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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Day in The Life of a Reviving Grozny

MTKhizir Abayev showing off rows of stalls in one of seven pavilions at the new Sabita market.
GROZNY -- Many Grozny residents scrape together a living by day, selling bricks, produce and anything else of value that they can get their hands on. At night, they hole up in bombed-out buildings to escape the terror of the streets, where anyone with a gun is king.

But the mere fact that a burgeoning trade is taking place in the streets is a sign that life is stabilizing, residents said. The Chechen capital is slowly but surely rising from the ashes, with workers busily reconstructing buildings and putting final touches on a giant new market. Unemployment remains sky-high, but the number of people killed and injured in mine blasts, robberies and shootings is on the decline.

"Things are better now than even a year ago," said Makka Murtazaliyeva, the director of a dormitory in Grozny's Staropromyslovsky district. "Work has started to improve living conditions. But the work is going so slowly that it seems it might take decades to return life to normal."

Murtazaliyeva is one of the lucky few in Grozny who has a job, but her work gives her little pride. She hasn't received a paycheck since 1997. She cannot join the unemployment line for benefits because officially she has a job. She makes ends meet by borrowing money from an uncle and selling goods at a local outdoor market.

Officially, 80,000 people in Chechnya are without work. But many of the rest of the region's 500,000 to 900,000 people -- government reports are contradictory -- are eking out a living.

Grozny residents who have found work are mostly employed by the local police, the Chechen administration or the oil or construction sector. The rest try to sell whatever they can find -- and for many that means bricks. They spend their days trying to pry old bricks from the walls of destroyed buildings, which are already choked with tall grass and young saplings. The easiest bricks to collect, the loose ones in piles of rubble, have long ago been picked up and sold. The price has shot up to 700 rubles ($22) per 1,000 bricks from 400 rubles in the spring of 2001.

Collecting bricks, like any other work in Grozny, finishes promptly at 6 p.m. At the same hour, small shops and offices close their doors, and vendors who sell anything from fruit to illegally extracted oil, or kondensat, disappear indoors. For the next 12 hours the only life on the empty streets is thousands of barking stray dogs.

Night is when crime reigns. Federal troops retreat from their posts, and control of the city shifts to whoever holds a weapon. Federal snipers take up positions on rooftops, but in their limited numbers they can hardly make a difference.

The city center takes on the aura of a ghost town. Electric lights shine from only a handful of windows, and in the suburbs, where there is no electricity, people bring out their candles. The wealthiest residents switch on small diesel engines to provide power to their lamps and television sets.

When morning rolls around, local cafes and markets are abuzz with talk of the previous night -- about the relative or friend who was robbed, wounded or killed. The assailants inevitably are masked, in uniform and deadly silent.

"Who comes at night in masks and uniforms? Who knows," said Shirvani Gadayev, the chief surgeon at Hospital No. 9 in Grozny. "Bandits, federal troops, criminals or drug users -- they all look the same, and no one introduces themselves. No one is protected at night, especially in the suburbs."

Yevgenia Borisova / MT

Torn cardboard boxes and other trash lying between stalls in Grozny's central market.

He said that the number of wounded being brought in for treatment has steadily declined.

"Last year we had lots of people blowing themselves up on mines, mostly when they tried to collect scrap metal in the ruins," he said. "Now sappers have taken away many mines, and people have learned to be cautious. But still we help one or several people every day who are hit by a shell fragment, a stray bullet or a direct shot.

"Just last night a woman was brought from Beryozka with a bullet in her knee," he said, referring to a suburb of Grozny. "We will have to amputate her leg. She said soldiers came for a regular check of her house and wounded her."

Gadayev said residents are also easy prey for local thugs.

Residents said life is much easier during the day. Even document checks at the checkpoints around the military-controlled city have become tolerable. "Soldiers now behave like normal people," said one resident. "In 1999, they behaved like they had just been released from prison, like criminals."

However, weapons continue to be fired for no apparent reason during daylight hours. A visitor saw a soldier recently shoot several rounds into the air from atop an armored car while riding down a central street. His comrades were laughing.

"We are lucky that he wasn't drunk," one passer-by said. "Then he would be shooting everywhere, and if someone was killed no one would investigate."

"Our motto to stay alive here is this: Don't show up at the wrong place at the wrong time because if a land mine goes off or someone shoots, the troops will start haphazardly shooting in every direction," a gypsy cab driver said.

Also in daytime, restoration work is steaming ahead. Workers have rebuilt a few hundred homes, several apartment blocks and a handful of hospitals and schools this year. The biggest buildings all seem to be painted pink and beige.

The poshest building is the pink headquarters of Grozneftegaz, the regional oil company and Chechnya's biggest firm. It hosts City Hall's offices in the back, and workers are building a neat park on the side facing Prospekt Revolyutsii.

Residents with money have started buying downtown apartments for $3,000 to $4,000 in hope that buildings in the center will be renovated soon.

Many destroyed apartment blocks still house families who have nowhere else to go. Their apartments are easily spotted, with recently whitewashed windows and balconies. Running water is scarce, and residents rely on water pumps in their courtyards. One inventive family placed a pulley in its fifth-floor window and cranked up buckets of water.

Yevgenia Borisova / MT

A Chechen woman heading home to a dilapidated apartment building in Grozny.

The busiest area of Grozny remains the central market, where land mines are still found regularly and soldiers target traders in document checks. The walls of the sloppily constructed stalls are covered with bits of plastic and cardboard. Piles of garbage are strewn about the ground. But anything -- cameras, meat, medicine and designer clothes -- can be found for a price. Men with fat wads of cash were exchanging dollars and rubles. On a recent weekend, the going rate was 31.9 rubles to the U.S. dollar, 40 kopeks higher than in Moscow.

Grozny plans to level the market to make way for a new market called Sabita. Former Grozny Mayor Bislan Gantamirov is a co-owner of Sabita, and he borrowed money from a Russian bank to build it, Chechen officials said.

Gantamirov was unavailable for comment.

Sabita will boast six huge open-air pavilions with 372 stalls in each on 25,000 square meters. Under each pavilion will be a giant warehouse. A 1,600-square-meter parking lot has been built nearby, and a hotel for traders is in the works.

Stalls will cost $500 each and 500 rubles a month in rent. Khizir Abayev, the head of construction at the new market, said stalls costing 5 rubles a day will be assembled outside the market for poorer traders. Widows and the disabled will be given stalls for free, he said.

Stalls at the central market cost 5 rubles a day.

The success of the new market may depend largely on whether the central market is shut down. Grozny's chief doctor, Taisia Mirzoyeva, said the old market had to be closed because of its unsanitary conditions.

Another key to its success will be the implementation of a plan to move the central bus station closer. The station, in a huge field near the central market where apartment blocks once stood, is the second busiest place in Grozny, bringing thousands of people to the capital each day on large and small buses.

On the streets, the number of cars has rapidly grown, and many of them are brand-new. Grozneftegaz head Baudin Khamidov promised recently on local television that his company would build two gas stations this year. The city currently only has one gas station, and most drivers buy kondensat on the street.

A number of small enterprises -- cafes, hairdressing salons, photocopying shops and even Kodak stores -- are mushrooming in the ground floors of destroyed buildings. Many of them bear the names of Chechen women, like Madina or Luisa, but one cafe in the Grozny outskirts is called Chechensky Sled, or The Chechens Did It, a wry nod to Moscow's tendency to blame Chechens for terrorist attacks.

Residents like Murtazaliyeva, the dormitory director, are relieved that things seem to be settling down.

"My only wish is that a new war doesn't break out," she said. "We are so tired of fighting."