Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Chechnya: No Place Like Home
It has been more than a decade since the day in December 1994 when the Temirsultanovs fled their suburban Grozny home amid the roar of Russian bombs.
The truck that Khoja Temirsultanov had used in happier times to earn good money for the family as a truck driver was packed and ready to go.
As they pulled away from the house a great shout went up. In their terror and bewilderment, the Temirsultanovs had forgotten their most cherished possession – five-month-old Magomed Salakh, the long-awaited son in a family of seven girls, whom they’d hidden in the cellar to protect from the bombing.
Under fire from all sides, they raced down the street to rescue the baby then roared out of Grozny. Like thousands of other Chechen families, most of the Temirsultanovs have been refugees ever since, wanderers without a home, property or means of subsistence.
They sat out the first Chechen war in northern Dagestan and Azerbaijan where they stayed with friends of Khoja in Baku.
The Temirsultanovs returned to Grozny after the Khasavyurt agreements were signed in 1996. Like many, they believed the war had ended and were eager to get home. Though things were initially calm, 28-year-old Malika Temirsultanova said bearded Arabs soon appeared on the streets preaching their religious doctrine Wahhabism. Shariat courts soon followed.
Though many tragedies occurred during this turbulent time, Malika remembers one in particular. “It was the murder by two brothers, fighters, who were well-known in Chechnya, of their own sister,” she said. “The method of the killing was particularly shocking – she was buried alive. The poor girl was suspected of meeting with a man. Without investigating, they held a trial of her themselves, and then it turned out that she had been slandered.”
Bandits ran wild in Grozny amid constant rumours of robberies and kidnappings. Khoja decided to flee once more, this time to Nalchik, in southwestern Russia where the majority of the family remains today.
Malika is the only one to have come home, and now lives in Argun, near Grozny. She works as a journalist at a newspaper in Grozny and her daughter studies at a local school. Despite the dire security situation, made more tense by the frequent security sweeps by soldiers looking for insurgents, which are usually followed by the disappearance of young men, she says she is glad to be back.
“Is it hard for me? Of course, but I am still happy, because for the first time in ... years of long wanderings I have felt land under my feet,” she said.
“There’s poverty and destruction all around, but this is my home, my land, my people. And I really feel good here. I breathe freely, see prospects in my job, feel the fruits of my labour and truly want to live.”
Another Argun resident, however, lives in a state of constant anxiety. “Last week they [soldiers] broke into out house,” said 34-year-old Aishat Batalova. “They got the wrong addresss. They were looking for Wahhabists from the neighbouring house.”
Exact numbers of those who’ve returned aren’t clear but analysts say most of the approximately 350,000 who fled in 1999, many to neighbouring Ingushetia, have come back - but to grim conditions.
The country remains in ruins, and they are now internally displaced within Chechnya itself, with up to 30,000 living in temporary accommodation centres. All this despite Russian claims that the situation has been normalised.
Not surprisingly, many were unhappy to return to the killings, torture and disappearances but had little choice when the last of Ingushetia’s refugee camps was closed down in June 2004.
Some were tempted back to their war-torn homeland by promises from the Russian government of a 14 billion rouble compensation package for their destroyed homes and lost property. But that has been slow to materialise and allegations abound the process is marred by chaos and corruption, meaning few homes have been rebuilt.
“My sisters continue to study at school in Nalchik, and so does my brother. My parents are alive and well. They all want to return home, but they cannot because their house has been destroyed ... and they cannot get any compensation for their lost housing,” said Malika.
The Temirsultanov house, half destroyed by a shell during the first war, was looted then burned to the ground during the second conflict.
Though the Chechens initially received a warm welcome in Nalchik, this changed when government funding ran out. The sanatorium where they lived was closed and they were forced onto the street along with other refugee families, said Malika.
The war was at its peak and although life was hard in Nalchik, the Temirsultanovs opted to stay, living on the street in a hut. They cooked food over fires and took water from a building site. When young Magomed Salakh asked his sisters why they lived outside, they answered, “Because we do not have a home. We do not have a homeland.”
Other indignities followed. One that stands out in Malika’s mind is the day in 2001 when she took her three sisters and brother to a Nalchik school and was told the teacher had been ordered by republic authorities not to let Chechens onto the premises. Crying, the teacher disobeyed that order, which was later rescinded, though bad feelings remained, said Malika.
Complicating the already difficult situation in Nalchik was Malika’s near fatal illness.
She arrived in the town with a high temperature which was later diagnosed as advanced pneumonia. She remembers lying in a hospital ward, floating in and out of consciousness, hearing a doctor ask her father whether she’d rather be buried in Nalchik or at home in Chechnya. He offered an ambulance to take her body to the border, saying, “You’ll think of something there.”
When Malika felt her father shaking with silent tears at her bedside she found the strength to sit up, saying, “Don’t cry, papa. I won’t die. Not even the earth takes people like me.”
Though she survived, without a job, money or education, life was hard for Malika, whose husband Umar who was also unemployed. The couple married in 1993 after forming a telephone friendship that started when a bored Malika randomly dialled Umar’s number.
Her parents were forced to gradually sell off all their possessions to make ends meet, including Khoja’s beloved truck, which went to pay for Malika’s treatment.
Malika believes the root of her illness was her daughter Jamilya’s traumatic birth in a water-filled cellar during the bombardment of Grozny in 1994.
There was nowhere to put the baby or for Malika to lie down in the ankle deep water, she said, so “several old women got on all fours and put me on top of them. And one of them delivered the baby. She bit the umbilical cord through with her teeth, and wrapped the baby in a blouse she was wearing”.
Against all odds, both mother and daughter survived, and Jamilya is now an A student. Like Malika, she hopes the long years of wandering are at last over.
Luiza Orazaeva is a correspondent for the news agency Kavkazsky Uzel in Kabardino-Balkariya.
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