Deserted City: Grozny
Grozny again surprised me by the brightness of its evening lights. Like it cannot be sated by the ability to burn lights after that darkness in which it was dipped for several years after bombings and destruction. Yet the avenue is illuminated by lights, leading from the airport to the city. It is like the plane is descending to a place of great celebration.
After leaving the airport, I notice a new mosque, large and beautiful. “Here many mosques are built now,” the people who receive me say.
It is close from airport to the city and we reach the center quickly. There is the House of Press, the square of Peoples’ Friendship, and the Alley of journalists. There are many lights, but the people are almost not seen, although it became dark only recently and it is not late…
The next day, the Victory avenue which was renamed to Putin avenue two years ago, surprised me with its emptiness. It is not only the central street of Grozny, but it is its major artery which can be compared with Tverskaya street in Moscow. It is strange: it is the middle of a Sunday, but there are no people. It even seems to me that during my first visit to Grozny, when only the remains of molding of houses destroyed by bombings showed the past beauty of the streets, there were more people here. True, there were almost no cars at that time, and now there are many. Is Chechnya flourishing so that walkers do not remain and everyone has private transportation?
However, the picture of a deserted city doesn’t take well to jokes. The new multistory houses, not showing signs of life, make a rather spooky impression; there are neither flowers, nor blinds in their windows. It is obvious that nobody lives in these apartments.
I reach the church and see its new gilded cupolas. There is a decorated Christmas tree in the church. I meet the Russian woman who I know since the times when the temple was completely destroyed, and believers were gathering on a small premises near its ruins. At that time, a priest didn’t come here even on the holidays. But the decorated Christmas tree was standing in the same way.
The acquaintance tells me how the population census was taking place here. The overrated results were very required. Even she was asked for advice on how to collect more names.
“But where to take them from? Few people return and very many go away. There are so many problems here, people are protected by nothing. Three families went away from our house. Even I am thinking yet about moving to my relatives somewhere near Rostov.”
I am surprised. She outlived two wars here, didn’t go away from the bombings, but now, when the city is all lit up in the evenings, and the cupolas at the temple are gilded, she suddenly decides to move?
I came to Kadyrov (former Lenin) avenue, puzzled by the handful of skyscrapers at Sunzha bank, one of which is almost built and shines by new toned window glasses. It is Grozny’s new pride, being constructed in the city-center. People tell me that that skyscraper, which is just growing up, is planned to have 45 floors. I pass by a giant construction site and reach Sunzha bank. And it is like something overturns in me: I don’t recognize the river. There were many weeping willows; all the banks were filled with trees. Now there is not one tree here, all are cut down by their roots; the bank from the side of the skyscraper being constructed is dug and mutilated. Over the avenue, behind a fence, I also see the dug space and many stacked cut trees.
I catch myself in the thought that Sunzha, with the bridge destroyed by a bombing looked not as sinister as it does now. Or they want to enclose it into granite and to make an embankment? I try to imagine the narrow quick-water Sunzha in the granite…
And there is the central mosque, large and beautiful. But… how it is lost and faded in the shadow of this skyscraper! The authorities of Chechnya were so proud of this mosque. Don’t they see how its beauty is faded by this architectural dissonance?
But there is not architectural inspectorate and ecologists here. It is doubtful here whether somebody will dare to say shyly, that is would be possible to find another place for skyscrapers, if is so necessary to build them in Grozny…
Such things are not interesting for people. There are too many other problems.
There in not snow in Grozny, but here, to the square in front of the mosque, it was delivered. Either genuine or artificial: it even didn’t thaw under the positive temperature. There is a big artificial Christmas tree, it is being disassembled yet, and bulldozers rake up and remove artificial snowdrifts. I tread upon snow. It is very like real one. But how many money was spent to bring it from far away to such a large square. The republic is so rich?
The façade of five-storey house, new, but scarcely dwelling, looks to the square. The motto “Ramzan, thank you for Grozny!” stands conspicuously above the windows of the last floor. There are two big portraits over the avenue: Kadyrov and Medvedev. I don’t remember such a style just from Brezhnev times. But here the personality cult is in the flowering. However, there are rumors that Ramzan ordered to remove his portraits from streets. But, apparently, they aren’t afraid to ignore such an order of the “chief”: it is seen periodically at squares and crossroads either Kadyrov with Medvedev in their full stature, or with Putin.
It is dusty and empty in the city. But there are people at the bus stops near former market. Some time it was the most brisk place in Grozny. It was here, were in 1999 the missile, which took hundreds of lives, exploded. Now there is not market here, there is the net of nodal bus stops only.
I catch a regular bus and go in the direction of Minutka (a square in Grozny). There is the same view from the bus window; new houses, but very few people.
The areas with private houses are rebuilt, too. One rarely can see a destroyed house – but five years ago these areas consisted of destroyed houses only. If you enter a house, you see the traces of refurbishment everywhere. However, people complain that they did it all themselves and with their own money. But it was promised to them that all would be rebuilt on government money.
Women complain of unemployment and scanty salaries, a large part of which is deducted to some fund. They complain of the non-payment of compensation, the low level of medicine, and the fact that missing people are not found. They also complain about the fact that guys are still being seized and tortured.
One woman talks about her nephew who was arrested just recently. However, he was released after three days, but beaten so that he was hardly alive. I advised her to appeal to the committee against torture. She knows about the committee, but the parents of the guy refuse to go such a length. They are afraid. And in general – people here lost faith in legal methods and believe in the illegal ones only: ransom, farming, the search of ties in the relationship between the structures. The deep fear of authorities is perceptible.
Against the background of all this, the other complaint, which I hear practically in each family seems not so serious: girls at school are obliged to wear kerchiefs, and now even this has become insufficient – they are obliged to wrap themselves up in headscarves. Women, who complain about it, wear headscarves of their own free will all their life and absolutely don’t want to take them off, but they don’t understand, what are the headscarves on the girls at the lessons for.
I ask a girl:
– Do you like to wear a headscarf at school?
– No, I don’t. (Crinkles her nose.)
– And what is your favorite discipline?
– Russian language…
It is touching. And that’s it; children are studying at least…
But in the evening I get a sad chance to doubt the firmness of that right of Chechen children too, when I pass by a dormitory in the Staropromyslovsky district. I was told earlier, that the people from former places of temporary accommodation, so-called pe-ve-ers (PVR), are being evicted for some reason just now. But here I see with my own eyes: there is the pile of things covered with a veneer in the street, the owner of the thrown out items is warming himself in the hall of the dormitory: he doesn’t have a place to move them to.
And really, the families made themselves at home here became overgrown with house goods and chattels, acquired children – where will they go with all this in the winter? You know, they were settled here – and forgotten, they didn’t receive any housing or compensation. So, they live here, indigent and homeless.
I come to the administration office and ask why people are being evicted in the winter.
— It is the chief’s order! — a woman named Malika, the supervisor of a dormitory, says to me in a hard and steady voice.
— What chief? — I am puzzled, if it the head of dormitories in Grozny, the head of the district, the city mayor…
Malika looks significantly and attentively.
— We have one chief here!
— But who can force you to evict families in winter against all the laws?
Malika looks more significantly.
— Don’t you know who?
And in such a tone that it causes a chill over the skin.
I heard here this question and this tone as an answer to it yet.
Of cause, Malika hasn’t any written orders. All is based on the oral orders and the fear of armed people. They came and said to evict. And she evicts.
The list of families to evict rests on the table; two long sheets.
Not all are being evicted, Malika explains, but only those who registered in the countryside. But it is them who are the most deprived.
This dormitory is one of those places of temporary accommodation which were built hastily in the destroyed city to resettle the refugees from Ingushetia. They were living in the encampments, in cold workshops of closed factories, at deserted farms. How they were being agitated to return to Chechnya: both dormitories are ready for them and compensations for lost houses will be – just return! Later the encampments were liquidated. And people, primarily the poorest families who lost their houses during the war, were resettled to the pe-ve-ers without registration. The people had the same registration: in those houses, destroyed by bombings, which have not been for a long time. And the conditions in the dormitory leave much to be desired: two tiny adjoining rooms for the whole family, which are indeed suitable for temporary accommodation only. But people live, because they don’t have any other place to live, they didn’t receive compensation for destroyed houses, and they don’t have money to build a new little house.
Aset has large family and she is from the village of Tevzeni. She escaped from a cruel bombing at one time. Then in 2004, she with her children was evicted from the encampment called “Satsita” and was provided with a place in the dormitory. Since that time, her family has huddled here. And yesterday, completely unexpectedly, without any notice, armed people (two policemen and two military men) came and evicted them until the middle of the next day. With threats, they were forced to write a receipt for voluntary eviction. “Where should I go with the children now? If only they let them study till the spring…”
A woman from a Chechen-Aul village with the rare name, Berlant escaped with her husband and children from a bombing in the beginning of the war and lived in a marquee in the “Sputnik” camp. When the camp was closed down, the family was straying over places of compact accommodation for refugees in Ingushetia, and in 2008 she found a shelter in this dormitory. The children grew up during the war and the younger daughter is 10 now, her elder son is an invalid, and Berlant herself has the 3rd degree of disability. On January 17, armed people came to them and evicted them until the middle of the next day, and under pressure they were forced to write a receipt claiming voluntary eviction. “Where should we go?” Berlant also grieves.
And there are many similar people.
Yakhita experienced eviction before. In 2003, she was evicted with a baby from the encampment “Bart”, and in 2007 from Grozny’s PVR Koltsovo. But at that time she at least was given a place in this dormitory. Now she is being evicted with her 7-year old daughter with nowhere to go. The scheme is the same: disappear until the noon of the next day.
I leave the dormitory depressed, without any hope to help these people. Suddenly I note that the light snow lies on the ground. It is the first snow in Grozny this winter. How will the people who were evicted from the dormitory live in this snow?
The next morning, January 18, the snow continues to fall and yesterday’s downcast landscape is being changed to a snow-white winter one. I go to the bus stop – it is time to go to the airport now. On the way, I pass by the dormitory. There is a Gazel with open leaves, and belongings are being loaded onto it: a baby cradle, baby carriage…
And in the evening, the city will turn on its bright lights again. The words about booming building, happiness, and prosperity in this long-suffering land will come again from the TV screen.
07.02.2011 – Ezhednevny Journal
*Text was translated by Aminat for Waynakh Online and edited by Michael Capobianco