Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Grozny Residents Still in Dark Age

Despite claims that normal life is returning, thousands in the Chechen capital exist without basic services.
Residents from Grozny’s 56th district, one of the city’s remotest areas, say that they feel cut off and abandoned from the rest of the world.

For the past five years, the approximately 270 families that remain here, amidst abandoned oil derricks that dot the mountainous landscape, have received no electricity or water.

Televisions and other means of receiving news from abroad are of course out of the question. During the short winter days, gas lamps are used for lessons at the district’s school No 9.

"It is hard to breathe,” said Zarema Edilova, one of the teachers. “The lamps leave black soot on the classroom ceilings. You can imagine what our lungs are like."

At home, residents prefer to burn candles – a cleaner though weaker means of providing light. Parents say that their children’s eyes are deteriorating from the strain of having to do their homework in the semi-dark.

Grozny’s 56th district, like many others in the city, has been left to its own fate to provide basic necessities like light, heating and water. Although the Russian government has declared that “major military operations” in Chechnya are over and that the situation is “normalising”, the people here continue to suffer as if the war never ended and say that no authorities, either federal or local, are looking after their basic needs.

Many districts were affiliated with a particular factory or enterprise, which looked after basic services for the local population. The Oktyabrneft gas and oil concern, for example, was based in the 56th district and maintained the electricity and water supply.

When the second Chechen conflict broke out in 2000, however, many of these enterprises shut down. A reorganisation of Chechnya’s economic management system added to the confusion.

The war left the city’s infrastructure in tatters. City districts receive basic services and repairs are made according to apparently arbitrary criteria – what in other countries would be called a “postal-code lottery”.

In the Zagryazhsky and Mayakovsky regions of Grozny’s Staropromyslovsky district, which was serviced by the Starogrozneft enterprise before the war, residents call themselves “water carriers”.

Because of the breakdown in water supplies, families maintain small water reservoirs outside their apartment buildings, and carry the water to their homes as the need arises. To meet the demand, a number of water supply businesses have sprung up. The prices are fixed at five roubles (around 18 cents) for a flask of water and two for a bucket.

As a result, an average family pays around one to 1.5 thousand roubles (35-54 US dollars) per month to receive water to their homes – an enormous amount in a region where huge numbers are unemployed.

Relief organisations such as Polish Humanitarian Action and the International Committee of the Red Cross provide free water distribution, but delivery is unscheduled and can take hours at a time. When the water aid does arrive, long lines form. Nevertheless, residents say that without the international organisations’ supplies, they could perish.

Standing in line and carrying water to their apartments is each family’s main daily occupation, they say.

Their health, already damaged by wartime, post-war stress and Grozny’s polluted environment, has suffered. Amnat Markhieva, a Staropromyslovsky district resident, says she has developed an arrhythmic heart because of the strain of carrying heavy buckets to her family’s third floor apartment.

“I am not carrying water now but the arrhythmia is still there,” she said. “Now, one of my children queues for an hour or two. They do this every day and in any weather.

“I am so worried about my son and daughter’s health."

As for electricity, the situation is only slightly better, as residents illegally tap into lines from the local electrical sub-stations. As a result, the light is dim and the power frequently blows out, since the networks are overloaded.

Sulim Magomayev, head of Chechnya’s communal power grid, says that Staropromyslovsky residents offered to collect money themselves to pay for repairs, but even this will not help restore electricity to the district.

“They do not know how the electricity system is structured,” said Magomayev. “Contributing 500 roubles each will not solve anything. We need here a comprehensive approach to the problem.”

Umar Gadayev, general director of Grozny’s water supply system, says that the problem is too little federal money for too many pipes. “It is necessary to replace the entire water supply system in the city,” he said. “The pipes are worn-out and, if they are not replaced, the water will not be able to flow.”

According to Gadayev, Grozny possesses 2023 kilometres of pipes, of which only 170 have been replaced over the past years.

Furthermore, the amount allocated to rehabilitate the city’s water network is constantly decreasing. In 2004 the central government provided a little more than 200 million roubles, while in 2005 this amount shrunk to 140 million, and in 2006 only 110 million are planned. “You can see that there can be no talk about replacing all of the pipes," said Gadayev.

Grozny’s last comprehensive overhaul of utilities was in the early 1990s.

Chechen acting prime minister Ramzan Kadyrov has promised that 2006 would be the year of Grozny’s full restoration, for which the Chechen leadership had been allocated some 4.5 billion roubles from the Russian federal budget. Analysts, however, say that some 5 billion roubles alone are needed to restore the city’s entire water system.

Kadyrov also threatened to crack down on state officials who embezzled government funds, a widespread problem in Chechnya.

Despite the prime minister’s comments, locals are not more optimistic that water and electricity problems will be solved, saying a comprehensive approach is needed to restore basic services, rather than the piecemeal one being adopted by the government.

The local government has so far focussed its efforts on restoring services to individual houses and apartment blocks. But cellars continue to flood in these newly-repaired houses, since not all the pipes could be dealt with. Grozny residents are dependent on electric water pumps, as water does not flow even in restored houses.

On Karl Liebknecht Street in 2001, owners of three houses saw their cellars and yards flooded with sewage water just a few months after repair work was completed.

Adding to the officials’ difficulties is one more complicating factor – crime. According to law enforcement bodies, thieves regularly steal electricity cables and water pipes, which they then sell for scrap on the black market.

Residents in Grozny’s Michurin region and 20th district were left without water recently after thieves walked away with close to 150 meters of pipe, said Tamazi Gaurgayev, a local official. As a result, pipes and wires must be replaced again and again.

In the meantime, Grozny residents will make do as best they can - as they have for years now - with illegal electrical connections, candles and buckets.

Amina Visayeva is editor of Vecherny Grozny newspaper.

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