Thursday, May 9, 2013

Polina Zherebtsova’s Diary of the Chechen War

The Diary of Polina Zherebtsova

( part of the text)

The diaries begin in 1999 in an autumn of war, when their author was fourteen.
The names of some of the people mentionedhave been chang

From a field notebook:

“All of us, shot through by the war, have become part of a blind spot – just as a bullet hole in a skull becomes part of the skull, indeed its third eye, gazing wide-eyed into non-being.”

Stanislav Bozhko
The Season Is War

24 September 1999

There was a bit of bombing today. The neighbours didn’t go to work because they are scared but I will go and help Mama at the market. There is a rumour at school that it is going to be closed. Everybody says a war is coming.
You can hear the roar of aircraft. Bombs are being dropped but for now they are far away. In central Grozny at the market I only feel the ground shaking. Nothing worse. I’m staying.
Anyway, where could I go? I will look after myself.


25 September 1999

Fought for bread in the queue today. The Azerbaijanis who brought their goods to our city have left. What are we going to sell?
Also decided to write a recipe for cheese pyshki. They taste so good!
I will make them from fresh ingredients when peace comes back.

26 September 1999. Sunday

We did not go to the market because the drains are blocked. One of our neighbours has blocked them but won’t admit it. We sent for a plumber. He was Russian, drunk, and became ill. We had to run to get the nurse and she gave him injections. He nearly died of a heart attack.
The drains are still blocked.

27 September 1999. Monday

They are bombing Beryozka in our Staropromyslovsky District. That is really quite near. They have been bombing it since early morning.
[The entries in the diary after this have got wet and and are illegible]
I will read Shakespeare. We have 12 volumes of him in our library. They are antiques, published in the early 20th century. My grandad was a news cameraman and he bought them. He was killed in 1994 at the start of the first war when the hospital on First of May Street was shelled.
I had dreadful nightmares last night.
Mama and I traded at the market.

29 September Wednesday 1999

I saw the Knight of the Water. He bought me an ice cream. My favourite neighbour Aunt Mariam has moved to Ingushetia.
No other news.

30 September 1999. Thursday.

The bridges have been bombed.
It said on radio that Federal Russian tanks are planning to enter Grozny around 10 October.
I decided that if there is going to be another war I need to buy some black underwear so it doesn’t need washing so often.
Got bread after a fight. People seem to have gone crazy.

1 October 1999
Bombing yesterday and the day before. Rumours in the market that they have hit No. 7 Hospital. Local radio said 420 people were killed and about 1,000 injured.
The city is filling with rumours. Often the ‘information’ contradicts itself.
Professor Nunayev, a heart specialist we know, warned us in August there was going to be another war but we did not believe him. We stocked up with new goods.
On 6 August we heard that the widow of assassinated President Djohar Dudayev had left Grozny.
So much information! You can only believe what you have seen with your own eyes. No way should you believe your ears!
On 30 September the drains flooded again. We phoned for plumbers but nobody came. We had to do it ourselves. Our dear neighbours carry on pouring everything down them. We cart their sewage out in buckets.
In the market people were swapping addresses with friends they have made, in case the bombing gets heavy or we get bombed out and need somewhere to go and live. Nazar gave us his address. He and his wife sell food. Microdistrict, 8 Kosior Street, Apartment 66, bus No. 29. A Russian woman gave us her address too. Her name is Lyolya. She said, “What if you’re in the city centre and there is an air raid? Run along Victory Avenue to No. 5A (which is close to the market). We have a big cellar in the courtyard.”
I don’t suppose being killed instantly is all that bad. What is horrible is being buried under rubble and dying in agony. I remember Russian old people dying like that in 1994 in the centre of Grozny. There was no machinery to shift the concrete slabs.
Their apartment block was bombed from a plane and they were on the upper floors and found themselves on the inside of all the rubble. People of different nationalities came. They cried by that mountain of slabs, hearing the people’s groans.
It went on for several days and then everything went quiet.
That is a really horrible way to die.
I have been thinking about different religions too. They’re all good in their way, only people aren’t good at obeying God’s laws.
The son of our neighbour Fatima, who lives on the central staircase of our apartment block, has died. He was just a little boy.

5 October 1999, Tuesday
Still alive!
We’ve had no gas for ages. Bombing.
Our four-storey house is subsiding because of all the shaking. The walls in our room have come away from the ceiling.
Planes were circling over the market today. A lot of people ran away, including that big fair-haired boy, van Damme, who is studying in the law faculty. He periodically lets my mum and me trade in his wooden kiosk, which is good when it’s raining, but I don’t like him.
Back home we boiled potatoes in the electric samovar. We still have electricity, but not all the time now. The gas has been cut off. That’s in case there is shelling, to reduce casualties. Houses burn and people die.


7 October

In the morning, Aunt Maryam brightened our mood. She lives in the apartment next to ours. Ever since Mum moved into this house in December 1986, she and Aunt Maryam have been friends. Maryam kissed me and promised, ”You’ll be right as rain soon! Just bear it a little longer.” She gifted me a head-scarf, a cream coloured one with a delicate border. And powder! We had breakfast together. Maryam warned us that she would move a part of her property to her relatives in Ingushetia. And she would lodge a family from the house across to the next-door flat on the first floor. We wouldn’t be alone anymore! And if she could find a way, either she would come or send one of her sisters to help us leave as well.
We sealed up a part of the window with pieces of wood, to block shrapnel. Zolina’s little daughter came over to play with me

11 October 1999, Monday
Fighting. In the distance we can hear what sounds like peals of thunder. We have decided to sell newspapers too. Aunt Tanya and her daughter Yuliya are annoyed. They have been selling print publications for a long time and doing quite well. Now we are competing. We can’t help it. Our goods are not selling and we have no money to buy food. The day before yesterday I went on an ‘impromptu’ visit to see Salim’s wife. He is the man who imports newspapers and magazines wholesale. (I lied and said I was a friend of Yuliya. She has been selling their goods for a long time. Yuliya’s mother used to work with mine, only they weren’t friends, just acquaintances.) The woman said her name was Sonya and gave me magazines to sell straight away.
Yesterday a neighbour of ours at the market who sells medicines came over to our stall with a friend of her son. I don’t know this boy but he gave me a pretty little book. The woman’s name is Kusum. She is trying to get me to be friends with her son. Her son is very tall so he stoops. He is shy and diffident. He is called Daud and is taking preparatory courses for the Petroleum Institute. He always has a chemistry book in his hand.
Daud is 21 and I am 14. Mama says that I’m too young to get married. She keeps on saying, “You need to study!”
Kusum was trying to talk me round. “You are the only girl my son has paid any attention to. If you become his official fiance we will wait until you finish ninth grade at school.” By Chechen standards that is a good offer. I can see he’s a good man, but I prefer his friend, the one who gave me the book.
Daud’s mother bought me a pretty summer T-shirt and solemnly presented it. “To the first girl my son has liked!” was how she explained her gift.
Our neighbour, a cheerful party-going type known as Pinocchio, hasn’t been seen for several days now. He is really marvellous at telling you about books and films. He sells music cassettes quite near us and lets me bring them home ‘on hire’ to listen to, except that I don’t have to pay. He lives in Urus-Martan. I hope he will be all right, and that we will too.


12 October, (Tuesday), 1999

I am not going to school any more. No lessons. I am helping my mum.
The day before yesterday when it was pelting with rain someone poured paraffin over a tree and set it on fire. What an idiot! That was some conflagration! Just at that moment a plane came and circled overhead for a long time. People were afraid it might drop a bomb, but it didn’t.
The woman who sells medicines has introduced me to her sisters. She says everybody likes me, but I should wear a shawl so people do not know my mother is Russian and treat me better. The grown-ups are talking to me a lot, always giving me presents, little things. Perhaps now I won’t be lonely. Perhaps I will have friends.
I do like shawls and headscarves and I don’t like emancipated Western women. Any dress with a scarf the right colour is romantic and looks soft and mysterious. A friend of my mother advised me to wear a shawl. He said, “Then I will be able to stand up for you. You will be an adult. You need protecting!”
They do not know that my father’s father was a Chechen, so if you follow the male line I already am Chechen. I have mother’s surname because she separated from my father seven months before I was born. She didn’t want to make it up with him. Later Mama got a certificate from the doctor to say I was born at seven months and she registered me under her own name.
What is really funny is that my grandmother on my father’s side is Jewish. Does that make him a Jew? Ha ha. Jews believe everything follows the maternal line. So I consider myself a child of the world, although I have never actually set eyes on my father. I know he had a son by his first wife, and that she was Russian too, a woman called Tanya.
Ever since I was little I have been told constantly, “Your father is dead!” but I like to think it isn’t true.
Today my very favourite, dear Aunt Leyla came to our trading place in the market. It was she who took me when I had just been born and my Mama to our grandfather.
Leyla has always helped us. She used to work with Mama in a big factory called “Red Hammer”, only my mother worked in the supply department and Leyla in sales. She is a remarkable woman, the best!
Leyla had promised to bring us home-made jam and jelly. It was she who suggested calling my mother by a Chechen name. Now both at the market and at home everybody calls her –Leyla!
Mama’s old friend had no sooner come over to us than she started urging us to leave. Mama was having none of it. She said, “I do not know what people are like in other places, how they live, what their customs and rules are. I have no close relatives anywhere or anybody I know. I have spent my whole life, since I was 15, here. Here I have two family graves, my grandmother’s and my father’s. I have my own place to live, which is very important. There is Ruslan. It may not be an official marriage but it is a support. A protection. I have got used to it, it’s not the first year. If I leave with my child what then? Will I be both homeless and on my own?”
Leyla shook her head and repeated, “There is no peace here. They don’t let us live normally. First one lot, then another. I would like our girl not to get married too early, not to become a domestic slave. But then, is it better anywhere else? And our younger generation are less demanding.”
Leyla’s daughter lives with the family of her father and they rarely see each other. She has re-married but does not have any new children of her own. That is why she loves me. She treats me like her own daughter and gives me presents.
I was terribly upset by that Chechen nicknamed van Damme. He saw me in my shawl and burst out laughing. “Who are you getting so dressed up for? Are you going somewhere special?” He spat deliberately on the ground, the pig.
One time in the past he sent his aunt round to make our acquaintance. She courted my mother and gave her treats. That’s the custom in the East for getting to know another family and bringing a boy and a girl together. She even openly invited me to become her nephew’s wife, concealing the fact that he already had one! Other people told me.
I do not like van Damme. He is a fair-haired, grey-eyed Chechen who looks like a country boy, a Russian Ivan. He is a big lad, but a bit of a coward.

13 October 1999
At night we listen to the booming of artillery and during the day we trade at the market.
I have fallen out with Tanya and Yuliya and Sonya is not so friendly towards us now. I don’t know whether I have annoyed her with my requests, or perhaps our competitors have said something against us.
Now I wear a shawl like Aunt Kusum. She often praises me. She will come and sit with us at the market and comb my hair. She says, “Come on, let’s go and get you a perm!”
Daud’s friend came to see me again. He bought me an ice cream. Does he like me? What if Kusum knew about it, Daud’s mother! This boy asked me how old I was. When I said I was only 14 he was amazed. “You’re so little! I thought you were older than that. You know, you do look very much like a princess, – Budur, in my favourite fairy tale!”
Then I was a bit cheeky and said he was Aladdin! We looked at each other for a long time and said nothing. I was surprised at my own boldness. Before with boys I kept quiet, just listened, but now I had blurted something out.
Aladdin has lovely eyes, and his hair is black, and it hangs in ringlets down to his shoulders. He really does look like a prince! I remembered I once had a dream about him. A long time ago when I was a child, before I was going to school.
Aladdin told me he is 23. His father has another family. He has a mother and sister (or sisters, I’m not sure). They live in the country. Aladdin became embarrassed and looked at his shoes for a long time and then went away without saying goodbye.


Polina's Diaries

14 October 1999
In the morning I went to see what is happening at school. We may not have any classes until the spring. I went from school straight to Mama in the market. She is missing my stepfather. He went to help send some things to a friend a long time ago, on 19 September. Since then we have heard nothing of him.
The main thing is to sell goods, pack up our new clothes and favourite books, and leave. Our business is ‘barely breathing’. We have enough to buy food but can’t put aside anything at all. We are worried by newspaper articles saying that refugees have to walk half the way on foot, bent double under their belongings. They get very cold. The cars they are travelling in get shot at on the roads. The route out of the city is very dangerous.
We have no money for renting an apartment for long if we are refugees. We are giving away our goods, which were brought from Baku, at cost price, even at a loss, just in order to get money.
All the young people are wearing military uniform. A lot of them look good in it. They don’t carry guns, though, just walkie-talkies. Only mature men have rifles, those who are 30 or older.
Kusum wept and told us her son has left home. She asked my mother to help get him back and asked permission to say I agreed to marry him if only he would leave his new friends and come home! We supported Kusum’s idea. I warned her, though, that I would go away afterwards, but would certainly help.
However, Kusum decided not to take me with her. She went to see him on her own but returned without her son. Daud told her he has friends he trusts and that he will stay with them to the end. We all cried.

Princess Budur

20 October 1999
This morning I couldn’t concentrate for a long time or calm down. I had been dreaming about a rock fall in the mountains, a huge avalanche. A lot of people died! I saw huge boulders flying, crushing, destroying. I hid, ran, fell... Small stones struck me painfully.
I woke up terrified and lay for a long time not moving. My arms and legs went numb. I had had more than enough fear in my dream, but then there was heavy shelling in reality. Still, everything is okay.

22 October 1999. Friday
Mama and I have been wounded, on 21 October. My dream has come to pass so unexpectedly and frighteningly. I saw a dead woman sitting at a table, and wounded people hiding in cafes and the stairwells of houses. Men, volunteer rescuers, were lifting casualties and filling cars with them. They gave priority to people who were seriously wounded.
It all began unexpectedly at about five in the evening. We had packed up the goods which were left over in two bags. One was mine the other Mama’s. Then we met Kusum with a child and stood and talked. Suddenly a bright flash lit up the sky which was still light. A loud bang followed. In fright we rushed back behind our counter and squatted down between the iron stalls. There was no other shelter nearby. An explosion! Then another! It sounded as if the same thing was exploding over and over again. We ran, losing our goods, into the courtyard of House of Fashion. That is in the very centre of Grozny, in Rosa Luxemburg Street.
While I was running an enormous piece of shrapnel, like an echo from one of the explosions, whistled by very close. It split not me but time, like warm water which has drained away, and I was left standing in a dry channel, immediately realising that neither Mama nor anybody else could save me from death if I shouted for help.
Death and me – just the two of us were linked together in this world and there was nothing that could come between us and shield me.
Everything became comical and unnecessary, belongings, bags, and all sorts of valuables. I realised that there was nothing at all I could I take with me to that place.
I felt a heavy blow and time returned together with fiery sparks which the shrapnel cut out of the brick wall of a house next to my head. Some little metallic jaws tore at my legs but I kept running by inertia. A few steps further on I fell and somebody picked me up.
We threw ourselves into the entrance of a residential block, but instead of an inner door there was a grille. We ran out into a courtyard in a state of shock and flung ourselves into the entrance of another house nearby, where a shop called “The Fisherman” used to be. When I squeezed into a corner and tried to sit down, I felt a piercing pain in my legs. Into this same entrance Mama and Kusum pushed a Chechen girl whose knee was torn to pieces. For the first time I saw that bone inside is white. She was in shock and only saying, “It hurts! It hurts!”
There were women and children in the entrance hall. Mama said she had a hole in the pocket of her coat and her hip was stinging. Another piece of shrapnel had hit her pocket. When the men looked into our stairwell everybody shouted that first they had to take the girl with the injured leg. She had lost a lot of blood. She looked between 17 and 20. They took her off.
Some more volunteer rescuers looked into the entry. They were young boys, and among them was Aladdin. They decided to take me to be bandaged in the pharmacy on Victory Avenue (the old bread shop). Aladdin carried me in his arms and whispered, “Don’t cry, my princess! Don’t be afraid. You’ll get help!”
They led Mama behind and didn’t even forget our bags of goods. They stayed calm in all the commotion. We passed through the courtyard of House of Fashion. I had lived there once with my mother and journalist grandfather. When I was being dragged away during the shelling I saw three dead people. They were lying apart from each other and somebody had covered them with cardboard. One was a woman, one a man, and who the third one was I couldn’t really tell but I think it was a child.
They took us to the pharmacy and a woman I didn’t know drew the shrapnel out of Mama’s hip. They only bandaged my legs because one fragment was deep inside and it would have been too painful to take the others out. Aladdin was kind to me, stroking my hair and gnawing at a bun. They decided we should go home because the hospitals were overflowing with wounded people. It is mainly old people, women and children who trade in the market. There are not many men there, practically none.
We were actually quite far from the epicentre, almost three blocks away. How many were killed? Some people we didn’t know at all took us back home in their car. I was partly deaf in both ears, there was a loud ringing, and I was half fainting. Everything was swaying around me. The people in the car said it was concussion. I heard somebody say several times, “Do Polinka good and receive good, do Polinka evil and receive evil.”
I think it is part of a prayer which should really be:
Do a modicum of good and receive good,
Do a modicum of evil and receive evil.
In Russian the word is ‘pylinka’ but my ears were ringing and what I heard in my semi-delirium was my name, ‘Polinka’.

In the morning the pain in my legs was worse.
I took painkillers and a sedative but the pain got worse and worse. I had just dozed off when our cat, smelling blood through the bandages, crawled under the blanket and sank its teeth into my right leg. It was dreadful. I beat her off with my fists. As soon as we had had breakfast, Mama went to ask the neighbours to take me to the doctors. The people upstairs agreed and we went in their Zhiguli-6 to No. 9 Hospital. That is our central hospital.
The doctors told us immediately, “You need an X-ray but it isn’t working. The electricity has been cut off and the generator disappeared during the commotion”. They sent me to the operating theatre anyway. It was on the ground floor and dark and dirty. A striped tomcat was strolling around. It rubbed itself against the legs of a chair and purred. Tearful people were standing by the open doors. There was blood everywhere, shreds of clothing, sheets of some kind. People were running about looking for their relatives and friends. Less severely injured people had been queueing to see the doctor since yesterday, sitting on chairs and the floor. Stifled groaning was coming from the relatives of people who had died in the hospital. A Chechen woman was wailing dreadfully. Her children had been killed. A middle-aged woman begged for money to pay for an operation and medicine for her son and somebody gave it to her.
The doctor who examined me was tired. He could hardly stand. He told us that during the night the electricity had been cut off several times in the middle of operations. They had operated on dozens of people and many had died. A young German reporter in spectacles and a check shirt was asking how many people had been wounded, how many had died in the night, and what were the main kinds of wounds? He asked me if I was frightened.
The doctor gave him the figures and said that in the confusion they had not registered everybody. That was why there was such a muddle and many people could not find those they were looking for. I did not memorise all the facts so I can’t write them down.
They forgot to give me an anaesthetic when they were investigating the wound and I screamed. I was ashamed of making so much noise. The doctor realised what he had done and gave me an injection. Mama had bought all the medicine and hypodermic syringes which were needed at the hospital kiosk. They gave me a tetanus injection. They looked for shrapnel but did not find it. “Without an X-ray there is nothing we can do. We will just mangle your leg to no purpose,” the doctors kept saying. “You will have to find somewhere they can X-ray it.” They removed only small pieces.
By this time Mama had a plaster on her hip. She could walk. We bought painkillers, a lot of bandages, surgical pads and disinfectant.


23 October

Yesterday a wonderful thing happened! In the latter half of the day, we had unexpected guests. Kusum and Aladdin! The same Aladdin who had carried me through the yard of my childhood! They hadn’t known our address. They found us after asking about victims. They only knew which district of Grozny we lived in, and had to search for a long time. Both were exhausted.

Mum made tea. Kusum had brought fruit. Aladdin gave us 70 roubles for bandages; he didn’t have any more money. He was silent throughout. I didn’t speak either. We didn’t look at each other; we averted our eyes. Only the adults talked – mum and Kusum.

25 October

I am crying. My wounded leg hurts worse in the evenings. All these days, the neighbours have been going into town at night. Many talk of a large tail-less rocket. They say that there is heavy radiation where it lies.

There are lots of foreign journalists in town. They managed to get through! Someone measured the radiation with a meter. People are specially coming to the market to look at the death-rocket. I ask my mum to persuade the neighbours to take me there. I want to see the filth that has brought me pain.

The Russian side refuses to comment on the bombing of the marketplace. But the Chechens do not have such large rockets. It is said that those who were near the rocket were torn to pieces; now their loved ones recognise them by the remnants of various things: buttons, shreds and pieces of clothing.

Mum bought a few loaves of bread. She distributed them ‘for my well-being’ to the neighbours who crowded around our entrance.

Mum found a walking-stick that belonged to grandma Yulia that she had bequeathed to us. It is a brown wooden hooked stick, sort of like that of Baba-Yaga. I’m learning to walk with it around the room. I repeat that I want to see rocket that killed all those people and injured me. Mum whines that we have already spent all our money; there’s none left for the operation and the medicines. Today she was at the stall for twelve hours, and she saw the rocket!

 Polina's Diaries

26 October

Early in the morning when there were few people about (I am reluctant to walk with a walking stick), Mum and I went to the market. I looked at the remnants of the missile. It was huge! Boys were climbing all over it. They announced that it was ‘infectious’ and had to be removed. The missile had destroyed everything around.

Some of our acquaintances arrived to trade. Mum wanted to sell on our ware, so that it wouldn’t get lost. But people were scared to oblige. “There’s a lot of theft,” they explained, and said it had gotten worse after the explosion. Twelve people had been shot on the spot for stealing. Looters were at it day and night. They took things off the dead: gold, raincoats, shoes, clothing, cosmetics. They did this under the guise of locating their family members. Some came with their children to steal. A father with a kid ‘searched’ for the mother. And the mother with her other offspring was, at the same place, looking for the father. The guards didn’t cotton on immediately to this trickery.

One of our neighbouring traders showed uncommon courage. After the rocket exploded, she dragged an injured Chechen woman to safety; at the same time, thieves ran off with her entire merchandise. But she had no regrets. I spoke to her. She had done well!

Our market has shrunk now. In the morning there are hardly two rows. Tables have been placed along the Mir Prospect. People have decided: here will be the cafe, here the barber, and here the entrances to the residences – it would be easier to seek shelter.

Seeing me with my walking-stick, passers-by and the traders joked, “A youngish grandmother!” Everyone wished me the speediest recovery.

The loudspeaker in the Mir Prospect area that used to play music throughout summer now repeated the same thing over and over: “500 people are missing; 1000 people are wounded. There is no count of people taken to villages and rural health centres.”

We burst into tears on hearing that at the candy store, a girl was killed – she was my age. Her elder sister and her mother were both wounded! Our neighbour Rosa was also killed while selling cabbages. She was eight months pregnant. Her seven children are orphaned. There are many such others.

We bought bread and went home. We were not the only ones wailing in the bus. Got home and boiled up some tea. Almost at once Aladdin appeared. I didn’t feel like talking at all.

Aladdin began to take his leave. Mum was taken aback when he put an envelope in her hands: “For the operation and medicine,” he said, “Or for food, in an emergency…” “We’ll pay it back!” I called out as he left. We were embarrassed. We knew that it wasn’t good to take money from someone we scarcely knew. But we had no way out. Without money, there would be no treatment. There were almost 200 roubles in the envelope! Aladdin asked me to call him ‘elder brother.’ I liked the idea and agreed.

28 October

Mum got ready to go to the market. She decided she would trade till lunchtime and then buy some food. Our larder is empty. Again we’ll be spending instead of saving! We quickly finished our breakfast and took with us in two light packages a few magazines and newspapers. Maybe someone will want them? Mum is a naive person.

And then began a terrible shelling! It thundered everywhere from the direction of downtown and the marketplace. The sky turned red from the fire. Mum was, like, who cares? She said it was all rubbish. Just then a woman carrying pickled cabbage in a bucket ran toward us. She was crying and talking to herself, “Everything is bloodied again! Everything has been bombed! The market is aflame!” Mum stopped her, offered her water to drink. The woman caught her breath at our front gate and said, “This is not weapons fire. It’s an aircraft! It bombed the market! There are many dead! The bomb fell at the corner by the House of Fashion, where women were selling bread!” She left, crying.

Mum collected herself. “Chop chop! We have no food. Our area is still calm. Let’s go to the nearest market, the little one, to the Beryozka stall. We’ll buy some produce.”

Mum is very stubborn. I got ready quickly. I didn’t take the scary walking stick. The road is not far, barely one stop on the bus. I went, leaning on mum.

We passed our yard successfully. We crossed the road. And we began to move through someone else’s yard. And then the airplanes roared into view. Bombs exploded. We threw ourselves across the road. We found a basement but it was quite small, there were already five people standing in it, crowding into each other. No space to enter. Back out again! Now we were at the entrance of an apartment building! Excellent, it was not locked. We squatted in the corner, under a door.

An explosion! Another explosion! A man screamed from the house opposite. The upper storeys were aflame. Another man spoke comfortingly to the injured one, “Take it easy, take it easy, I’ll just tie it up.” But the wounded man continued to scream terribly. The airplanes headed in the direction of the private sector and began to drop bombs there. We went out onto the street.

The building to the right of us was missing a corner. From below its roof, black smoke streamed out. The house across the one we had hidden in was on fire on the upper floors. The shrieks came from there.

Still driven by Mum’s obstinacy, we went further to the little market. There were goods in the stalls but no sellers or buyers!

“They’re in the shopping gallery,” guessed Mum. We entered it.

Inside was a crowd. Adults with kids, preschoolers. People sat by the marble columns and prayed. The entire floor was covered in glass. The windows had been smashed into smithereens. Some of the buyers and sellers went into the basement. We also went there.

Ovens were burning in the basement. Civilians sat around on empty wooden and metallic boxes. Women offered each other nuts and water. People prayed in Russian and Arabic. They decided: “If we have to spend the night here, we’ll give our clothes to the children. We’ll spread them out on the floor so the kids can sleep.”

It was cold. People talk to each other in low voices, as though they might be overheard. Mum and I sat around for an hour or two, for as long as the bombing went on. Everyone was frightened. Nobody wanted to go upstairs to the first market hall, let alone the street, as long the bombs were falling. At last, we came out.

We bought all that we could. And headed home on the lower side of the road, where the shopping gallery was, so that it would be easier to hide in case the bombing started again.

People came over and told us that the missile that had fallen on the market, the one that had wounded me, had been launched from the Caspian. Journalists had uncovered this news. Within only five days, the Russian army had admitted it. They had aimed the missile at another target – at the stock exchange building – but they missed. It fell on the peaceful market.

I just cannot believe that this is the third war in my life! The first was in 1994 (I was nine years old); the second, in the summer of 1996 (from 6 – 22 August; I am 11 years old) – how many neighbours perished then! And here’s the third one. Autumn, 1999 (I am fourteen).

What to do? Aladdin hasn’t come.

Our neighbour, Uncle Valera, had a surprise for me. He handed me some gifts from Muslim, a chap who lives in the first entrance to the building. A white scarf with a blue border, and gray autumn boots. Muslim is a relative of a very kind woman, Zulai. I have spoken to him all of one time. Long ago, last spring. Muslim met me on the way from school. He told me that he liked me more than Hava, his neighbour. He understands that I need to study! But if I completed 16 years of age, then we could get engaged! That’s the custom here. I had been amazed.

And now, unexpectedly, I received his short note: “If you remember me, please pray for me!”

I closed my eyes and at once saw him. A gentle face. Light eyes, dark hair. Muslim always stood in the doorway of his entrance, neat and modest. I wanted to cry. My nerves! Absolutely useless. “In vain did you, Muslim, worry about the opinions of the elders in the yard! You feared their judgment! All because my mother is Russian,” I muttered to myself, and stared at the gifts. I thought we might have become friends! Seeing his note, I felt so good in my heart. At once, I could breathe easily and freely. “Muslim! I will not forget your name in my prayers!” I promised silently. “But, forgive me, the shoes are too small for me. I gave them to Mansour’s mum. I only kept the head-scarf.”

 Polina's House

2 November

I argue with Mum. I tidy up. I get ready.

Yesterday, in passing, I saw Aladdin in the distance. He nodded at me. He wasn’t alone; he was with an older man and a young fellow.

In the evenings, I narrate to the kids the fairy tales of Wilhelm Gauf. He died so young, and yet gave the world so much! Everyone listens to me attentively. The kids are called Zara, Waha, Alissa. Alissa is a niece of Tamara, from the fourth floor.

In spring, I’ll turn 15. Of course, if I’m still alive.

Mansour, who lived with us with his family as a refugee in 1995, during the first war, told everyone in the yard that I was his bride. He explained to me, “I did it on purpose. So that they wouldn’t insult you or pester you.” And then he said, “But will you wait for me?” I nodded quietly. Such an idiot!

In the absence of his father, Mansour is like the elder in the family. He resolved conflicts between all of us in the military hostel more than once during that hard winter of 1995. We often quarrelled because of the cramped, closed quarters. We had had to sleep in turns – we couldn’t all have slept at the same time in our one-room apartment.

In 1995, we temporarily housed several more refugees in our apartment. I remember we had a neighbour, Olga Stepanovna, in our own entrance. Later, through snow-covered paths over a mountain pass, from the city of Vladikavkaz, her son arrived. An anti-war miracle! Whenever the reds or the whites, thinking he was a spy, wanted to execute him, he would repeat, “Guys! My mum is old. She’s all alone. It’s war. I’m going to my mum.” They’d then let him go.

And I can barely communicate with my mother. We are constantly arguing, quarrelling. Her nerves are shattered because of the crossfire. We managed to sell all the papers, except for four that were missing.

The bombing continues nightly. In the daytime it pretty much stops.

7 November

Yesterday, my ‘elder brother’ came by. He offered to teach me Arabic. He showed me the interesting alphabet – like drawings. I agreed.

No school now. As for History, I’ve read the textbook already. Twice!

The elder brother is, of course, Aladdin. He gifted us two frocks. One, a light blue one, he gave to me. A similar one, but green in colour, he gave to my mother. In addition, he brought me a large white scarf, imported from Mecca! I dreamed about such a thing for so long! The wealthiest women among us cover their heads with scarves like this! It is white, with white embroidery.

Aladdin brought books. Different ones. Many of them. He said, “You love to read books, and time passes faster when one reads. Here are some thrillers.” He is so … unpredictable!

These are events of yesterday. Today, I took out a notebook where I practise writing – and there was money in it! It all spills suddenly over me. I barely managed not to faint! All of 160 roubles! But what for? We are thrilled with him as it is. And we’ll be grateful all our lives to him for saving us. But this is unnecessary!

Can it be that he doesn’t love me at all? Aladdin treats me like I’m little. He is friendly, but that’s it.

There was bombing yesterday. Mum and I ‘went walkabout’ for bread. We came under fire. Came home safely. We started to tidy up the house. The painful fragment in me quietened down, gave me a moment’s peace.

Today is November 7, the revolutionary holiday of the former USSR. Maybe that’s why everyone is happy!

Budur of the terrible tales of the town of Grozny.

8 November

Yesterday evening there was a terrible fire fight. Missiles and shells flew into the yard. Thumps from mortars and machine-guns. The walls shook constantly. Everyone’s window panes blew out. We had sealed our panes with paper crosses, and so they remained intact.

When we were gluing the crosses on, some of the neighbours laughed and said maliciously, “Crosses, just like the Russians have on their graves!” Mum didn’t react. She tried to advise them: “Didn’t you see the films about the war with the Germans? For safety, everybody glued on the crosses. You should do the same.” All that happened was that everybody started referring to the Russian military as the Germans.

Aladdin came in the evening and began to teach me to read. He was amazed at how quickly I learnt all the letters; I write them easily under dictation.

Aladdin was covered in clay. He explained that as he was walking, our ruined district began to get shot up. He ended up lying in a trench with a gray cat. The cat was struggling to get away. She scratched him. It turned out that that was my tomcat – Chips! Aladdin was hiding with him?

We heated up some water so that our guest could clean himself up in the kitchen. We washed his clothes. Mum said that they were wet and that she wouldn’t let him leave at night. He declined initially out of decency, but his face lit up, and he stayed! Mum and I had to jostle for space on grandma’s bed, and we arranged the sofa for our guest.

Elder brother confesses, “My friends do not understand me when I tell them that I am looking out for a Russian family. I tell them of my friendship with you. That you are normal. But they do not believe me.”

Princess Budur.

9 November

My elder brother Aladdin spent the night at ours! We talked long into the night. He fed me candy, which he fished out of his pockets.

Aladdin made himself comfortable in the apartment, and generally behaved like a real brother or cousin. I learned a lot about him, about this childhood, his mischief at school, his friends.

Then he got fed up; his attitude changed dramatically. He started to scold me for not eating properly. I wasn’t wearing the headscarf correctly. I was putting the letters together far too slowly when I read. I understood. And my Slavic blood boiled.

Mum intervened. She announced, half in jest and half-seriously that he was pompous. “When a guest starts to criticise the host, it’s time to throw him out!” Aladdin was offended. He didn’t have any breakfast, and left. But I know that he will come back! He doesn’t want to get used to us, but still he does. Mum feels sorry for him.

In the morning I again went over the rules of the Russian language. Mum gave me a dictation. Mum is asleep now. I am sitting quietly. I found several old newspapers and am reading them.

A woman leaves Rais’s house, next door. She offered to sell some cigarettes (“Astra”), the cheapest and thinnest. In all, 96 packets at 30 kopecks each.

10 November

It snowed.

No, I wrote wrongly. It was a snowstorm like in February! All the trees are white. Mum’s heart is not doing well. She took some medicinal drops and went to bed.

There’s no bread, but there’s yesterday’s leftover dumplings with grass from the garden.

A man from our building stopped by to say good-bye. We don’t know him. He has a singularly yellowish pallor. He is missing a hand. He has fine, painfully thin facial features. Everyone calls him the Black Glove. His attention had been drawn to us several days earlier. He had chanced to see how I was carried out of the car, wounded.

He introduced himself, said he came from Greece. Black Glove learnt from the gossip of our neighbours that we did yoga. That we unravelled dreams. He wanted an explanation for what he saw: “Dogs chasing me! Big ones and small ones. They want to tear me limb from limb. I try to run, but can’t. There are many dogs, an entire pack!” We understood his dream as follows: “Enemies abound. To remain means death. One must depart quickly. The hunt approaches!” This man informed us that he works in Greece. My favourite country!

Bidding us farewell at the door, the man whispered, “I will come back. Maybe in five or six years. My family is there…” On the table, we saw a few bars of chocolate.

I am filled with a giddy hope that all will be well! This is like the hope of kids awaiting New Year’s presents from Santa Claus. Or the hope after a ship sinks when, through the veil of rain and storm, people espy the shore. It is not far! Just a little effort and everyone will be saved!

Mum’s heart is bad. It is 2:35 now. Mum took her tablets, but they do not help. Her lips and hands and legs are cold. I keep telling her that she needs to sleep. I give her a hot-water-bottle in place of a heater. Before my eyes is an imaginary Aladdin. I am having an imaginary conversation with him.

I’m sitting on the sofa. Gunfire from afar. Near the factory ‘Grad.’ It’s the third time it is being strafed. The weapons used are like the Katyusha rockets of the Patriotic War in 1945. We didn’t go out for bread.

I hear the howl of aircraft. The sound is approaching us.

Icicles drip outside the window. Small stalactites. The sky is clear, blue.

At night I had a dream: in a dark basement I am fighting a battle with Death. She is black, in a long coat with a hood; in her hands is a mace. Beneath our feet is a swamp. And so many people are already in the swamp to their chests; they cannot escape and save themselves. I swing and hit Death with a cane on the head. It was a palpable blow, as though I had hit something real, alive. She recoiled, and I managed to escape from the cellar.

I described the dream to Mum. She laughed and said, “This clearly means that in this war you will certainly not perish!”

26 November 1999

A bomb fell next to the neighbouring house this evening.

It broke through two floors – joined them together!

Raisa, the Armenian who converted to Islam not long ago, 12 days ago, was killed. She was praying. It didn't interrupt her. An old Chechen lady, who was teaching Raisa the Islamic faith, was with her. But she got scared and ran down the stairs. That woman was saved. She sat on the stairs the whole night through.

I cried. I'm scared to lose somebody to this war.

Alladdin touched my hand and said: "Raisa is in heaven! She couldn't have sinned in 12 days."

24 December 1999

We found a jar of jam. I ate the jam with a spoon, until I got sick.

Our main food is a glass of water with one spoon of flour and diced onion. We drink it and lie down.

Five of our cats have already died. Mum buried them in the garden behind the house. She cried for each one, as for a child.

One cat remains. He's big and striped. He, like with the new people, showed up from another neighbourhood.

We call him Khattab. The cat really wants to live!

26 December 1999

Mum is getting angrier and angrier. Her personality is totally ruined. Probably from hunger. I try not to snap.

My stomach always hurts. I constantly want to eat. I keep imagining a piece of real white bread. It seems there's nothing more delicious.

To eat that, it wouldn't even be that scary to die.

8 March 2000

Morning! Mum still feels bad. She can't sit, even when she leans back on two pillows.

Thankfully, Alik helps. He's been chopping wood for me, for a week already.

Mum's face has gotten big and strange.

Sometimes I think she'll die, that she'll die right now.

31 March 2001

I'm 16!

The age of one's first ball! I think Tolstoy wrote that?

There's mess all around me.

Holes in the hallway floor, from the damp basement it smells like rats and filth, pieces of wall hang over our heads, and dirty damp wood seems to have settled permanently in the kitchen.


Polina Zherebtsova on the diary she kept as a child during the Chechen war. ВВС