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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

War-Ravaged Samashki Survives, but Just Barely

SAMASHKI, Southern Russia -- In the annals of Russia's brutal war against Chechen separatists, this is ground zero.

The green metal fences are lacerated with bullets and shrapnel. Many rooftops are nothing more than skeletons. In the main market, women peddling vegetables keep Russian shell casings perched on the street in front of their stalls. Children climb recklessly on the glass-splattered, bombed-out building once known in the Soviet era as the House of Culture but now just a testament to the ruins of war.

While other villages and towns have also been badly hit during the 20-month-old Chechen conflict, few have surpassed the suffering of Samashki, a town of 12,000 people about 48 kilometers west of Grozny, the capital. It was here in April 1995 that drunken Russian soldiers went on a rampage, throwing grenades into cellars filled with women and children, killing more than 100 civilians.

The killing unleashed many protests, with some Russians comparing it to the American massacre of Vietnamese civilians in My Lai. But it was not the end of Samashki's troubles.

This year, in March, the town was hit again. According to residents, they had been given an ultimatum by the Russian troops to cough up money and guns. But after they turned over three carloads of weapons, the Russians turned around and, giving residents only a short notice to flee, attacked the town again, in some cases leveling homes only recently rebuilt following the first assault. It was part of a larger, fierce offensive against the Chechen separatist rebels just before President Boris Yeltsin's peace initiative March 31.

"We don't plan to rebuild until the Russian army leaves,'' said Arbiyya Shansayev, 35, a former agronomist on a collective farm, who lost a brother in the first massacre. "Right now we're just living a life of subsistence.''

Even taking into account the relatively primitive state of Russian rural communities, Samashki is barely surviving. Once there was electricity, water and natural gas here. Now there is little of anything. Mounds of rubble, broken glass and bricks line the streets. A donkey-drawn cart brings water by the pail. A hammer echoes in the distance as one family struggles to make a house habitable again. "You have to build some huts at least,'' Shansayev said. As many as 15 people live in each of the houses still standing.

But many of those who escaped the massacre have not escaped the destitution, despair and difficulties that befall civilians caught in the throes of war.

Asat Salgireva, 52, survived both attacks but lives amid the ashes of two homes -- both on the same site, both destroyed by Russian artillery shells.

Now she lives in a tent along with six grandchildren, a son, two daughters and three elderly family members. Pots and pans lie on the dirt floor, and a jury-rigged pipe occasionally emits enough natural gas to cook a hot meal. Family members sell tomatoes and canned goods at the bazaar, hoping to earn the equivalent of 50 cents a day to survive.

"I don't know how we'll manage in the winter,'' she said. "We'll have to ask people to take us in.'' Behind the tent is a small truck garden but, she said, they are afraid to eat the vegetables, fearing they have been somehow contaminated by the bombs.

The front of the tent is a wasteland of ash and remnants of the last house. A stovepipe is all that protrudes into the air. A bathtub sits by a radiator. But the house -- a prefabricated one brought to the town after the first attack -- was demolished in the second.