City where the dogs eat the dead

February 14 2000

Janine di Giovanni, the only British reporter based in Grozny, witnesses the devastation wreaked by Russian forces

THE Russians have wiped Grozny off the map. It is uninhabitable, even for the packs of hungry wild dogs. It is these dogs, according to Hussein, one pro-Moscow Chechen working as a volunteer grave-digger, which are tearing apart the bodies of the unburied throughout the city. "The dogs are eating the corpses," he says.

It is difficult to find a building not gouged by bombs or reduced to a pile of bricks. Apartment buildings with no roofs are booby-trapped and mined. There is no water, electricity, heating or telephones.

When this war started, there were about 400,000 people living in Chechnya's capital. But Grozny now has only a small, ragged band of civilians. The living dead are emerging from hiding places. They shuffle out of their cellars, clutching plastic soda bottles to fill with water. Some wear white armbands to distinguish them from fighters. Most are women, some are so old they are nearly bent double.

When the military curfew descends at 6pm, nearly everyone goes back to the cellars, but those caught outside tell stories of drunken Russian Interior Ministry troops looting, shooting randomly into cellars, taking women away.

The first unconfirmed reports of rape are filtering through. Alpatu, 40, says she left Samashki, in western Chechnya, on February 1 with three women friends, aged 39, 23 and 40.

They arrived at the first Russian checkpoint in Grozny and produced their passports. Alpatu was lucky - she was last in the queue. The others were marched off and not heard from again. "They were soldiers from Dagestan and North Ossetia," she says. " I've tried to find my friends. What is strange is we haven't found the bodies."

The rape stories are not limited to one side. Another woman, an ethnic Russian, comes forward weeping, clutching a photograph of a beautiful teenager: her 15-year-old daughter.

"Chechen fighters came on November 15," she says slowly. "They burst into the room, wearing black masks and carrying Kalashnikovs. They said, 'We need her', that was all." She has searched three months in vain for the girl."Nothing," she says, rubbing her red eyes. "She just seemed to disappear."

The Russian emergency services have set up four "feeding points" which include hot showers in an attempt to prevent an epidemic, as well as a full surgical hospital. But in the Staropromyslovsky district, once heavily populated and less damaged than other city areas, there were fewer than 200 people gathered. They wait silently for three hours in the freezing cold, shuffling their feet for warmth, for a bowl of buckwheat kasha, a cup of sugared tea and a loaf of dark bread.

More are creeping to the hospital, complaining of shrapnel wounds, infections, illnesses or tuberculosis.

Near Minutka Square, Lyobov Yasinsaya, 42, a Ukrainian doctor who has lived in Grozny for years, screams with rage and frustration. She says that she could not leave the city because her elderly mother and her four children were unable to travel, and she emerged from her cellar only ten days ago. "We had to steal to get food and we often had no water. Now the war is over, I have been standing here for two weeks, and no one will help me!"

She is covered with dirt and grime, her face hidden behind weeks of unwashed soot. She stares at her hands, cracked and raw. "I'm an educated person, I hate going around like this, but I have descended into the condition of a monkey."

Dzhanat Aktulayeva, 62, says she has gone through two wars as well as deportation in 1944 to Kazakhstan. Her son was killed in the 1994 war and she raises his three children on her small pension. "We've been tortured," she says. "Life in Grozny has been hell on earth."