high Caucasus mountains that enclose the republic, it is often swathed in a thick, yellow low-lying fog. There is barely a soul to be seen, and those who do venture onto the streets are usually women, some returning from the markets that have sprung up as residents attempt to return to normal life.

"I sit at home all day," said Vaxa Astan, who lives in a temporary housing center for the many Chechen refugees who returned last summer from tent camps in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia.

"I don't work and there's nothing to do," he said. "It's not safe outside."

Officials in Grozny and Moscow have been attempting to prove otherwise, firstly by closing down the Ingush tent camps in a bid to urge -- some say force -- the refugees to return home.

And most recently, with plans to hold a referendum on March 23 in which Chechens are expected to approve a constitution that would formally set their republic's place within Russia and give up any claim to independence.

Rights groups have widely criticized the plan, touted by President Vladimir Putin as proof that Moscow has launched a political solution to a conflict which continues to claim lives on both sides almost daily.

"We cannot speak about 100 percent security in our republic -- but neither can any other country in the world," said Akhmad Kadyrov, head of the pro-Russian administration in Chechnya.

Yet civilians living among the tattered ruins of Grozny say they can barely speak of any security at all, and nearly everyone has a story about disappearing friends or relatives, picked up by Russian soldiers attempting to weed out separatist rebels. Many of the men are never heard from again.

"There is absolutely nothing here, everything is destroyed," said Petimak Khumeva, 53, who lives in the temporary housing center with her seven daughters and said two of her nephews disappeared in such "cleaning-up" operations.

Petimak returned to Grozny from an Ingush camp seven months ago at the request of her ill husband, who died in the center's dark halls three weeks ago.

"The Russian soldiers take our kids, they beat them and kill them," she said. "We need the world to come and help us -- not these Russian soldiers everywhere."

About 80,000 Russian troops are currently stationed in Chechnya, a tiny republic just 80 kilometers (50 miles) wide and 160 kilometers long -- roughly the size of the US state of Connecticut or half the size of Belgium.

They were sent into Chechnya in October 1999, after a series of apartment bombings in Moscow and southern Russia blamed on Chechen rebels and have been fighting a separatist insurgency ever since.

The overwhelming sentiment in Grozny is one of fatigue -- tired troops and tired civilians, who say they will vote in the March 23 referendum because they are willing to take part in any process that could put an end to the drawn-out war.

"Of course I will vote -- we want to live," Petimak said. "We're tired of this."

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