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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

In Grozny, Bombs Rain on Sole Source of Water

GROZNY, Chechnya -- The muddy, littered field just south of central Grozny lies dangerously exposed between two battlefields, but people come here because it is the only source of water.

As the Russian assault slowly turns the capital of Chechnya into ruins, civilians still living in the Oktyabrsky region near central Grozny come to this place for the sulfurous, salty-tasting water that drips out of a rusted pipe.

Grozny's residents can get by without heat and electricity, but thirst attracts a steady stream of people who brave artillery shells, sniper fire and sudden cluster-bomb attacks from Russian warplanes. Someone did a chemical analysis, and decided that this water was potable.

"It's good enough to drink, if you boil it," said Larisa Pliyeva, 29, as she filled a large metal can to carry three kilometers back to the basement cellar that became her home when Moscow sent tanks and thousands of troops into Grozny on New Year's Eve.

"If you boil potatoes in it, you don't have to salt the water first," said Ruslan Azizov, a businessman who has not left Grozny because he is more afraid to leave behind his one-story brick house then he is of dying.

As they waited for their water, their subdued conversations were interrupted by the salvos of Grad rockets and heavy machine-gun fire less than a kilometer west at the Grozny train station, and by the dull thumping of the Russian artillery barrage around the central square less than two kilometers to the north.

Only one thing truly frightens these people any more, and it came at around 11 A.M. on Sunday. A Russian warplane, invisible above the clouds, fired two rockets in the direction of an apartment block about 150 meters away.

A terrible shriek filled the air, then silence. A woman and a man who had been standing at an intersection at the corner of the field now lay dead, their bodies torn, limbs severed by shrapnel.

"Can I come out, is it safe?" whispered Irina Nikolayeva, a middle-aged Russian woman, shock in her uncomprehending eyes as she stared out at the carnage on her street from behind a brick wall. "I just wanted to get water."

Within minutes of the attack, a Russian man with a shovel and two pushcarts came past the shrapnel-dotted walls to clean up the bodies. He made the sign of the cross and covered the victims. The people waiting by the pipe in the field went back to their vigil.

President Boris Yeltsin has twice ordered a halt to the bombing of civilians in Grozny, but apparently the command has not reached the pilots.

Thousands of civilians are believed to have died in Grozny, many of them from bomb attacks in which the Russian jets have been using rockets and shells packed with nails and pellets that do only surface damage to concrete buildings but rip through anything or anybody else standing in the way.

Azizov said Chechen fighters had been firing at Russian positions from a Zenit rocket system near the apartment building. This probably drew return fire from Russian artillery that pounded the area all Saturday night and apparently sparked Sunday's deadly attack.

By the time the Russian plane attacked, the Chechens and their rocket launcher were long gone. The two dead civilians never heard the plane coming.

"Go away, go home. There's nothing here, you should not stay here," Azizov said. "Everything is lost. This place is as good as dead."

And then he picked up his buckets and went for water.