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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sick of Being Scared, 8,000 Take Up Studies

MTStudents go to classes in the least damaged sections of the economics department.
GROZNY -- Buses with the sign "Student" in their windshields rumble through Grozny during the early morning hours, bringing thousands of students from the suburbs and even distant villages to Grozny University.

The campus was all but destroyed in the ongoing Chechen military campaign, but professors use the limited educational materials at their disposal to teach 8,000 eager students.

Students attend classes in bombed-out buildings equipped with the bare essentials -- tables, benches, a blackboard and a piece of chalk. Chunks of loose plaster in the ceilings could fall on their heads at any moment. Students come even though they could be detained at checkpoints en route or during unannounced visits by soldiers to campus. Textbooks are scarce, and the schools have no electricity or water. There is also no campus security.

But students said they are sick and tired of living in fear and want to learn.

"I'm used to mopping-up operations and to living in such conditions," said Rashid Baitayev, 23, a cybernetics physics student who takes the bus to Grozny University every day from the village of Alkhan-Chu, near the Khankala military base.

"We are lucky in our village -- we are close to Khankala, and the troops know us all and know that I am a student," he said.

The university started classes at the start of September. Some 3,000 of its 8,000 students study through correspondence courses, and attendance has grown from when the university reopened last year. Grozny University closed its doors for two years due to the current military campaign.

In all, 16,500 students attend the three institutions of higher education in Grozny -- the university, the Oil Institute and the Pedagogical Institute.

At the university, 11 departments currently offer degrees in 34 fields.

Three buildings are still in ruins from the 1994-96 war. Several mildly damaged buildings were handed over to the university last year, but a lack of usable space means classes still must meet in shelled-out facilities. The economics department, for example, is housed in a half-destroyed building. In the unused section, blackboards cling to ruined walls and grass and bushes are sprouting from the floors.

Teachers are waiting for a much-needed shipment of textbooks and school equipment, which is expected to arrive from the United States later this year.

"I think that both the students and the professors are heroes," said Larisa Akhmatova, an economics tutor at Grozny University. "During this horrible time they are managing to push ahead with education."

The university's deputy rector, Vakha Gishlakayev, thought for a moment when asked whether it was possible for the average student to study under such conditions. He answered with a question: "How could an average person live in Grozny? Every morning I wake up and wonder whether I am still sane. But we live here. And as long as we live here, we must work. We have our work here, we love it, and we have nowhere else to go."

Gishlakayev said the first war hardened lecturers and students.

"In 1995, we thought that nothing worse than what happened to the university could happen," he said. "It was like a tank drove through out souls, leaving scars in our hearts."

Although the university received no state funding after the first war -- tuition fees covered all expenses -- very few professors and lecturers left. Gishlakayev said the teachers stayed because they loved their work. "The pure enthusiasm of professors and lecturers is responsible for almost everything that has been done," he said.

Some staff, however, had to take part-time jobs outside the university to earn enough to get by. Some still do. A professor's monthly salary is about $100.

When the second war broke out in September 1999, classes continued to meet until the end of October. Heavy shelling finally forced the teachers to flee the city. They returned in March 2000 to find the university 80 percent destroyed. Obscenities had been painted on many walls. The teachers rolled up their sleeves and got to work, fixing up buildings and preparing for classes.

The university is supposed to benefit from 9 million rubles' ($285,000) worth of renovations this year under a federal program to rebuild Chechnya. Gishlakayev called the amount woefully inadequate.

Repairs are only part of the problem. Gishlakayev said that even with help from other universities, such as Moscow State University, Grozny University has only about 40 percent of the needed learning materials. The library lost 90 percent of its collection.

The university's 80 computers are stacked up in a warehouse until electricity is reconnected to the campus, which could take another year. There is only one telephone, in the office of the university's rector, Adnan Khamzayev.

UNESCO plans to set up an Internet center on campus, but it remains unclear when, Gishlakayev said.

"I have a computer at home," the young student Baitayev said. "I am lucky. But studying materials is a huge problem. Of course, the quality of education is not good without books."

In a twist in a city where killings remain a daily occurrence, the university's 600 medical students have no cadaver to examine. They don't even have a laboratory.

"We wanted to buy a body from a local morgue to study," said medical student Laura Rostmayeva, 21. "We started to collect the money, but the plan did not work because the body must be kept somewhere and be taken care of. We learned [last year] mainly from educational posters."

This year matters are expected to improve. The large U.S. shipment includes equipment and chemicals for the physics and chemistry labs. The shipment has been delayed at customs because some of the chemicals appeared to be on a list of banned imports, Gishlakayev said.

He said he is trying to round up money to set up a laboratory for the medical students.

"We have already made all the calculations. It is not hard to get materials, but the problem is money," he said.

Ayub Buluyev, the dean of the medical department, which has five professors and 38 lecturers, said he was in talks with local hospitals trying to work out an arrangement for students to get hands-on experience.

Over at the accounting department, its head, Ruslan Gizikhanov, said one of his biggest needs was books. Without an adequate library, students have to buy their own books -- and many just don't have the money. "They have to prepare graduate theses, but how can they without new books and -- what is more significant -- functioning companies, which are scarce?" he said. "It is hard to produce a professional accountant under such conditions."

He said it was common for students to miss classes because of whole villages being closed for military mopping-up operations. Sometimes the university has to cancel classes because of unrest near the campus. "When I studied, we had to make up every class we missed," Gizikhanov said. "Now, they sometimes miss weeks of classes. Most students really want to learn, but how can they if their village is closed and they can't get out? We have to teach them individually in our spare time."

Gishlakayev said the campus has grown more secure this year. He said classes had not been disrupted except for the occasional closure of the road leading to the university for special military operations. Last year, a group of students was detained during a mopping-up operation at the university, and their friends rallied for a protest near the Chechen government's headquarters.

"Things have quieted down in the past eight months. The tension is lower," Gishlakayev said. "Before, there were lots of disturbances -- shouting, masks, uniforms, students lined up at gunpoint."

He said the biggest problem now is the security of students riding to classes and returning home. The private buses with "Student" in their windshields recently started picking up students from their homes, but they don't get special treatment at checkpoints. The university has sent several appeals to the Chechen government and the military, asking that the buses be let through without being stopped.

"It is getting better now," student Rostmayeva said. "But who knows? Last year we were stopped at every checkpoint. There were many shootouts.

"Even now, we are late almost every day. Sometimes I'm so mentally exhausted after arriving that I can't study."

She said she has applied to study at Yaroslavl University, located in the city of the same name just a few hundred kilometers north of Moscow.

"I just can't study here any more," she said. "But if things improve here, I will come back to work. My Chechnya needs me."