GROZNY, Russia — Nature has bestowed few blessings upon this ravaged city, but one is the hot spring that gushes into an empty lot in the parched and shell-pocked Chernorechiye neighborhood.
Women come here by the hundreds to scrub their hands raw on the epic mounds of laundry that have accumulated during Russia's nearly 5-month-old war in secessionist Chechnya. Their dejected-looking men come to help lug the clean, wet laundry home.
Since this city has no running water, no telephones, no postal service and tens of thousands of homeless refugees, the hot spring has become a meeting place. Men linger to learn the latest war news, inquire after missing friends and relatives, and exchange vital information about how to avoid being arrested or beaten up by Russian soldiers.
Some people call Grozny occupied, others proclaim it liberated. Both sides agree that the Russian-controlled capital of Chechnya is beginning to resemble Beirut--an urban minefield of hatred between Russians and Chechens, looters and the looted, civilians and rebel fighters posing as civilians, murderous snipers who pick off young Russian troops and vindictive soldiers who pick on the population.
"I have no illusion that constitutional order will be restored any time soon," said Abdulla M. Bugayev, deputy head of the new Russian-appointed interim government of Chechnya.
Bugayev said peace will not be restored to Grozny until the Kremlin truly hands over the reins to a Chechen government and an all-Chechen police force. But as the war rages on, with Russians pounding rebel forces in the village of Bamut and reportedly bombing other towns, Russian military authorities remain firmly in charge in Grozny.
"We do not have any influence on the activities of the Russian military," Bugayev said, adding that the Chechen police force is being formed very slowly.
Grozny is slowly reviving as refugees stream back into the city from the war-torn mountain regions to find what is left of their homes. Officials said last week that Grozny now has 250,000 residents--compared to about 80,000 at the height of the bombing in January and about 450,000 before the war. By day, the city is filled with people cleaning, sweeping away bomb rubble, hauling water, buying food, burning garbage, hanging plastic wrap over their shattered windows and trying to return to normalcy.
Russia has promised $1 billion to restore Chechnya's economy, but the city's mayor said that even the few million dollars needed to restore basic city services has still not arrived. Russian soldiers do go out to help old or infirm residents bury their dead, and government trucks deliver water daily to thirsty neighborhoods.
When a fire broke out earlier this month on Leninsky Avenue, once the city's most posh address, the crowd that gathered to gawk at the flames initially scoffed at the notion that Grozny's fire department had survived the war. They were struck speechless by the sight of two firetrucks pulling up to the scene just six minutes after the flames were spotted.
Yet life is not normal. Hardly an hour passes without an explosion as Russian soldiers detonate leftover mines and grenades, and construction teams attack the 42 irredeemable wrecks of buildings that have already been slated for demolition. People dressed in rags can be seen wandering through the hellish landscape ranting from rage, madness or senility.
By night, the city crackles with gunfire between trigger-happy soldiers and desperadoes seeking revenge. From high-rise buildings, armored personnel carriers can be seen roving the bomb-cratered streets, while flares and flames light up the horizon. People who still have homes stay inside in candlelight until the curfew is lifted at dawn. The unfortunate sleep in basements.
One fine April morning, the people of Grozny woke to find that six buildings had been torched by unknown arsonists overnight.
At the Russian command post in Chernorechiye--a working-class, concrete-block neighborhood made grittier by nearby oil refineries--soldiers spend each morning hunting for the mines that rebels laid the night before.
"They think we will be blown up by these mines, but our guys know what to look for," said Col. Simyon V. Makarov, commander of the Russian Interior Ministry troops. "It's the neighborhood children who are going to get blown up."
To give themselves warning of ambushes, Makarov's troops have set trip flares, but they often find their flares have been cleverly replaced with live mines.
A favorite guerrilla tactic is for a Chechen to stand between two Russian outposts, shoot both ways and then vanish, hoping that the spooked Russians will start firing on each other in the dark. They usually do.
"There has not been a single night when three or four command posts (around Grozny) haven't been shot at," Makarov said.
The Russians in Chernorechiye are afraid to step outside their day-care center at night. Snipers are everywhere.