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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Orphanage in Grozny Knows War Too Well

GROZNY -- The Chechen soldiers' return to the courtyard at Kahdizhat Gatayeva's orphanage meant fun for the children. They could run around inspecting the different uniforms, gape at the grenade launchers and rifles, accept gifts of candy. It pleased them to do errands for the heavily armed men who chatted amiably under the trees.

For Gatayeva herself, however, the return was yet another sign that catastrophe was around the corner. The last time they gathered there regularly was during the Chechen war for independence from Moscow in the mid 1990s. The toll of the conflict is still visible all over Grozny, the Chechen capital: dozens of destroyed buildings casting jagged shadows on shell-pocked concrete; shattered and empty industrial plants; graveyard after graveyard studded with decorative metal stakes to signify war dead; and, in Gatayeva's care, 27 orphans whose parents were killed in the conflict.

And now, Gatayeva knows, war is back in Grozny and throughout Chechnya. Russian troops are in control of a line north of the Terek River. Bombs fall nightly from high-flying warplanes on Grozny and its suburbs. There is no electricity in the capital, no running water. Moscow has cut off natural gas supplies; frightened and displaced civilians are streaming from the capital and other towns and villages.

Gatayeva was a nurse with Chechen rebel forces when they drove Russian troops from the territory in 1996 and asserted local sovereignty - a status not recognized by the Kremlin. But she has extensive maternal responsibilities now and knows she must flee. The problem is how to get 27 children, and her own 2-month-old infant, out of harm's way.

"For me, I would stay, but I've got the children to take care of. I remember the last time; so do they. I can't let them go through that again,'' she said in a basement shelter at the orphanage. It is easier to put the children to bed below ground than to herd them down several flights of stairs every time Russian jets fly over.

Gatayeva's children call her Mama, even those who are 16 and think they should join in Chechnya's defense. Single-handedly, she says, she has rescued 87 children from the streets of Grozny, during the previous war and afterward, running her home on a shoestring all the while. All but the remaining 27 have been placed with relatives.

To run the private orphanage, she relies on local donations. Prominent among the givers is Shamil Basayev, a redoubtable guerrilla commander during the previous war whom many Chechens accuse of provoking Moscow into the current one.

"Shamil's office is right next door,'' Gatayeva said. "And he sometimes brings children from the street here for help. His people are good with them. It's complicated in Chechnya.''

Gatayeva started noticing the street youngsters at the end of the 1994-96 war and soon she was collecting them. In their short lives, they have survived the loss of parents; the shock of bombs and artillery shells bursting around them; street-to-street gun battles; rape at the hands of Russian soldiers; beatings by merchants from whom they stole to live; and addiction to glue sniffing, a substitute for food among street children.

Ahmed, for example, a skinny towhead in a baseball cap, lost his father and mother in a Russian air raid. He wandered Grozny's streets, lived in basements and stole from markets for three months before Gatayeva invited him to her apartment for food and warmth. He stayed.

Hussein, a shy 15-year-old, ran messages for the rebels until the end of the war. Then they turned him over to Mama.

"I would search basements and bazaars,'' said Gatayeva, 33, adjusting her colorful head scarf. "It wasn't hard to convince the children to come. The only condition was to give up glue.''