April 6, 2008

We’re making a movie today. Running around Grozny with a camera and a tripod. Setting up the camera, almost defiantly, amidst the noisy streets, in front of the mammoth monument to Kadyrov, the assassinated former president of Chechnya, and on the bridge across the river Sunzha. We are filming houses, shops, building signs, cars, passersby, personnel of obscure “agencies” who are armed and dressed in camouflage. Nobody minds us. Not even those very “personnel.” We are only asked from time to time whom we’re filming for. The answer “just for ourselves” suffices (only sometimes someone laughs knowingly and asks for a share of our honorarium when it’s paid). Little boys clamor to be on camera and strike a proud pose. A young man leaning from the window of a tall building shouts: “Hey, where are you going? What about me? I want to be on TV too!” Here everyone is used to crowds of journalists who try to immortalize the historic reconstruction of a city. But we are not filming the reconstruction process, just the city – and what’s become of it in the last few of years.

Local authorities keep repeating that soon enough there will be no more traces of war in Grozny. And there are hardly any left in the center. But if you go deeper into the residential neighborhoods of Oktyabrskiy and Zavodskoi, you will find yourself in a different world. Or more precisely – back in the war. A destroyed residential area. Little houses with holes in the walls and collapsed roofs. No roads. An impassable wall of bushes. Oily dirt mixed with snow sticks to shoes and stains the hem of the skirt. People are still living here. For many of them the war is still not over.

Alaudi Sadykov lives on the outskirts of Oktyabrskiy. A steep narrow street is covered with ice. We jump from one pile of snow to another, trying not to fall down and drop the precious camera. Alaudi once had a house. But it was sacked and burned in 2000. Now his home is a makeshift shelter added on to his relatives’ house in the same yard. His shelter was built on compensation money from the government for destroyed housing and property. Alaudi received 250,000 instead of the due 350,000 rubles, roughly 10,000 dollars. “So where did the other 100,000 go?” we ask. Alaudi shakes his head and laughs, looking into a corner: “Um, they, well, they were used to pay for other needs, you know what I mean?” What’s there not to understand? It means the rest of the money went to a middleman…

It’s better than nothing, I guess. But the cost of construction material is far from cheap in Grozny. The money was enough for bricks, cement, wood boards, and labor. So Alaudi’s abode is little more than a brick-box – outside and inside. Exposed brick walls with layers of cement, a wooden floor with enormous gaps between the floorboards, a roof mercilessly leaking. It’s dank to the bone. A home made gas stove is used to heat the place. There’s a pot of boiling water on it for noodles he’s cooking — on holidays it’s porridge. “What kind of porridge, Alaudi?” “Oatmeal!” the host smiles broadly. There’s a bed in the corner made from wooden boards and covered with a reddish wool blanket and a pillow without a pillowcase. On a wobbly stool are his dishes: one pot, one bowl, and one frying pan with a lid. Against the wall there’s a wooden board that’s been put to service as a shelf, and on the nail hanging from it a metal cup improbably shimmers. There’s a carefully maintained but broken old TV set and an antique record player towering over everything. Neither of these artifacts work, but they serve as decoration and souvenirs from a better life, and hold immeasurable sentimental value to the host. But the slide projector works, he says. That’s why he has a piece of white screen cloth stretched on the wall across from the bed. It turns out that all the slides are images of refugees or war. What other images could there be?

Alaudi sits down on his bed in front of our camera and pours out his story: “It was in 2000, March 5 at 8 o’clock in the morning. I worked as a water carrier at the Ministry of Emergencies. Several army men drove up in a car, around 10 people. They asked me where Musorov Street was. I explained that it was very near. They asked me to go with them to show them the street, because they were not local and would get lost. They were very polite. I wouldn’t have expected what happened next even in my worst nightmare. I got into the car and we drove to the street they were looking for. I was about to get out of the car when they said: “Hey you, piece of shit, we’re gonna show you who’s boss!” They started beating me with the butts of their guns and pushed me under a car seat.”

Alaudi was taken to the temporary internal affairs department of Oktyabrskiy district. They started beating him again and demanded that he tell the names of separatist fighters, that he tell them everything, because regardless, he would not leave the place alive, so it was better if he died an easy death. Alaudi shouted that they were mistaken, and that he was a former physical education teacher, that he didn’t know any militants. They cut his hair and started to shove it into his mouth, demanding that he swallowed it. They heated a metal prong on a stove and burned him across his hand, then his tongue. They beat him with the butt of a gun on his forehead. They put him in a corner and fired shots above his head. They kicked Alaudi around like a soccer ball – knocking out his teeth and breaking his ribs. When he lost consciousness they poured water over him. He regained consciousness and everything started again.

A police investigator came the next day. He interrogated Alaudi. Alaudi told him what happened. The investigator left the room, two officers came in and beat him. This continued for two days. Alaudi understood that he wasn’t saying what the investigator needed. But he didn’t know what the investigator wanted from him, what he had to say to stop the abuse. Several days later two men came into Alaudi’s cell around midnight: one was dressed in camouflage, the other in plainclothes.

Alaudi looks without blinking. He talks distinctly, in a rather muffled voice, as if he is reading from a piece of paper. He’s telling the same story for the thousandth time, the same story he’s been telling over and over again for the past eight years. The one in plainclothes said: “Come on, tell us who you killed!” I said to him: “I didn’t kill anyone, I am a school teacher!” They started beating me. The one in camouflage brought a big knife, stepped on my head (my hands were handcuffed behind my back) and started to cut off my ear. I felt that I would rather be in the other world than in this one. A guard with a camera recorded this scene. They cut off my ear, sat down to rest and promised me: “We will have a cigarette and then cut off your head.” I don’t know why they didn’t. I guess God didn’t mean for me to die then… I was set free on May 24, when the new staff shift came… I spent two months and twenty days there…”

Two months and 20 days. And then for eight years he tried to bring to justice those who tortured him pointlessly and mercilessly; those who chopped off his left ear for their collection. He haunted the local police station and prosecutor’s office. Time froze. A criminal case was launched, suspended, started again, suspended, and so on. Alaudi spoke to journalists, wrote letters to President Putin, various ministers, President Kadyrov, then when he was killed, to his son Ramzan Kadyrov, the current Chechen president. He filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. There is nothing left for him to rely on except for this faraway court. He realized that the court could not send his tormenters to prison. But at least, Russia would have to pay him damages and then he could take care of his health, build a house, get some respect, and live with dignity.

“And what’s your life like now, Alaudi?” He makes a helpless gesture and smiles broadly: “Why now? It’s been going on for a long time already. I wake up, get dressed, first go to the police, then to the prosecutor’s office, then stop by some human rights organizations—“Memorial”, “Committee against torture”—and then it’s already evening. I go to bed. And in the morning it begins again. That’s all, that’s my life…”

On the wall above Alaudi’s bed there are two hooks. One holds a dusty, worn-out black and white leather jacket. On the second hook is a straw hat; a red, white, and blue ribbon is tied around it. “And what do you have here, Alaudi?” He proudly tears down both things, offers them to the camera and says that in better times, in 1990, before the war, he paid a lot of money for this jacket—“it cost as much as one Moskvich car, I swear”—and a hat to go with it. “Take a look, a real cowboy hat!” (The hat only remotely resembled a cowboy hat—Grozny has not seen many cowboys). He also bought an old but real American car from a rather shady car dealer. Having all this, he would drive to school, to his physical education classes. Schoolchildren would run to the car screaming: “Here comes our Stallone-man! Here comes our Stallone-man!”

“They said that I was just like that actor, you know, from that action film, Stallone, you know, Sylvester! I swear. Let me show you!” Alaudi puts on the jacket then he puts on the miraculously preserved straw hat and runs outside to show off the remnants of his car.

Then it’s to Zavodskoj neighborhood. Apartment buildings with huge holes in the walls. At least several families live in each of them – of course except for the buildings that were reduced to piles of debris. Little boys covered in dirt play hide and seek in the rubble. Women in bright colorful robes peak out from behind roughly-made wooden doors. In a hollow space where there was once a window, bright red sweatpants proudly hang, swaying in the wind. A neatly dressed man is talking enthusiastically on his cell phone, standing on the unsteady balcony of a bombed-out apartment.

At a distance, near a road, there is a dilapidated house. Two elderly people live here – an Armenian woman, Vika, and a half-Russian, half-Jewish woman, Alla. Dark, grey rooms, gas stoves, a candle on a metal holder. Buckets of water. “Thank God a water pump is nearby, in the yard. But there is also a pack of stray dogs. They always try to get into the house and steal food—a piece of stale hard bread, a boiled potato—they’ll eat anything.” One of these dogs attacked Alla – caught her leg and bit off a piece of her flesh… She had to drag herself to a hospital. Now Alla will only go into the yard with a big stick.

Her neighbor Vika is 80 years old. Petite, shrunken, dark skinned. Her black eyes shine under her grey hair and headscarf. Vika sits in a corner of the bed near the stove. The ceiling and the walls are black with soot. Some workers from a nearby construction site started spending the night downstairs on the first floor. One night they turned on their primitive gas stove, got careless and started a fire. Vika almost died in the fire: it was a miracle that she woke up. Firemen came and flooded everything with water. Vika’s mattress was soaked and still has not dried. She has to sleep on a folded blanket thrown on the metal bed frame. More importantly, her books were so badly damaged from the water that they became useless – Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Korolenko… Only the Bible wasn’t affected – this must’ve been God’s work, Vika says: “Our Lord, He sees everything!” Vika prays everyday and goes to church on Sundays. Her legs, of course hurt, but can still take her places.

Vika is all alone, except for her cat. A cat is a must or else rats will be everywhere. Her children and grandchildren are far away, in a remote Russian city. They don’t need her. Also, she belongs in Grozny, she worked at a defense factory and has lived here all her life. To her, that means she will die here as well. She only wishes it would happen already – she is very tired of living.

Just around the corner, cars speed by, billboards are hung everywhere, and shops are decorated with colorful signs. But here there are broken walls, dim candlelight, boarded-up windows and there’s a choking smell of gas from the stove. Here the war never ended.

Tanya Lokshina is a researcher in the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch.

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