I met her on Moscow Street. She was walking along nimbly, or as nimbly as her shabby rubber galoshes permitted. Two even shabbier children trailed behind her dragging a cart with three and a half wheels, full of old iron. Elza would collect scrap in the ruins and gouge the aluminium components out of it. To look at her hands and teeth you’d think she was around 60, but her eyes and face betrayed that she must be under 30, which she was.
What did you do before the war?
I was born in Chechnya, here in this city. I attended school for eight years — primary and vocational school. Only I couldn’t find a job in my field after I left school. I’m a specialist cake baker. Confectioner and baker. Unfortunately, I completed school just when our country was starting to fall apart like rotten meat. I tried my hand at everything — plastering, selling at the market. . . In the end, I managed to find a regular job as a kindergarten assistant.
Do you receive humanitarian aid?
No. It seems that I’m supposed to register somewhere, but I don’t know where. I don’t know where to go to ask or what I’m supposed to do. The places where they give things out always have terrible queues and people fight to the death in them. Old women tear each other’s hair out and old men kick each other and beat each other with sticks. And all on account of a bottle of oil, half a kilo of sugar and ten kilos of flour. A hungry horde is worse than a pack of wolves. I’m not on any lists. I’d go and fight over a bit of dry crust and when my turn comes they’d tell me I won’t get anything. So I prefer to collect aluminium.
And for the money . . .
At most, I manage to bake a loaf of bread or some pita. A loaf costs five roubles, oil costs 20. Everything is terribly dear at the market. When the first war started in 1994, I was so well stocked that I managed to bake cakes for the next six months. Now I haven’t a thing. And every day my children ask me: “Mommy, why don’t you bake anything?”
You’re still young and it’s the custom in your country to have big families. Do you want to have more children?
Definitely not. I’ve no strength left. In the evening when I crawl in after rummaging for aluminium, I sit down. It’s dark and I know I have to go for water. I say to myself: “We’ll just have to die of thirst, I’m too tired to go.” It’s three kilometres to the nearest pump and the water is horrible and stinks. In the end I go because I have to give the children some tea, at least. But I know that one day I might simply decide not to go. I’ll just let the children scream with hunger and thirst. I would never have believed it in the past, but now I know I’m capable of just that.
Apart from physical suffering, fear, cold and the fact that you’ve lost all your property and the desire to have any more children — which in your country is a woman’s main mission — how has war changed your life?
I’ve aged 20 years. I was pretty, now I’ve turned into a monster. My sight is poor and I can’t remember anything. I was fit as a fiddle and now I just whine and lick my wounds. We all have breathing problems. All around us, oil wells are burning and I can feel my lungs filling up with tar. I’ve lost a cosy flat and any chance of having a happy family again. We live in the flat of one of my husband’s friends. We have nothing left of our own.
Even though this flat belongs to someone else and in Europe it would be hard to describe it as a dwelling, it’s clear that you try to make it cosy. If you had enough money, if somebody gave you the money and said, “You can only use it to buy something for your flat”, what is the first thing you’d buy?
Curtains. Even though the wallpaper is hanging off all the walls and in the kitchen the ceiling is giving way, even though it’s impossible to keep this place clean, because I find it dreadfully exhausting to drag buckets of water up to the fifth floor, and even though there’s a hole in the wall big enough for a fairly large elephant to pass through — which we’ve patched with a bit of tin — I’d put up curtains. They’re the most important things in a flat. They totally change the atmosphere. Except that the money for the aluminium isn’t even enough to buy bread, let alone curtains.
What’s it like, a day collecting aluminium?
I get up at 5:30. It’s still dark. I try to rustle up some breakfast if there’s a scrap of flour left. I heat water, do some washing, tidy up. Then I wake the children and dress them. The curfew ends at eight in the morning. At ten to eight, my elder son and I are ready to leave. We have the bottom half of an old cart and ropes in order to take as much scrap as possible. At eight o’clock, we set out. All day long, we rummage in trash heaps and ruins and crawl through bombed houses. We have already combed the immediately neighbourhood so it means a long walk. Around four o’clock, we are already making our way home so as to get through all the Russian roadblocks. When the light is starting to fade, it’s dangerous: they can shoot without warning. I expect they’re just as frightened as I am, so they’d sooner shoot me than take the risk that I might be a kamikaze partisan. I spend the whole day plodding through ruins and, even though I no longer resemble a human being, I crawl back happy at the thought I’ve brought home a couple of pans and a cooking pot with a hole.
And when you get home?
I still have to go for water. …
You say your husband spends the day meditating?
I suppose so. Our husbands aren’t allowed to go for water. It’s degrading. Since time immemorial, it’s been strictly a woman’s job.
You fetch water and feed your children and husband?
Exactly. Then we sort through the day’s finds by candle light. I gouge the plastic parts out of the pans. They wouldn’t take them from me otherwise.
Who do you sell the metal to?
There are middle men here who make big profits out of transporting the stuff to collection centers in Russia. Previously, I sold it to Russian soldiers, who were only interested in aluminium. They didn’t want any other colored metals. I know that it is probably all taken out of the country. For a pittance. And fools that we are, we took apart an enormous oil refinery and exchanged it for bread. I’m ashamed of the fact that even the scrap that remained in this republic is being sold by us to foreigners for a few pence. But we have to eat something. For a kilo of iron, I get six roubles and that’s a loaf of bread. For that, I slog for a whole day, along with both boys. I even take the older girl with me. On account of it, my elder son doesn’t go to school.
Women trudge through the ruins, dragging their children with them while the husbands sit meditating? Or did the rest take machine guns and go off to the mountains to play at partisans?
Most of the husbands sit at home. I’m also frightened to let mine out into the street on his own. When he has no choice but to go, I prefer to accompany him. I protect him, not him me. My husband is tall and well-built, which is the type that has most to fear from the Russians. They could pick him up at any moment without any reason and wouldn’t see him again, or he’d come back crippled. It’s better for him to stay home.
Doesn’t he find it embarrassing to sit at home while his wife is out running between mines searching for aluminum so that he can eat?
He finds it terribly degrading and he’s more and more desperate. No one in your country can appreciate what a Chechen feels like having a woman feed him. There is no greater humiliation. It has never happened here before. My husband and I have lived together for 13 years and for the first time we scarcely exchange a word. He lies there for days on end with eyes open, and says nothing. He was never one to lie down during the day, even for a moment. He made sure the family had everything we needed and he took pride in doing so. Admittedly, our husbands never display affection in public or hold hands with us, but they worship the ground we walk on. Their main aim in life is to make sure their wife and children have plenty. They don’t even have to sleep with their wives or chat with them. They don’t even have to show their faces at home, but they always make sure the family has money. Rather, that was the way it was till now. The war turned everything upside down. In the past, if you couldn’t feed your family you weren’t considered a man. That’s why many women here didn’t have jobs. The husband wouldn’t allow it. He’d consider it a disgrace.
Could you always totally rely on your husband?
Previously, yes. Not now. He’s more distraught than I am.
There are suddenly lots of abandoned women in Chechnya. Many men have abandoned their families. I know women with nine children who have been deserted by their husbands. This is something new in your country. Aren’t you afraid, too, that your husband will get fed up with sitting at home all the time and will simply run away one day?
These days, husbands desert their families much more often than in the past. I don’t blame them. I more sorry for them than anything else. It could be that they can’t face being confronted with their own helplessness and if they can’t help their families they prefer not to be around. Between ourselves, it’s easier to feed nine children than nine children and a grown-up man who also gets on your nerves. He can’t feed you or protect you from bullets. I think my husband is struggling with those emotions, too.
When humanitarian aid is being distributed, women often come up and say: “Give us something for our neighbor. He’s too embarrassed to stand in line.” Don’t you find it unjust that you, as a woman, are not ashamed to beg for humanitarian assistance, while your husband is prepared to desert his family on account of his own pride?
No. I’d cease to have respect for my husband if he were to line up with women.
I think that although women are generally regarded as the weaker sex, here in Chechnya they have proved themselves to have greater psychological and even physical stamina and strength than men. …
They do. Our men have lost what they consider the most important thing in life — their own dignity, which in our country is dependent to a certain extent on the ability to ensure your family’s material security. They’ve been deprived of money and the opportunity to earn it. There’s nothing worse for a Chechen man than to be poor or to do humiliating work to earn money. And for women, what counts most of all are their children. They are prepared to do anything to protect them. Even to humiliate themselves. A man always thinks of himself first and then about others. And now our heads of families have realised that they are dependent on those they always used to lord it over. This is worse than a military defeat. It pains my husband, for instance, to see my hands ruined from the aluminium. In the past, women here in Chechnya used to work, but they never did dirty jobs. The Russian women specialized in that. Now we’re all in the same boat. We and the Russian women dig trenches.
Did you ever beg? Is this a taboo for you? Would you rather die of hunger than stand in the street with your hand out?
I could never stand and beg in Grozny even if it meant my children dying of hunger. That’s something only Russian women can afford to do. But when we were refugees in Daghestan, I used to go secretly, without my husband knowing, and ask for food from house to house. Never in my dreams did it ever occur to me that one day I would have to knock on someone’s door and ask for ordinary water.
Is there any chance at all that warmth and a full stomach will become something taken for granted in Chechnya?
That’s not for me to say any more. There are only two things I think about now: food and Russian soldiers. I worry about them hitting our house. As soon as it gets dark, they start firing every kind of weapon like mad. I sit here with the children like rabbits in a burrow, hoping it won’t fall in on our heads. I say to myself selfishly: “Let them hit anyone in this damned city, just so long as it’s not me or my children.” Then I’m ashamed. I’m terribly frightened and yet I’m ashamed of it. I imagine my girlfriends sitting in the ruins with their children, just like me. We’re a herd of terrified rabbits, a couple of which cop it every day. Only a few people like me have stayed in the city. Either they haven’t any other possibility of leaving or they’ve decided to put up with it just so they can be at home and not abroad. Some have stayed because their aging parents refuse to leave the city; they haven’t the strength to run away and want to die at home. I don’t have any parents left, but my brother, my sister and my old grandmother live in Grozny. I don’t want to leave them, either.
You say you led a normal life until the war broke out. Do you think “normal times” will ever return?
I think I’ll die a collector of aluminium. Maybe my children will live to see something normal. So that they don’t think it’s a red-letter day when they have macaroni. They are growing thin before my eyes. Most of all, I’d love to take them to the real seaside. At present, the possibility of assuring them even a slightly decent future is beyond my wildest dreams.
How much longer can this strange state of “neither peace nor war” last?
If our people and the Russian government are going to go on squabbling like they have done so far, we simple mortals will go on suffering. Those fat, bald men sitting in their ministerial and presidential offices are full of complexes and making heaps of money out of the war and all they know of the actual bombing is what they see on the TV screen. It’s a war about money, we all know that. Even our Chechen bigwigs are mixed up in it. During the first war, I still supported our men because most of them really went to the front with some romantic notions about freedom and independence. Now I don’t believe either side. They sacrificed us, the ordinary people, to line their own pockets or they went around shooting like street urchins and playing at real war. Let them die if they like, but they have no right to force people like me to do heroic deeds. I don’t want to be a hero. I want to die in old age from flu and not cop a bullet in my head now.
Did this long drawn-out war have an effect on the morals, ideals and traditions of the Chechens?
We’re quickly turning into a backward and uneducated nation, without the chance of any progress and most importantly, without any joy or sense of humor. I’m uneducated, too. But not long ago I found a book in the ruins about how Stalin sent all of us, the Chechens and Ingushes, into exile in 1944. It’s interesting how, even though it was the end of World War II, we Caucasians were very well off. We were a fairly developed society and our standard of living was quite high compared with the Russia of those days. If the Russians didn’t launch some dreadful campaign against us every 50 years, wiping out part of the nation, we’d be a second Switzerland by now.
In 1944, the Chechens were deported. They lost all their property and some of them were carted off in railway trucks to Kazakhstan in just their underwear. In spite of that, you soon became the dominant minority in the Kazakh steppes and had a better standard of living than the native population and sometimes even at their expense. …
We really do have some special ability to survive in almost any situation. We also manage to cope better than those who theoretically have more opportunities. It is said that a Chechen can build a house from a single stone. I think that the main thing is our community spirit. If a Chechen meets another Chechen anywhere in the world, they will help each other as if they were brothers from the same family. Apparently, that is what it was like in Kazakhstan. When the Chechens were allowed to return home in 1957, they were left empty-handed once more. They found none of their former property, of course. Russians had made themselves at home in our houses. Even though we started again from scratch, before long we had a far better standard of living than them. The Russians here used to do the dirty jobs and often they were literally our servants, and we started proudly building enormous houses. They always used to living in grubby little dwellings with dirty backyards or in tiny flats with smelly bathrooms. Although they regard us as an inferior people, we build castles. I find it strange, too.
Is it a blessing or a curse to be born a Chechen?
I’m naturally proud. But nowadays it can actually be a curse to have the Chechen nationality marked in your passport. Try travelling from Daghestan to Grozny with Chechen documents. At every Russian post — and there are scores of them on the road — they look at your passport. If it says you’re Russian or even Chukchi, you’ll pass with no problem. But if you’re Chechen, you can expect humiliation, insults and rough treatment. They say it’s the same in Moscow and all over Russia. Why doesn’t a Chechen have the same rights as a Russian seeing that they all maintain we live in a single state?
The remnants of the partisans are supposed to be paralyzed and some of them have fled abroad. The population is tired and so are the troops. …
Even if they agreed in Moscow that this was enough for now, people here wouldn’t forgive them just like that. Many men have gone missing; they are unburied and unavenged. You Europeans mustn’t forget that the law of the blood feud applies in the Caucasus. According to tradition, every man who lost someone in the war should become an avenger and go on seeking the culprit of his relative’s death and kill him. Vengeance is also inherited by his children. In this way, vengeance becomes an unending process. Of course if one of your relatives dies in an air raid it is hard to discover which pilot dropped the bomb. And to take vengeance on the entire air force is a nonsense. So you spend your life repressing the hatred within you.
You keep saying “Russians” and “Russia” and not in a very friendly way. Do you hate the Russian army and the Russians as a nation?
I hate the people who came here to kill us. And most of them are of Russian nationality. Even though there are plenty of normal lads among them who are even sorry for us. Sometimes I am almost amazed at the way Russian soldiers behave towards me. Not long ago, one of them came and helped me with the hand cart when I was unable to drag it across a bomb crater. I know lots of Russians who lived with us in Chechnya before the war and have still stayed here. Many of them are my friends. But I regard a Russian in a uniform as first and foremost an enemy, a beast with a human face. No one else would be capable of arming himself to the teeth and attacking people who don’t even have a penknife in their pockets.
But the partisans aren’t unarmed. …
So let them fight them. But they take it out on us because they still can’t catch them.
— Reprinted with permission from Petra Procházková.