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In Grozny, struggle has just begun

THE BALTIMORE SUN

GROZNY, Russia -- The dazed and the numb have begun to leave their cellars, to blink in the bright dusty sunshine, to get on with life in a city that lacks water, electricity, medicine, shelter, even hope.

Watched by soldiers wearing black bandannas across their faces like cattle rustlers in the Wild West, the survivors of Grozny plod along the long, pulverized streets, along block after block of unrelenting rubble, the people puny against the devastation.

The war in Chechnya has passed on to other places. Now the people here are trying to gauge just what it will mean to rebuild some portion of their lives.

"Whom God loves he punishes," said Father Anatoly of St. Michael the Archangel Cathedral, a smashed and burned-out shell on Lenin Prospekt. "Maybe he meant that we should purify ourselves through this suffering."

About 130,000 people are believed to be alive in Grozny, a quarter of the population of four months ago.

A new administration is in place. The police are being reorganized. Russian and international aid agencies are beginning to truck in food and water, set up distribution points, open clinics.

Crews from the Ministry of Emergency Situations have taken a few steps toward rebuilding the city: They have razed what was left of the old Chaika Hotel.

But their work is barely noticed. For more than a mile in all directions, virtually every building is destroyed or so heavily damaged that it will have to come down.

The city is strewn with land mines. Water has to be trucked in from 35 miles away, and there is less than two quarts per person each day, which is not adequate.

There are no jobs. The budget for free bread distribution runs out April 1. Medical workers fear epidemics of cholera and dysentery as the weather grows warmer.

"I've never seen this before, this destruction, this tremendous destruction," said Dr. Michael Schubert, a German physician working for a British aid group called Merlin, who came here after a stint among the refugees of Rwanda.

"I've never seen so many people being so desperate. So many people don't understand what's going on."

No medicine available

While epidemics of contagious diseases threaten the city, people with chronic ailments -- diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, cancer -- are failing without their usual medications. Probably thousands more, Dr. Schubert said, are suffering from severe psychological stress.

A woman carefully arranges her makeup. A man sits by what used to be a window in what used to be his house, reading a month-old newspaper as if it contained the latest news.

What part of this is a healthy attempt to re-assert something normal, Dr. Schubert asks, and what part is denial that anything at all has gone wrong?

"Just call me Rimma the Believer," said a gaunt 63-year-old woman who was carefully washing a dish towel in a bucket of dirty water on the street.

"I live underground now," she said, as if it were a great joke. "We take care of ourselves. I have no complaints. Glory to God!"

The Russian Army launched an assault on the center of Grozny Jan. 1, and it failed miserably. For more than three weeks the Russians then poured artillery fire, bombs and rockets onto the city, while fighting forward block by block.

Finally, at the end of January, they pushed most of the forces of Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev out of the main part of the city and began to establish their rule.

Most of the residents had fled. Those who remained were predominantly elderly, predominantly women, predominantly ethnic Russians.

Life in the cellars

They spent the winter in cold cellars. They foraged for food. They buried their dead in shallow graves beside trees stripped down to angular trunks by bullets and shrapnel.

Everything in Grozny is riddled with bullet holes: the wall above the icons in the church house that adjoins St. Michael's, a helmet lying in an alley, a truck near the Presidential Palace that has been reduced to a fine filigree.

Troops from the Interior Ministry patrol the streets in dust-churning tanks and armored personnel carriers.

A line of soldiers stands guard behind sandbags and barbed wire at a building commandeered by the Interior Ministry. Across the street lies a body -- a warning, apparently. A broken piece of rope is tied to the right ankle. Someone has draped a sheet over the head and abdomen.

At night, in the blackened city, one is safest returning to the cellars. There is gunfire in every direction.

"At 5 o'clock Grozny practically closes up except for those with automatics," said Salambek Khadzhiyev, a candid 54-year-old former chemist who has been installed by the Russians as chairman of the new Chechen government.

"It can't get worse," said Zarmekhan Bokova, a widow who is living in the wrecked remains of her house.

FTC "I spend all day standing in line for food and water, and trying to keep my stove lit and warm. At night, everyone's home wondering if they're going to be shot. There are no rights, no laws. It's the worst thing imaginable."

Mr. Khadzhiyev said he's determined to restore some sort of functioning order. He has a budget of 12 billion rubles, about $2.5 million, for medical workers' salaries. The Russian government says it will spend a little more than $1 billion to reconstruct the city, though none of that has been seen so far.

'Dirty work'

"I'm here because someone must do this dirty work," he said. "It's a question of conscience, not a desire for power.

"It would have been better, of course, if this destruction hadn't happened. But the Chechen people know that Dudayev is to blame. His own personal power was more important than anything else, and he wants to fight to the last Chechen.

"He promised us a good life and freedom, but he gave us a destroyed city, years of unpaid salaries, old people without pensions and death for our children."

Mr. Khadzhiyev works out of his old office, at a petroleum institute

that's not in the center and therefore took only a few hits from tank shells. His curtains are drawn, but he said he's not afraid: Anyone who lived through the winter in Grozny has lost the ability to feel fear.

"What was happening in Grozny seemed an awful nightmare," he said, "but reality is reality. The point is not to be indignant. We've got to get down to work."

The city medical administration has started to send nurses out on patrol, armed with syringes and diphtheria vaccine. Generators have been set up at the three hospitals that are still open.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which is providing half the water in Grozny, will seek $55 million for a six-month commitment to bring in supplies.

"But we do it as an emergency program," said Marianne Coradazzi, head of the agency's office in nearby Nazran. "Who will take over from us when we leave? The needs will only increase."

The Red Cross aid hasn't even begun to reach people like Indira Bitayeva. One sunny afternoon last week, the black-haired, pink-cheeked 14-year-old dipped a scoop into a puddle of green water at the bottom of a particularly large bomb crater.

She brought it back to her mother in the park in front of the old university, to be added to a bucket of water that was at less than a boil over a wood fire. Indira's right eye was tightly shut by an oozing pink infection.

At night she and her family and their new neighbors -- several dozen people -- sleep in a deep, pitch-black, concrete bomb shelter in the park. By day they avoid the land mines and fresh graves all around.

Indira's mother, Tamara, met President Boris N. Yeltsin in 1990 and still has the newspaper clipping to prove it.

"Yeltsin came here and promised us everything," she said, carefully unfolding it with her soot-stained fingers.

"He promised us a golden city. And this is what we got."

The Russians now say that any town or village that resists can expect the same.

"We very much don't want this, but if necessary we will use all means to hit them," said Col. Gen. Anatoly Kulikov, overall commander in Chechnya. "We won't send soldiers in to get killed."

58,000 Russian soldiers

General Kulikov said Russian troop strength in Chechnya peaked this year at 58,000, higher than had been officially acknowledged. Before the assault on the city of Argun, he said, a total of 1,385 Russian soldiers had been killed, of whom more than 90 percent were from the army, with the rest from the Interior Ministry forces.

Most witnesses to the fighting believe that Russian losses were actually much higher.

The army took Argun, Chechnya's second-largest city, on Thursday after a steady drilling by artillery. It was a day-long cataract of explosives that could easily be heard in Grozny, 20 miles away.

Father Anatoly spoke above it. He hopes to rebuild St. Michael's. He and eight parishioners are already at work to clean up the mess. The 103-year-old church, which consists now of three red-brick walls and a pile of rubble, boasts the only swept sidewalk in Grozny -- a small triumph.

Small bit of suffering

"This is a test for us," he said. "We must thank God that he sent us only this small bit of suffering."

He took his visitors down to the cellar of the house next door, where he and the others sleep at night. A dim room was lighted by two votive candles, whose feeble light glinted off a golden cross.

Only here was it possible to escape the rumble of the artillery assault. The loudest sound was the ticking of an old wind-up alarm clock, a symbol of Grozny's new post-electric age.

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