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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New Limbs for Chechen Children

APHasan Ismailov is one of about 4,000 children to have been hit by land mines in Chechnya.
VLADIKAVKAZ, North Ossetia -- Hasan Ismailov used to be a champion youth boxer, dancing nimbly around the ring as he landed punches on opponents. But boxing is a thing of the past for the Chechen teenager -- along with the leg he lost in a land mine explosion.

Ismailov, now 16, was with other children playing on the outskirts of Urus-Martan, a town in southwestern Chechnya, in December 2000 when Russian troops destroyed a car packed with explosives. After the soldiers gave the all-clear signal, a crowd moved in to look at the damage. A mine went off, killing 25 people and wounding more than 50.

"When I came to, I found myself in a hospital bed, without my left leg," Ismailov said.

His right leg, hands and face are marked with scars from cuts and burns, and he has a permanent squint doctors attribute to the explosion. Other wounds are hidden -- psychological scars that make him, like many young mine victims, leery of talking with strangers.

Approximately 4,000 Chechen children have been maimed or killed by mines since the first war erupted in the republic in 1994, the United Nations Children's Fund says. In all, 7,000 to 10,000 people in Chechnya have fallen victim to land mines during the two wars.

UNICEF estimates about a half million mines are scattered across the republic, which is about the size of Kuwait.

"Demining is something we cannot even talk about, because the conflict is still going on," said Enrico Leonard, an emergency program coordinator at UNICEF's office in Moscow.

Federal troops seeded mine fields in Chechnya early in the war, and rebels continue laying them daily. While federal soldiers are often targeted -- military vehicles are blown up by mines almost daily -- civilians appear to be the most frequent victims. Many trip mines as they forage for wood or take their animals to pasture.

UNICEF spent more than $1 million last year in Chechnya and surrounding regions teaching mine awareness to children and teachers and helping young victims recover. So far this year, donors have come up with about 30 percent of the $1.2 million that UNICEF has requested to continue the program.

Every Friday, a UNICEF van delivers Chechen children to the Orthopedic Prosthesis Workshop in Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, which borders Chechnya. Here they are fitted with prosthetic devices, and therapists help them learn to move around unaided again -- as well as overcome their fears.

"Besides physical injuries these kids have suffered psychological trauma," said Lyubov Sedakova, an orthopedist. "It was difficult for us in the first days, but now we can easily find a personal approach to any one of them."

Making his second visit to the clinic, Ismailov, the former boxer, gingerly took a few steps on his new leg so clinic workers could make adjustments on the device, a jointed tube of rubber and aluminum covered with polyurethane foam and attached to a plastic bowl to hold the stump of his thigh. It takes up to five visits to perfect the fit.

The workshop provided prostheses to 60 children in 2001. This year, it has stepped up the tempo, taking in 15 new patients every week, Leonard said.

A local Chechen humanitarian group, Voice of the Mountains, identifies children who need artificial limbs and organizes the weekly trips from Chechnya. The van has to go through numerous military checkpoints on the way to Vladikavkaz, and the children often see military engineers searching for unexploded mines on the roads.

Eight-year-old Adam Bersanov entered the workshop's fitting room on crutches, with a crude wooden leg that a craftsman had made in his hometown, Grozny. He lost his left leg in October.

"I was on the way home from school with my friends, walking by the edge of the road, and there was an explosion," he said. "When I woke up, I saw my mother crying near my bed."

His face lit up when he saw a doctor bring a set of sample limbs. American Committee for Peace in Chechnya