Unspeakable horror of Grozny exposed
IN my experience, most women avoid books about war, but I have more often been persuaded to join the other half when the war book is by a female war correspondent. Women have an eye and an ear for human interest.
The notable example is Madness Visible: A Memoir of War ( 2004), a deeply felt, resolutely fair account of the Balkans war by Janine di Giovanni, who writes for British newspaper The Times and US magazine Vanity Fair ; the shining exception is Vasily Grossman’s A Writer at War, whose reportage of the daily lives of Russian soldiers in World War II is profoundly affecting. Drawing on deep wells of experience, such books humble one’s judgment and uplift the spirit.
The Angel of Grozny , by Asne Seierstad, a Norwegian journalist who studied Russian at university in Moscow, does the same in relation to Chechnya with disturbing, heartbreaking clarity. This breakaway republic first became a reality to Seierstad in January 1995, when images of streets filled with bodies — black, charred corpses, frozen children, a burned- out army tank with the star- shaped figure of a Russian soldier fused into its molten top — swam across a Moscow television screen.
Independence had been claimed three years earlier, but the unilateral announcement was not welcomed by Russia.
Chechnya is in the Caucasus, a mountainous region of magnificent natural beauty, gloriously celebrated in literature; it was annexed by imperial Russia in 1801, but for two nearly centuries the local tribes maintained a kind of guerilla resistance, necessitating a continuing military presence.
After the break- up of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin, unwilling to cede Chechnya as well as Georgia, decided to pull the new republic into line. In eerie silence, armoured tanks housing 40,000 Russian troops rolled into the capital of Grozny, encountering no resistance until they reached the inner city. Then the counterattack struck. The Russian army was massacred and
The Angel of Grozny
Russian pride humiliated, but this ‘‘ first Chechen war’’ turned rapidly to tragedy for both sides.
Seierstad, author of the best- selling The Bookseller of Kabul , was determined to cover it on the ground, and commuted between Grozny and Moscow until Yeltsin’s ceasefire in 1996. Peace was declared the following year, but sniper warfare continued. In September 1999, shortly before Yeltsin anointed his successor, Vladimir Putin, the bombing of some apartments in Moscow was blamed on unnamed ‘‘ Chechen trouble- makers’’. Although Russian security forces are now widely believed to be the initiators, this nevertheless served as grounds for the second war against Chechnya.
Russian anger was later fuelled by Chechen- led hostage crises in a Moscow theatre and a school in Beslan; neither situation was handled well by either side, but Seierstad’s book outlines with compelling evidence the reasons the Chechens felt driven to drastic measures.
Seierstad was determined to go back into the fray and managed to get herself smuggled into Grozny. The heartening part of her story describes her two- year stay in the house of Hadijat, a practising Muslim who takes in orphans, feeds and clothes them, sends them to school if they are old enough, and does her best to repair the psychological damage they have suffered. She is the angel of the book’s title. ‘‘ The boys think they shouldn’t cry, and keep everything inside. They scream, run to us sobbing, and tell us what they’ve dreamed. They fall out of bed, they wet themselves,’’ Hadijat sighs. She also says, ‘‘ This isn’t an orphanage, it’s a family.’’
When the inhabitants of Grozny see Chechnya relayed through Russian television, they are surprised to find that everything in their country is peaceful, the people dancing because there is always something to celebrate.
By 2007 there is even a new President, Ramzan Kadyrov, a good friend of Putin. Strangely, murders, disappearances and torture are rumoured to continue. Kadyrov’s security forces operate prisons and camps, as well as a vast publicity machine known as the Youth Palace.
Seierstad interviews Kadyrov, politely raising abuses of human rights verified by the European Court in Strasbourg. ‘‘ Show me one person who can point to me and say that I have violated human rights. That person doesn’t exist! There is none!’’ he screams.
She mentions Anna Politkovskaia, the murdered Moscow journalist who reported mainly on Chechnya. Kadyrov guffaws. ‘‘ We don’t kill women, we love them! A woman is holy, she should stay at home.’’ Family life, according to him, is being ruined by the orphanages.
This is not the kind of book that summing up. Please just read it.
bears Judith Armstrong is writing a novel based on the life of Sonya Tolstoy.