Un­speak­able hor­ror of Grozny ex­posed

Ju­dith Arm­strong

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - By Asne Seier­stad Trans­lated by Nadia Christensen Vi­rago, 340pp, $ 35

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Sturt Krygs­man

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