26 December 1997

Grozny's Children of War Hope for Better Days
by Lawrence Sheets

[This article has been excerpted.]

GROZNY, Russia: At first glance, 14-year-old Zaur Abuyev seems like a normal adolescent, delighting in talking about foreign cars, sports and action films.

Then his voice drops to a whisper and his big brown eyes stare into the distance as he starts to describe the horrific deeds he performed as one of Chechnya's children of war.

Last August, during fighting for the regional capital of Grozny, he helped a group of Chechen independence fighters who had infiltrated the city guard newly-captured Russian prisoners of war.

"For two days we made (them) dig a trench around a building the fighters were in. We wouldn't let them rest, not even for a minute. They dug almost until they dropped,'' Zaur said, playing with a model car.

"The fighters told one of them: "Today is your day to die.' He was crying ``Mama, Mama, please help me.' We started to put the rope around his neck, and then we hanged him.

"He squirmed around for about five minutes and made some noises. Then his tongue fell out of his mouth and that's how we knew he was dead.''

Zaur is one of dozens of Grozny's orphaned or abandoned children who participated directly in the bloody 21-month long war, which...ended with Moscow's troops beating a humiliating retreat from the mountainous Muslim republic of one million.


Many, like Zaur, lived in orphanages until the war began in December 1994. Finding themselves on Grozny's streets, they began hanging around with Chechen fighters, carrying weapons or working as guides for guerrillas from nearby villages.

Between a series of battles for the city over the course of the war, many slept in the basements of Grozny's ruined buildings, begged at the market or engaged in petty theft.

Filthy and...scratching constantly because of body lice, they could easily be picked out of a crowd and became known locally as the ``glue sniffers'' after the street habit many developed.

Ruslan Seikhanov, aged 12, was left to fend for himself when his father disappeared just after the war began. For a few months he was in an orphanage in neighboring Dagestan but then escaped back to Grozny, hitching rides on buses.

"We started going with the fighters, showing ones who didn't know the city through the back streets. I've seen a lot in the war,'' he said matter-of-factly. ``I saw a lot of dead Russian soldiers but only one dead Chechen.''

Timur, another child, says he blindfolded a captured Russian officer whom Chechen fighters then stabbed to death with a traditional sword.

"There were three of us, two fighters and me. He was yelling ``Help me!' and ``Don't cut me', Timur said quietly, as if expecting reproach.

"I don't know what his name was, we just called them all Vanya.'' (Vanya, the equivalent of John, is a common Russian name).


Another 12-year old, Umar Latayev, boasted how he and his friends had blown up ``at least 10'' armored personnel carriers (APCs) carrying Russian troops during the early stages of the war by tossing grenades through the open hatches.

"At the start of the war the Russians were really careless. Even though we were afraid, at night they didn't close the hatches on their APCs and we could sneak up and toss in a grenade. It would blow up and no one ever climbed out after that,'' he said.

. . . the boys and many other children would still be on Grozny's streets if it were not for the efforts of a former volunteer nurse in Chechnya's pro-independence fighter force.

Adishot Gatayeva served as a nurse with pro-independence fighters when her unit, under commander Shamyl Basayev, who led a bloody hostage-taking raid in the southern town of Budennovsk last year, seized the center of the city in September.

Shocked by the condition of the street children, she befriended some of them and decided to do something for them.


In an abandoned two-roomed apartment in one of central Grozny's few multi-story buildings not completely destroyed in the vicious war, she set up a home for the children.

"First it was just two boys. We cleaned up the rooms ourselves. Then one brought in a friend of his and one thing led to another,'' said Gatayeva, her jet-black hair pulled back under a blue hairscarf with polka dots.

Twenty two boys and four girls aged from four to 19...stay in the cramped but clean quarters. With the separatist Chechen government barely up and running, Gatayeva relies on gifts from former fighters and visiting journalists to feed the children.

"You wouldn't believe what these kids have seen. They've murdered, drunk alcohol, sniffed glue and smoked drugs. They've stolen to stay alive.'' Some had been raped during the conflict.

Using volunteer teachers, Gatayeva has set up a tiny school in the spartan apartment and the children recite Muslim prayers several times a day.

"No one needed them, but I do. They call me Mama and I consider every one of them my own,'' she said.

The emotional scars the war has left on the youngsters are obvious.

One room is covered with drawings reflecting images of the conflict. One shows a Chechen fighter with an assault rifle, others depict green Chechen flags.

In the entrance to the block of apartments children take turns pretending to shoot each other with a spent casing from a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

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