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World Perspective | RUSSIA

Chechen Capital Grapples With Its War Dead

Thousands of corpses still lie amid ruins of Grozny, which remains closed to outside world. They pose health risks and add to traumatized survivors' woes.

March 24, 2000|MAURA REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GROZNY, Russia — Klavdiya Nefyodova, 87, has enough strength to lift an empty tin pail onto a small cart once a day and trundle it to an aid station where rescue workers fill it with drinking water.

If she's lucky, she has the strength to wait in line for the dried grain or macaroni distributed in plastic bags.

But she doesn't have the strength to dig a proper grave for her son.

Rebels in Chechnya killed Nefyodova's 53-year-old son as they fled the republic's capital last month. Nefyodova managed, with the help of an elderly nephew, to dig a shallow ditch in her backyard, lay her son's body in it and cover him with a thin layer of soil.

"Now the grave is sagging," she says. "We have to do something, but we're too weak to carry him to the cemetery."

Seven weeks after Russians seized Grozny, there is still more death than life in the city. Thousands of corpses still lie amid the ruins. And as the warmth of spring approaches, they threaten to cause disease as well as unease.

"Have you seen how fat the dogs in Grozny are?" asks Tatyana Timoshenkova, a spokeswoman for Russia's Emergencies Ministry. "Rats and dogs are eating these bodies, spreading infection and increasing the possibility of an epidemic."

Timoshenkova says there is one corpse patrol for the entire city--an old ambulance staffed by a handful of workers. The team has so far collected about 650 of the dead but can't even guess how many more there are.

"Our top priority is those who are alive, but burying the dead is no less important," Timoshenkova says. "If we don't address this problem quickly, it may get out of hand."

The problem of collecting the dead underscores how difficult it will be to bring this city back to life.

Grozny is still closed to the outside world, and officially former residents aren't permitted back in. Some arrive anyway, mostly on back roads and on foot, but they tend to leave quickly. They usually find their homes little more than rubble, any valuables looted. Even if they wanted to rebuild, there are no construction materials.

Maj. Vladimir Zavalishin, commandant of Grozny's Zavodskoy district, estimates that up to 80% of the buildings will have to be razed.

"The scale of the destruction, especially close to the center, is immense," he says. "It's no exaggeration to say that the entire city has been obliterated."

Some believe that it was a deliberate Russian strategy to make the city uninhabitable.

Zavalishin estimates that there are about 1,000 civilians in his district, one of four in the city. Russian officials put the city's entire postwar population at less than 6,000, down from about 400,000.

Most of those left are living in the basements and bunkers where they took shelter during the Russian bombardment. The Emergencies Ministry can provide only basic food and medicine. The survivors still have no running water, no electricity, no transportation.

And most residents are literally shellshocked, suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome and other mental ailments.

One of them is Nefyodova. "I'm not remembering things," she whispers. "My mind isn't working right. I'm beginning to forget everything."

Except what happened to her son.

Nefyodova says that even though she is an ethnic Russian, the rebels let her move into a house abandoned by a Chechen family. She lived there with her son, Valery, who thought that he was out of danger because of his age and because he helped the rebels dig trenches.

But when the rebels decided to retreat, they wanted to take all able-bodied men with them. They came for Valery at night.

"I heard the noise of a brawl; the Chechens were obviously trying to take Valery with them, but he refused," she recalls. "Then everything went quiet. I thought they had taken Valery away. . . . I was afraid to go see what happened. Eventually, I fell asleep."

She discovered the body the next morning. "I spent the entire night in the same house with my dead son without even knowing it," she says.

She still spends her nights alone, a few yards from her dead son. In the streets after curfew, soldiers shoot anything that moves, human or animal. In the morning, there are new corpses to collect.

"I don't know what to do," she says. "For now, I'll continue to live in the same house and wait for some kind of transport to start again. And maybe then someone will come take Valery's body and bury him properly."

Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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