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Monday, 6 March, 2000, 18:06 GMT
Eyewitness: Grozny's ruined lives
Grozny soup kitchen
Grozny survivors have almost nothing left
By Moscow correspondent Robert Parsons

The officer from Russia's interior ministry troops pulled me aside into a small cold room.

A gun-metal blue fur-hat perched on his head at a raffish angle and he looked at me slightly askance.
Battle for the Caucasus
A faint smile played beneath a yellowing moustache and the space between us filled with the unmistakable fruity-sour smell of early-morning vodka.

I wanted to travel with an interior ministry unit to the Chechen capital Grozny, an ambitious request as the presence of foreign journalists in Chechnya is barely tolerated by the Russian Government.

The officer wagged his finger beneath my chin.

"Give me one good reason why we would take you to Grozny. All you foreigners write about is ruined houses, destruction and suffering. And we all know what that leads to. The West will say poor Chechnya, to hell with Russia, no more money, no more loans," he told me.

He had a point, or at least, half a point. I would write about the wanton devastation of innocent people's lives.

But he should not have worried too much about Western aid.

The finger paused and pointed at me.

"Phone me tomorrow and I'll give you an answer."


I had been to Grozny on a short, government-organised trip a few days before. I had already witnessed the consequences of Russia's pitiless bombardment of its own citizens.

Grozny refugees
Many refugees from Grozny still want to return to the city
The city has become a phantasmagoria of charred ruins - mile upon mile of creaking, groaning constructs of shattered brick and concrete.

Apartment blocks that once teemed with life now stand still and deserted, their bellies bulging and spilling on to the streets.

Ceilings and floors sag at crazy angles, spent cartridge casings and shrapnel carpet the ground.

At Minutka Square in the centre of Grozny, scene of some of the most vicious and close-quarters fighting of the war, I stood for a while and watched a flurry of snowflakes fall on the abandoned living rooms of people's lives.

Such complete silence, such absolute stillness.

I turned slowly through 360 degrees of desolation, my vision drifting over a vast expanse of empty space.

The high-rise apartments, shops and scruffy cafes of the city centre have been reduced to mounds of rubble.

Then, far away, I caught a movement, the flap of a coat, a solitary dark figure pushing a pram loaded with a few desultory belongings - all that was left of a life.

Beyond belief

Grozny was once a city of half a million people. Now it is torn down, crushed and violated.

Of the hundreds of thousands of people who once lived here, but a handful remain, eking out a perilous existence in the fetid basements of crumbling housing blocs.

What they have endured is beyond belief.

Grozny flats
Most blocks of flats are now uninhabitable
At the height of the shelling of Sarajevo, the Bosnian Serbs poured 3,500 shells on the city a day. By contrast, during the siege of Grozny in the last Chechen war, 4,000 Russian shells detonated every hour.

And yet the survivors of this most recent assault describe that as a play-school. It is thought as many as 40,000 people may have still been in the city at the height of the inferno. How many of them were incinerated, crushed by falling masonry or shredded by shrapnel nobody yet knows.

Moscow excused itself the trouble of worrying about such details by equating those who stayed on with terrorists.

Anyone who remained in Grozny, the military warned in its infamous instruction of 11 December, would be destroyed along with what it called the Chechen bandits.

The choice was theirs. They had a week to get out or submit to the Kremlin's fury.

But it was no choice at all. Many were too old, too sick or too weak to move. Some never saw the leaflets telling them to leave and others did not want to go. Grozny was their only home.

Why should they go? By what right was the Russian army forcing them from their homes? So Russia could destroy what it itself dismissed as a handful of terrorists?

Ashes and dust

On 1 March, the military authorities began permitting refugees from Grozny to return to inspect what is left of their property.

Soldiers in Grozny
Russia's army has left Grozny in ruins
For a week, I shared a house with five refugees in the town of Mozdok near the Chechen border.

Alla and her daughters returned to find their home reduced to ashes and dust.

Alla's mother was only slightly more fortunate. Her flat was mostly intact but the structure of the building of which it was part was no longer safe.

Theirs is a typical tale. At least two-thirds of Grozny's housing has either been destroyed or faces demolition.

Great swathes of the city are a wasteland of domestic debris, unexploded ordnance and mines.

Little remains of the infrastructure that once supported the population: the drainage system is smashed, the water table polluted by rotting corpses and oil spills, the electricity stations stripped by thieves and the roads no more than muddy tracks.

I rang the Interior Ministry press centre again the following morning. I thought there was still a glimmer of hope they might take me.

I explained that I wanted to focus not on the destruction but on reconstruction and the organisation and distribution of humanitarian aid. Was anything being done?

In the press office, someone else answered the phone.

"No, no trip. The press centre has no transport."

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