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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Parents Put Hope In Young Chechens

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What parent does not experience a surge of compassion when confronted with images of children in war zones, abandoned, filthy and, above all, terrified?

For most, that is where it ends. But for one Moscow couple, seeing the plight of children from Chechnya, that was not enough.

Until several months ago, Alexander Nadyarnikh and his wife, Anya, both 28, had not given much thought to the Chechen families who have been driven from their homes by the fighting. Then Alexander, who works for a pharmaceutical company, was sent on a business trip in February to arrange supplies to the Russian Red Cross in Ingushetia, and he saw the camps there that house thousands of Chechen refugees.

"To be honest, I thought it was all very far away. I thought bringing up my own family was enough in life," Anya said. "When Alexander came back he was silent, completely lost for the first week."

Eventually he told his wife what he had seen, and she was equally moved.

"I can't put my finger on exactly when it happened, but I have never reacted so strongly to something before," Anya said as she balanced her baby daughter on her hip in the couple's small apartment. "I was shocked to the depths of my soul. I knew materially the children were badly off, but I did not realize they were so poor in other ways — there is nothing there to encourage child development.

"This opened up a new world for me. I realized that if I had lived in Grozny, it could be my children in those camps."

Alexander said he felt "ashamed" of Russia when he was in the camps, where "the inhumane conditions were shocking." The refugees survive on meager food rations. There is no hot water and only basic medicines. Disease is common.

Click here to read our special report on the Conflict in Chechnya.

The lives of the children upset him more than anything. Most have no toys, no books and no shoes. There is one playroom set up by the Red Cross, but it has a two-week waiting list. About 5,000 children live in the camps and only 150 can use the room each day.

The couple decided they had to do something. With help from friends, they organized a 10-day vacation in May for 30 refugee children in Moscow and St. Petersburg, complete with trips to the zoo and circus. The children, age 8 to 12, also played therapeutic games and had group sessions with a child psychologist to boost their confidence.

School No. 548 in southern Moscow gave the children free use of its sanatorium in Vidnoye, a village south of the city, and paid for their meals. Three women, who help run the camps, including a nurse, accompanied the children and looked after them overnight.

The Nadyarnikhs hope to bring more children to Moscow and raise money to treat critically ill children in Moscow hospitals.

They were worried that it would be hard for the children to go back to the camps after being in Moscow, but Alexander said this was not a problem.

"At night, quite a few said they wanted to go home and be with their mothers. That stopped us worrying," he said.

"The children behaved like guests here and, though it sounds shocking to us, they saw the camps as their proper homes."

For one night, the children stayed with the families of Moscow schoolchildren. Dmitry Kuprin, 32, who runs a business supplying food wholesale to the Russian army, said: "They saw that the Moscow children were the same as them, and that the adults did not want to fight wars against them."

The visits also made an impression on their hosts. "Seeing the faces of the Russian parents after they had the Chechens to stay, it was obvious they had been surprised, too. They said they were struck by what lovely children they were," said Kuprin, who has a 10-year-old son.

The 30 Chechen children who came to Moscow were among some of the most needy. Eight wore slippers because they had no real shoes. All were at least two years behind with their schooling. Most had no fathers. All of them have been scarred by the war.

When troops stormed Grozny on New Year's Eve 1994, Madina Beksultanova and her father, Khampasha, were caught outside during an air assault. They dropped to the ground, the father lying on top of the little girl to protect her. He died when his head was torn open in the bombing, but Madina survived.

Now 7, Madina still sleeps with her mother and wakes up screaming from nightmares. When you meet her, though, Madina is full of smiles. But she doesn't really speak, just clings to your hand and plays with her hair-band. At breakfast, she can't get the food down fast enough.

Aslambek Aidamirov, a freckle-faced 10-year-old, lost his parents in the first war too. Like Madina, when the second war began in September 1999, he was immediately taken out of Chechnya to the camps. Aslambek, who has since been adopted by another Chechen family, speaks some English after staying with a family in South Africa last summer, a trip sponsored by a small American charity.

"When I am big, you, I, we get marry," is one of his favorite lines. "How many boyfriend you have?" is another. But it's the novelty of a new language he likes best. "I too much like English," he sighs.

The children are unusually generous, offering adults their own candy and ice cream. Mikhail Burkov, a psychologist who worked with the children during their stay in Moscow, said they were over-generous because they were so deprived themselves. When he asked them to draw pictures describing the words "insult" and "blame" they drew Russian flags and police cars.

Elmira Kadirzyanova, 30, a music teacher and mother, immediately signed up to help when approached by the Nadyarnikhs, her friends.

"My son is four. I don't want him to fight in Chechnya when he grows up," Kadirzyanova said while sitting in the back of a bus full of children licking ice cream off their faces and bursting balloons.

"I have a son and daughter growing up. If the war does not end it will affect their lives too. If I can do something to stop it I will."

Kuprin said he also was thinking about his son. "In eight years he'll be eligible for army service. I do not want to pay bribes so he does not go to Chechnya," he said. "What I am trying to do now is to do something to influence his future.

"We can't influence Putin, but we can do this," Kuprin said as he led the children two by two into the Moscow circus. "You can't just live for yourself and your own family. We are influencing how Russians think, and the Chechens will pass on what they have learned here to others at home. This is people's diplomacy."

Anyone wishing to contribute money or toys, picture books, clothes and shoes to the refugee children can contact Alice Lagnado: home, 203-9987; mobile, 8-902-691-7138; e-mail, alice@co.ru