Women, Children and War
Woman and war and especially children and war; these word pairings, in my opinion, should not exist at all. I, as a woman, as a person, who experienced this war first hand, from the inside, perfectly realizes and understands it.
The Russian military occupation of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria for me was more than horror, blood and death. It was also an internal protest against everything that happened here. Today, recalling all those terrible days including 56 days spent in a cellar under ceaseless bombings at the beginning of the second Russian-Chechen war, I realize that the events related to the murders of people, including bombings, rocket strikes and artillery attacks, which all were carried by the Russian army have paled into insignificance. Only ennui and internal weariness have remained.
There were many people in the cellar where we hid. More than 20 people, basically women and children. I think that war is more difficult for women than for the men; in every respect. It is also very hard for children. I often observed the children who stayed with us in the basement. I think that the grouping of children of war – it is a special category of children. They think differently, they speak differently, they behave differently. They behaved very strangely during the bombings. They did not complain and did not cry, but only asked the question: “when will it end?”
Our neighbor was there with us with her children and her small son Shamilek regularly asked his mother: “Mum, mum, these planes will not return again, will they?” This child had already learned that the planes posed a threat and brought harm. When he heard the sound of a plane flying overhead, he ran to his mother and said: “Mum, mum, what will happen now? The plane is coming! When it will fly away forever?” Then, in about a week, our Shamilek learned, through sound when a bomber was departing. He would pester his mother asking: “Mum, mum, the plane has already departed! Can I leave the basement?” Once I asked him: “Shamilek, have you seen a plane?” He answered that he had not seen it and had not even known what it was. I asked him how he pictured a plane. He replied that it was a monster with a human appearance. In other words, it was not an iron thing, but a person who inspired horror. It was very strange and terrible to hear those words from a small child.
It was one of those November days during 1999. I do not remember which day it was, but it was very terrifying. On that day the other three-year old boy who was in the basement with us, went out to the street. Suddenly a Russian plane appeared in the sky. It flew very low. It seemed as if it would touch the roofs of the houses and fall to the ground. I remembered the pilot forever: his helmet, huge dark glasses, headphones, we saw it all so clearly because he flew so low. When this boy left the basement, he saw a plane, which was approaching us with a wild roar and rumble. The child looked at it with huge, scared eyes and did not move from his spot. He understood that he should run and hide, but apparently at that moment he was simply paralyzed by fear. He just stood and looked with his eyes, enlarged and frozen with terror, at the lethal machine flying in the sky. When the bomber passed by, he started shouting loudly: “Look, look! There is a man inside!” For him, as well as for small Shamil, the plane was a terrible monster. In several seconds a terrible explosion was heard in the area of the 12th sector and there were many causalities, but I have remembered forever those huge, scared eyes of the three-year child as well as his shout.
The next day Shamil’s parents decided to leave the Russian occupied Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. Apparently, they decided to leave for Bashkiria. I was told that when the family arrived at the airport, the kid refused to get on the plane. When he had heard the roar of plane’s turbines he started crying; he became hysterical and nothing helped relax. The stewardess tried to calm him and said that it was an ordinary plane and there was nothing terrible inside of it, but Shamilek did not wish to board. In my opinion, the flight was postponed for a short while because of this. Only when the boy was given a sedative and he fell asleep, was he taken onboard the plane. It is also, in my mind, a very terrible consequence of the war, of what this child had to go through.
In December of 1999, my neighbor Ruslan was killed. He was under a Russian mortar attack. He was bloody when I saw him; he was dead, and I felt strange at that moment. Even today I remember that feeling. I wondered why he did not have his head. Where was his head? But his head had been just cut by a splinter.
There were many of these cases, especially with deep psychological context, which I have remembered well. January 12, 2000 was one of the most memorable days for me. It was a day when, I with my mother fell under an awful Russian artillery bombardment. There were two of us in the basement, but several times a day we had to go out. Our relatives, who had left Grozny, left us their cattle, a cow, and my mother also had some hens that she did not want to part with. These hens did not produce anything for us. They did not lay eggs, but for my mother they were, probably, as well as the cow, a symbol of a peaceful life. My mother believed that she should look after them by all means, though certainly, sometimes it was very dangerous to leave the basement.
On that day we went again to give water to the cattle. When we came to our relative’s house, the strongest Russian mortar bombardment began. Our house was a direct target of it. We were in the courtyard at that moment (the court yard was very big), and my mother and I appeared at either end of it. My mother started shouting that I should not run to her and remain where I was behind the wall. Apparently, I still remained a child to her. Despite our age we always remain children to our parents. An instinct had woken up in me. It was not an instinct of fear. I would say it was an instinct of childhood. I was an adult woman, I was about thirty at the time, but at that moment I would have liked to cuddle up to my mother and, like a small child, hid my head. In spite of my mother’s request, I ran to her. The courtyard was huge, splinters were whining, they were flying so close, bouncing from the walls of the house, but I still ran. Once I reached her, I embraced my mother and hid behind her shoulder. Then, when everything had ended, she asked me: “Why did you run, I asked you not to!?” I answered: “You know, at that very moment I thought that I could not be without you, or you – without me. I wanted so badly for us to either live together or die together.” I remember very well the horror that I experienced that day and the fear of losing my mother. I understand that at that time I found myself in a role, similar to which the children from our basement were in. I felt like a small, defenseless child who was seeking salvation from their mother.
Curiously enough, I remember the moments of lull. For example, January 16, 2000. I remember the clear blue sky. There were no shots, no planes, and no bombardments. I left the basement and like a crazy person, I looked at the sky. Then, at the beginning of February the Chechen fighters left the city. On that day there was also a strange lull. The sun was shining brightly and it seemed that there was no war at all. I do not know why, but I started to proclaim Belmont: “I have come to this world to see the sun. If the world is extinguished, I will sing. I will sing about the sun at the hour of my death!” The silence, of course, ended and the sensations of war returned. The Federal Russian troops entered and occupied the city. The women accepted their share of commitments. Each time we went out, we asked them not to shoot men, not to touch people, and not to take them away. At that time, I understood my significance, understood that it was good to be a woman. Today I can do more than, for example, a man of my age could do. On one hand it is certainly abnormal, but it is how it happened.
Another case, which I remember, occurred on July 1, 2005, when our neighbor Ali was taken away from our house. It was a terrible show when at eight o’clock in the morning, Russian soldiers who were armed to teeth showed up, surrounded the house, and burst inside shouting: “Lay down on the floor!” They took him somewhere and we still do not know what happened to him or where he is now. It is still very hard to look at his wife. We are friends with her. Sometimes I catch myself and I wonder how she feels when I leave and say to her: “All right I should go; my husband is waiting for me”. Her husband is not at home and no one knows whether he is alive or not.
In the grand scheme of things, the woman is probably an embodiment of good on earth. In fact, wars have mainly always been started and are still being started by men. The woman’s assignment is absolutely different. To create good, even during war. The old Chechen custom of a woman removing the scarf from her head and throwing it between fighting men in order to stop the bloodshed, in fact means a lot.
During the Russian-Chechen wars, I often observed how women behaved during times of danger as well as times of tragedy. I recollect August of 1996. It was in the city of Grozny, at the intersection of Lenin Avenue and Dzerzhinski Street. A car was burning there with a young man in it. He had probably been killed during a bombardment. I remember the terrible shout of a woman (I do not know who she was to this man: mother, wife or sister), and I do not know how she had learned that her relative was in the car. I can still hear her screaming: “What shall I do without you?!!” In other words, he was everything to her. All of the meaning in her life died with him.
In 2000, I started to work. It was a very restless time; Russian soldiers constantly blew something up in the area of Lenin Avenue and conducted special actions, or “mop up operations”. When these “mop up operations” began, my female instinct automatically turned on. I gathered all of my readers, who were basically all students, in the hall and then went forward and spoke to the Russian soldiers. I explained that we had only readers there and our visitors. There were no fighters, especially armed ones, there. It became instinct for me. I felt that I should protect people if I was able to do it. And this is, in my opinion, the woman’s assignment. If she can do something for the sake of saving someone’s life, she must do it.
Another terrible fact is that during war, neither women, nor children become kind. On the contrary, they become a little bit malicious. I felt it. Sometimes I was even afraid that if this horror lasted then I risked losing my human form and I would cease to be a normal person. After experiencing all of the shock and horror, I began to see many things differently; through the eyes of that war. When today many people live with other mentalities, using measurements of business and frequently forgetting that we are all mortal, it is not easy for me. I start recalling war, any significant episodes, and catch myself thinking that it is impossible to enjoy this life very much. Sooner or later, we all have to die. It seems to me though, that we should hope that death is natural and not violent.
Director of Grozny Central Library
*Text was translated by Waynakh Online and edited by Michael Capobianco