For Old People of Grozny, There Is No Future

GROZNY -- Abandoned and forgotten in the turmoil and destruction of Chechnya's battered capital, the 34 surviving residents of the Grozny retirement home are slowly dying.

They eke out a miserable existence, shivering and coughing in their chill, dark quarters, with little food or water and no medical care. But their plight is ignored in a city devastated by war, where even the young and healthy wander dazed through bombed-out streets in a daily struggle for survival.

And because the Grozny retirement home is in the capital's southern suburb of Chernorechiye, the site of intermittent clashes at night between Russian troops and Chechen rebel fighters, there is no help on the way.

"There were over 60 people here before the war," said Malika Tishinskaya, 32, a Chechen orphan who has lived at the retirement home for years and has stayed to provide the only care these people receive. She produced a list of the residents' names, nearly half of which were crossed out, the word "died" written next to them. Two names were recently crossed out.

"When I have time, I'll go bury them," she told reporters at the home last week. "I'm the only one who can dig."

Not long ago, over 250 elderly people from throughout the former Soviet Union lived in this once elegant facility.

"We used to get meals four times a day," said Ludmila Shishkina, 67, a native Muscovite and one of the two elderly people here still well enough to do necessary chores such as carrying water from the makeshift pumping station a half mile walk away.

The home's tragic decline began when Russian troops invaded Chechnya in December to end a three-year rebellion. When fighting spread to Grozny New Year's Eve, the staff abandoned the home and its residents, most of whom are Russians.

Later, Tishinskaya said, Chechen separatist fighters occupied the building, confiscating food supplies, blankets and pillows. In January, the fighting reached the south of the city, and the building came under constant attack from Russian mortars and rockets. At least one shell struck a theater in one of the compound's buildings; others slammed into a stone wall where Tishinskaya has been burying the dead in a mass grave.

Russian troops drove the Chechen rebels out of Grozny almost a month ago and have taken control of Grozny's main roads. But they have only a tenuous grip on the southern outskirts and come under constant fire from Chechen partisans who slip in and out of the city under cover of darkness.

For the retirement home's occupants, this means that their situation has not improved noticeably since the shelling stopped.

A few weeks ago, their supply of tea ran out. Now, Tishinskaya serves her charges hot water boiled on the kitchen stove, where a slim, candle-like flame flickers from the tiny stream of gas that is the only source of heat in this place. No one has any money, and Tishinskaya does not often venture to the places several miles away in central Grozny, where aid is distributed by relief organizations. The last time she went, she received a bag of dried croutons that contained worms. The only meal she can make is flour-and-water noodles, which she serves twice a day.

"We have two bags of flour, we don't know how long they will last," Tishinskaya said.

They do have a supply of dried corn on the cob, but no one can eat it.

"We don't have teeth," Shishkina explained.

Everyone has fleas and a persistent cold that looks more serious in some of the residents. Without hot water or proper shelter, bathing is impossible. The nearest health care is available across town in Grozny's only operating hospital, but without public transportation, no one can make the trip.The hospital is woefully overburdened as it is: It has in-patient facilities to treat 150 people a day; one relief organization, the British-based Medical Emergency Relief International, recently stated in a report that up to 15,000 of Grozny's estimated 100,000 remaining residents should be seeing a doctor. The hospital's chief surgeon, Dr. Eduard Kholezin, shrugged helplessly when told of the retirement home's plight.

"This is not our responsibility, this is the responsibility of the Federal Migration Service," he said.