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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Grozny I Know -- As It Was, and As It Is

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Two months ago I got a new internal passport, issued in Moscow. The old one had been issued in Grozny, a city that barely exists any longer. The rubble they show on television from time to time bears no resemblance to the city where, in the words of Polish Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz, "we breathed freely and joyfully."

At times I look at the television screen and think: "That can't be the city where I spent 18 years of my life, from 1976 to 1994." I simply don't recognize the ruins.

All of the cherry and apricot trees are gone, but our nine-story building still stands. My father built it in 1977 to withstand a magnitude-nine earthquake. On Jan. 2, 1995, when federal troops first entered Grozny, footage of our apartment burning was broadcast around the world. Our 3,000-book library went up in smoke along with the furniture and all our household belongings. The documents attesting to our ownership of the apartment were also lost, so my parents have never received compensation from the government for their loss.

Just to the east stood the building where my mother grew up. Beyond Minutka Square, site of the fiercest fighting during both Chechen wars, was my father's childhood home -- a three-room adobe house and a 200-square-meter paved courtyard with the requisite chickens and cherry trees. My grandfather, who survived both Hitler's and Stalin's prison camps, proudly called it his "estate." The estate was leveled by an armored personnel carrier in 1995. My parents had to give up their sturdy stone house two years later to pay ransom when my cousin was kidnapped.

But I remember a time when the gates in our neighborhood were closed only at night, secured with nothing more than a symbolic latch. Children in 1980s Grozny came home around midnight after wandering the city with their friends. The city in those days was a city of oilmen -- green and diverse. I loved Baronovka, the Armenian quarter, and Moskovskaya, the Jewish quarter. My favorite spot was the Stolichny cafe (what Kiev cakes they baked there!) and the area around the French houses that had belonged to the Rothschilds in the 19th century.

The city, built mostly by Russians, was multinational, though not the sort of melting pot of peoples and religions found in neighboring Dagestan. Everyone lived peacefully in Grozny, but they lived separately. There were conflicts, of course. Many Chechens weren't pleased that their native language wasn't taught in city schools. The Russian authorities of Grozny also conducted "raids" in the schools every year on the last day of Ramadan to find out what children had skipped class to celebrate.

But on the whole, the capital of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic I grew up in was an idyllic spot where the local population was going through a normal process of integration into Russia, adopting new values and views.

The city started to turn wild only later, when many Chechens got carried away with the myth of independence and the conviction that they must restore the Golden Age of their freedom-loving ancestors. They started to restore it, starting with handwritten notices posted on electric poles warning that any woman who appeared on the street without a head scarf and tights would be thrown into the Sunzha River. Girls who already wore slacks to the university just shrugged their shoulders and scoffed. But soon such threats would take on a horrible reality.

Nov. 11, 1994, was the official beginning of the first Chechen war -- the day the authorities in Moscow finally admitted that they had moved troops into Chechnya.

For me, as for the nearly 500,000 residents of Grozny, the war had begun much earlier. The serenity of our city was destroyed by the pro-communist putsch in August 1991 that made the Soviet Union's first Chechen general, Dzhokhar Dudayev, a household name. He was one of the first regional political leaders to throw his support behind Boris Yeltsin and against the hardliners.

Few will admit it now, but when Dudayev, who would soon become president of independent Ichkeria (the republic's Chechen name), first appeared on television, most in Grozny were bewildered. He looked like Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and spoke none too coherently, promising to turn independent Chechnya into another Kuwait.

In September 1991 the people of Grozny watched a crowd of Dudayev supporters storm the government headquarters of Doku Zavgayev, the Communist Party boss who had sided with the putschists, throwing a local official from a third-floor window and ripping curtains from Zavgayev's office into bandannas. Russians got their first glimpse of dhikr, a ritual Muslim prayer, on television in those days.

The collapse of Grozny's infrastructure also began back then. The supply of electricity, gas and water became more and more irregular. By the end of 1993, trash was no longer collected. Rats the size of small dogs appeared in stairwells. For two years after the elevator in our building broke down I carried water from the basement to our apartment on the eighth floor.

The nights were filled with machine-gun fire, not the crack of single shots. Life in Grozny was becoming more terrifying with every passing day.

This was when the robberies started, the kidnapping, the murder of non-Chechens. The first anniversary of independence was celebrated with a military parade complete with uniforms straight out of Nazi Germany. The streets were filled with armed young men in camouflage who pushed people around in the packed city buses.

My father's friend was shot and killed in the courtyard of his building as he tried to find out why armed strangers were taking his Zhiguli.

In November 1991 university rector Viktor Kan-Kalik was abducted. A professor who tried to defend him was killed on the spot. Kan-Kalik's body was found a year later.

The wheels were in motion. Soon Russia removed its troops from the city and locals looted the stores of weapons they left behind.

By the time the first Chechen campaign started in late 1994, Dudayev had long forgotten about his promise to turn Chechnya into a petro-rich paradise with champagne flowing from the taps. The airwaves were filled with praises to Chechen independence, but for local government employees salaries and pensions were nothing more than pleasant memories from a bygone era.

I catch myself not wanting to remember much of what happened. How one friend, a phys-ed teacher, was shot, how another, a teacher of English, was beheaded. How city monuments were pulled down, broken into pieces and thrown into the Sunzha. How cemeteries were looted and the cold university auditoriums bullet-ridden.

In the early 1990s Azerbaijan and Armenia were at war, and Baku lost its Armenian population. Nelli Gaikovna, a university lecturer who fled Baku with one bag and the clothes on her back, told me that since her exodus she didn't feel at home anywhere. "We bakintsy (Baku residents) love our dear old Baku," she said.

My new passport, in the blank for where it was issued, reads Moscow, not Grozny. This means I won't be searched at Russian airports just because the police equate Grozny with independent Ichkeria. And I will no longer have to explain that, for me, Grozny is the capital of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, and the city of my childhood.

And we groznentsy love our dear old Grozny.

Zaira Abdullaeva is a freelance journalist based in Moscow.