Tue, Oct 14, 2003 - Page 6 News List

After years of war, Chechens wonder what normal is

AP , GROZNY, RUSSIA

People in Chechnya's capital used to point proudly at the leafy trees lining the city as a symbol of its serenity. Now new trees are growing, but they silently emphasize Grozny's long torment.

The vegetation springing out of the city's war-ruined buildings give a rough guide to a decade of devastation -- the taller the tree, the older the wreck.

Last week's presidential election in Chechnya was part of a plan that the Kremlin says will lead Chechnya to stability after the war of 1994-1996 and the one that started in 1999. But Grozny is still in its war-induced daze.

Along with the thick vines that crawl up many of the hulks, the trees lend the city a melancholy stateliness akin to an ancient ruin. In fact, it is a young city, but one born in blood -- founded in 1818 as a fortress when Russian forces were first trying to subdue Chechnya and given a baleful name; Grozny means "the terrible."

Leo Tolstoy, who was a soldier near Grozny in the 1850s, wrote of a land where nervous Russian soldiers battled fierce warlords, where men were seized and thrown into pits. The same happens in Chechnya now -- just put the Russian soldiers on armored cars instead of horseback and give the warlords shoulder-fired missiles in place of single-shot rifles.

Violence and resentment have been so woven into Chechnya that the Kremlin's promise to "normalize" the region raises questions about what might actually be normal.

When asked that question, 20-year-old Khasan Zakayev laughed and then fell silent in confusion. Eventually, he confessed that his dream of normalcy was to become an agricultural specialist. But a nearby buddy had to tell him the Russian word for "agricultural." Many youngsters who were educated during Chechnya's de-facto independent period speak poor Russian.

Zakayev, who was standing outside a polling station in the village of Bachi-Yurt during the election, may have had trouble imagining the future, but a village elder, Said Ami Saidov, had great visions.

Greeting a visiting foreigner with a bear hug, he shouted: "This election is the road to freedom, the road to independence!"

The election was part of Kremlin strategy to give Chechens a sense of self-determination while keeping the republic inseparable from Russia. How it intends to find that balance is largely unclear.

Chechen President-elect Akhmad Kadyrov, whom the Kremlin appointed three years ago as its top civilian official here, is widely feared because of his personal security force that allegedly kills and rapes with impunity. Human rights groups say the election was a sham of crooked figures that vastly overstated Kadyrov's support.

Kadyrov says his first move once inaugurated on Sunday will be to form a commission to investigate "all the crimes that took place over the past 11 years."

Forming a commission may reflect that he has no other solutions to Chechnya's overwhelming problems. Or it could be an important step toward reconciliation, allowing separatists and civilians to publicly come forward with complaints of atrocities by Russian troops.

The Kremlin meanwhile is promising to pour money into Chechnya -- some US$470 million is earmarked to compensate Chechens for lost housing next year. But Grozny, where artillery ripped jagged chunks out of most apartment buildings, suggests much more money is needed.

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