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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechen Family Confronts the Echoes of War

MTKerim perusing news sites for updates on his homeland. "It is more than a birth country," he says. "It is like my love."
AMSTERDAM -- Every night, as the bombs and bullets transformed Grozny into a burned-out shell of its former self, the four of them slept in the same bed -- Nina; her husband, Kuri; and, between them, their kids, Kerim and Heda. If a bomb strikes, they figured, we'll die together.

Nine years have passed since those nights in the eighth-floor apartment that used to be a home, and since the first Chechen war, when they saw human beings devoured by dogs, snow turned black by smoke and fumes, and family members murdered before their eyes.

Now the family, which asked that its last name and adopted hometown remain out of print for fear of reprisal, lives in the Netherlands. With its tulips, canals and quiet congeniality, there is perhaps no place on earth more different from the war-ravaged Caucasus.

Nina, now 45; Kuri, 56; Kerim, 26; and Heda, 23, are part of a growing diaspora of Chechens who began fleeing their homes when the first war broke out in the mid-1990s. Today, there are most than 100,000 Chechens outside Chechnya, said Maureen Lynch, director of research at Refugees International, based in Washington. The largest communities are in Poland, Australia, France, Belgium, Germany, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands.

On a warm evening in early May, the family is at home in their three-story townhouse. The house is spacious, with four bedrooms and a remodeled kitchen; no one has to share a bed. Birds flutter in and out of the backyard.

Heda has prepared a simple meal: soup, mashed potatoes, some vegetables on the side. As the family eats, Nina speaks. Her voice is low, and she heaves after every word; breathing is hard. The doctors say she has a Vitamin-D deficiency, but the illness that has taken over her body remains undiagnosed. For months, she was unable to walk. Now, she can sit and speak, but she's frail. Occasionally, Kuri makes a few remarks.

Before the first Chechen war, Kuri and Nina kept two apartments in Grozny and had a house in a nearby village. He was a chauffeur with his own business; she was a pharmacist. Kerim remembers the eighth-floor apartment they lived in like it was a dream, recalling a brilliant sun that filled up his bedroom every morning. Out of the rubble of the old, Soviet order, they had cobbled together a happy, if fragile, life as members of Grozny's burgeoning bourgeoisie.

War Breaks Out

On New Year's Eve in 1994, Russian tanks entered Grozny. "Look mom, tanks are coming," Nina remembers the children shouting. In the coming days, it became so dark from the plumes of smoke and debris that it was impossible to know whether it was night or day.

"We hid in the basement," Nina said. "But after a while, we couldn't handle hiding in the basement anymore. We decided to live in the apartment." That year, 1995, they spent many of their days burying people who had died the night before.

"We never cried," Kuri said.

Once, the family was taken hostage by Russian soldiers. The soldiers camped out in their apartment, ate their food and drank their water. To shield their neighbors' valuables from being looted, they stored as much as they could in the elevator. After two days, the Russians left.

Another time, soldiers were shooting at cars parked near the apartment building. Kuri asked the soldiers what were doing, and they turned and took a shot at him. They missed.

Nina came to her husband's side. "What are you doing?" she yelled at the soldiers. One soldier approached her, and aimed his gun at her head and pulled the trigger. There were no bullets left. Out of the corner of her eye, Nina could see Kerim crouching, watching.

But they didn't want to leave. They couldn't imagine leaving.

And then, Nina's older sister and her husband and their two sons were murdered. It was 1996. The family suspected Chechen rebels, hoping to sow further conflict between Russians and Chechen locals, and to foment an uprising, were responsible.

Nina still can't talk about it. "You can ask Kerim to tell you," she said, tearing up.

It was the first time Kerim and Heda saw their mother cry. Shortly after the slayings, a group of Chechen rebels turned up at the family's home with plans to kill them, Kerim said. But they had guests over, and the Chechens quickly left. But now, everything seemed to have changed irreparably: There were fewer people who were still alive tying them to Chechnya, and the danger, the omnipresent uncertainty of things, was crowding them out of their homes and lives. They were scared, and they were tired of being scared.

Even though the first war ended in late August 1996, violence and instability reigned throughout the rest of the year and into 1997. By the fall of that year, the family was nearing its breaking point. "The more time passed, the clearer it became that we had to leave," Kerim said.

The four of them sold everything they owned, boarded a bus, and gave the driver enough cash to pay off the border guards. Four days later, they were in the Netherlands.

Safety

Once they arrived in the Netherlands, they went to the Hague and were granted refugee status. Soon after, the family began working at a hotel, Kerim as an assistant cook, Kuri as the handyman, and Nina helping behind the front desk. Together, they also took Dutch lessons, as required by law to gain citizenship.

They tried their best to leave the war behind, but the war would not leave them. Kerim, Heda and Kuri developed a rare stomach bacteria, which took six months to cure. Kerim's face become covered by red and blue splotches of dead skin; routine injections helped mitigate the situation, but he still has a few faint, pink scars on his cheeks. They are certain all their ailments stemmed from the biological warfare that engulfed Grozny during the first war.

Now they worry about Nina, who cannot seem to regain her strength.

The new home they have moved into has a spacious garage, which the family wants to convert into a master bedroom so Nina does not have to walk up and down the winding staircase.

Kerim spent his spring break slaving away at a tulip farm so he could take his mother to a spa in the Czech Republic.

The whole family had harbored hopes of returning home, but with the opening of the second war in 1999, that looks doubtful, for now.

Still, Chechnya pulls at the four of them. They all agree that, one day, they want to go back -- when the soldiers, tanks and midnight bombing raids have gone away forever.

"It is more than a birth country, it is like my love," Kerim said.

"When you love something, you desire nothing more than to return to it. The more I think I can't, the more I want to return."