#2 - JRL 7179
May 9, 2003
Fast-track love in war-weary Chechnya
By Sapiet Dakhshukaeva
I was travelling along one of the main roads of Grozny, near the outskirts of town.
It was a typical scene - ruins, tanks and armoured cars, jeeps and groups of sappers on foot.
Suddenly bursts of automatic gunfire rang out at the nearest checkpoint.
One's first instinct is to leap from the car and lie flat on the ground.
But on this occasion there was no danger.
The gunfire was from soldiers manning the checkpoint - who had been asked to clear the road for a wedding convoy and to shoot in the air to mark the occasion.
The convoy passed, with ribbons and balloons flying and horns hooting.
Recently I asked a friend just how things were in Chechnya on the love front, so to speak.
She answered, with humour: "In a war zone, to love is the only thing left to do!"
Another acquaintance, Zoya, told me about her nephew, who abruptly decided to marry some time ago, when the security situation was still very tense.
"We started to dissuade him, saying: 'Oh, what are we going to do? There is no gas, no electricity, and you're not even 18 yet!'," she said.
"But in the end, love won out!"
This meant that Zoya had to travel across Grozny to the bride's home at a time when, as she put it, even a mouse could not pass through the military checkpoints.
To complicate matters further, the groom insisted that the bride should be fetched in a spacious Volga saloon car.
It took Zoya a long time to find a Volga driver prepared to try and make it through the checkpoints.
When she finally succeeded, he turned out to be tipsy - but somehow he persuaded the soldiers to let the car through.
And so the wedding went ahead, following Chechen tradition with neither the groom nor the bride's parents taking any part in the ceremony.
In Chechnya people are still talking about an even more astonishing story, when a bride found her village surrounded on her wedding day by federal troops aiming to "cleanse" it of any rebel sympathisers.
Not a single car entered or left the village - but the bride got a lift out in an armoured vehicle.
While young couples used to court each other for two or three years, the process is now greatly accelerated, and can be over in weeks.
Chechen psychologist Fariza Musaeva says it's not just because people have nothing else to do, it's the "thirst for life".
"People who spend a long time in a situation where they could be killed want to live, they want to prolong their lives via their children," she says.
"And there is another factor. Children mature early in such conditions, and they understand the value of life and the meaning of death."
Mothers on the look-out
Grozny's teacher training institute is now one of the few places in the city where young people can get together.
Students don't just study there, they also arrange dates there - and the mothers of young men driven abroad by the conflict go there to spy out suitable daughters-in-law.
"They are usually immediately obvious. They stand around observing how this or that girl behaves herself, for two or three days, and then they introduce themselves to the girl they like best," one student told me.
"They ask where she comes from, how old she is, and they bring photographs [of their son]. In this way a couple gets together - through an intermediary."
It's a far cry from the way Chechen couples have traditionally met one another, at the spring or water pipe - a scene celebrated in countless folksongs and dances.
But people in Chechnya are only too aware of how much the war has destroyed - and of the need to start a new life.