The Angel of Grozny

Orphans of a Forgotten War


By Asne Seierstad

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In the early hours of New Year’s 1994, Russian troops invaded the Republic of Chechnya, plunging the country into a prolonged and bloody conflict that continues to this day. A foreign correspondent in Moscow at the time, Ã?ne Seierstad traveled regularly to Chechnya to report on the war, describing its affects on those trying to live their daily lives amidst violence.

In the following decade, Seierstad became an internationally renowned reporter and author, traveling to the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other war-torn regions. But she never lost sight of this conflict that had initially inspired her career. Over the course of a decade, she watched as Russia ruthlessly suppressed an Islamic rebellion in two bloody wars and as Chechnya evolved into one of the flashpoints in a world now focused on the threat of international terrorism.

In 2006, Seierstad finally returned to Chechnya, traveling in secret and under the constant threat of danger. In a broken and devastated society she lived with orphans, the wounded, the lost. And she lived with the children of Grozny, those who will shape the country’s future. She asks the question: What happens to a child who grows up surrounded by war and accustomed to violence?

A compelling, intimate, and often heartbreaking portrait of Chechnya today, The Angel of Grozny is a vivid account of a land’s violent history and its ongoing battle for freedom.


Other Books by Åsne Seierstad
With Their Backs to the World: Portraits from Serbia Bookseller of Kabul A Hundred and One Days” A Baghdad Journal

The Little Wolf
The blood flows into the mud, where it carves thin red paths. The slope is dark with mould and decay, and soon the blood will be absorbed and will disappear. The skull is crushed, the limbs lifeless. Not so much as a whimper is heard.
Red drops have splashed his trousers, but he can rinse them off in the water that flows in the flat riverbed below. With the brick still in his hand he feels strong, invincible and calm. He stands looking at the lifeless eyes. Blood still trickles out and is sucked into the sediment. He kicks the corpse and walks down to the river. The scrawny mongrel will soon be food for new stray dogs, and later for flies and maggots and other crawling things.
Once, he drowned a cat in a sewage ditch, but it didn’t give him the same feeling as killing dogs. Now he mostly kills dogs. And pigeons. They perch by the dozen up in the tall apartment buildings. He sends them scattering in fright from the kitchen to the living room to the bedroom and lavatory, right through holes in damaged walls where the concrete dangles in huge chunks. The apartments are like half-crushed shells; rows of rooms are no more than piles of masonry and dust. Everything usable that wasn’t destroyed in the attacks is stolen, devoured. A few dilapidated things remain: a warped stool, a broken shelf.
The buildings were left standing as walls of defence on the flat landscape when the first rockets were aimed at the city. Here the city’s defenders barricaded themselves; here, they thought, they would stop the invasion. Throughout an unyielding, bone-chilling winter the battles raged from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, from street to street, from house to house. The resistance fighters had to keep withdrawing further out of the city, surrendering the rows of deserted apartment blocks like eerie shooting targets for the Russians’ rockets. In some of the buildings you can still read the rebels’ graffiti on the walls - Svoboda ili Smert - Freedom or Death!
On stairways without banisters, on ledges where one false step means you plummet to the bottom, in rooms where at any moment the ceiling can collapse on top of him or the floor give way under him - this is where Timur lives. From the top of the concrete skeletons he can peer out through holes in a wall at the people below. When he gets hungry he startles the pigeons, which flutter away in confusion. He chases them into a corner and chooses his victim. The fattest. Grasping it tightly between his legs, he breaks its neck with a practised grip. He twists off the head, quickly turns the bird upside down, and holds it like that until all the blood flows out. Then he plucks it, thrusts a stick through its body and roasts it over a fire he’s lighted on the top floor whose roof has been blasted off. Sometimes he roasts two.
In the rubbish dump on the hillside below he ferrets out half-rotten tomatoes, partially eaten fruit, a crust of bread. He searches in the top layers because the refuse quickly becomes covered with dust and muck and, when the rain comes, gets mixed with bits of glass, metal and old plastic bags. The dump is a lifeless place. Only up on the asphalt strip at the top of the steep hill is there movement. People, cars, sounds. When he’s down here, amid the rotting earth, he’s hidden from the life up there, the street life, the human life. Just as on a top floor, almost in the sky, he’s hidden from the life below.
Quick as a squirrel, slippery as an eel, lithe as a fox, with the eyes of a raven and the heart of a wolf, he crushes everything he comes upon. His bones protrude from his body, he’s strong and wiry, and always hungry. A mop of dirty blond hair hangs over two green eyes. His face, with its winsome, watchful expression, is unsettled by these eyes that flit restlessly to and fro. But they can also take aim like arrows and penetrate whatever they see. Put to flight, in flight. Ready for battle.
He knows how to kick well. His best kick he does backwards: advancing as if to attack with his fists, he suddenly spins round and thrusts out a leg with a quick movement, striking high and hard with a flat foot. He practises up in the apartment building, kicking and hitting an imaginary enemy. In his belt he carries a knife; this and the bricks are Timur’s weapons. His life is a battle with no rules.
He is too much of a coward to be a good pickpocket. There’s one thing in particular he’s afraid of - a beating. So he steals only from those smaller than himself. When it starts to get dark he waylays the youngest children who beg at the bazaar or by the bridge across the Sunzha and intimidates them into handing over the coins they collected during the day. He beats up those who object or try to evade him, and he hits hard. The unfortunate victims are left in tears. The young predator slinks away.
Summer is coming, and the little wolf will soon be twelve years old.
When he was only a few months old, towards the end of 1994, he heard the first bomb blasts. That first winter of war he lay wrapped in a blanket on his mother’s lap in a dark cellar while the sounds assaulting his ears formed his first memories. Before he could walk he saw people stagger, fall and remain lying on the ground. His father joined the resistance and was killed in a rocket attack on Bamut in the foothills of the southwestern mountains when Timur was one year old. His widowed mother then carried the boy in a shawl to the home of her husband’s parents. A couple of years later, she, too, was gone.
Timur spent his early childhood with his grandparents in a small village. Life was quite peaceful for a few years, until war broke out again, this time fiercer, bloodier than before. Timur was five then. After the first year of this second war he started school, but the classes were interrupted by Russian attacks, and for months they lived in the cellar because of the constant barrage of rockets. One spring evening as they sat in the damp darkness under ground, the neighbouring house was hit. When things quietened down, Timur peered outside and saw something roll past the door: the neighbour’s head, thudding steadily down the road.
Timur’s grandparents died when he was seven. At the second funeral it was decided that he should go to live with his father’s brother, Omar, a young man in his mid-twenties. Liana, who was one year older than Timur, would go there, too. The two children had the same father, different mothers, and had not known about each other before.
They moved into the uncle’s one-room flat in a bombed-out building in the Zavodskoi district of Grozny. Towards evening Omar sat down with a bottle of booze and told the children, aged seven and eight, to go to sleep on the dirty kitchen floor. They lay next to each other listening to the sounds in the ravaged apartment building.
The next morning the uncle ordered them out into the street. If they didn’t come home with money - enough money - they would get a beating.
That’s what invariably happened. The uncle used an electric cable that had been stripped of its plastic insulation. Only a small piece of plastic remained at one end, the part he gripped when he hit them. He held the metal over the stove until it glowed and whipped it across their naked backs again and again as they lay together on the floor with their knees curled up under them.
They learned quickly.
Liana practised the art of interpreting people’s intentions and movements to detect their unguarded moments. Then her small hands stole into pockets and handbags. She roamed the streets and marketplaces with an angelic look on her face. Like her half-brother, she had pale, almost translucent, skin and luminous green eyes that could penetrate people’s necks and backs, pockets and bags. But her look was veiled, detached. It didn’t grab hold as Timur’s did.
The siblings adapted to street life, but living in the gutter affected their appearance in different ways. The more devilish a thief she became the more angelic Liana appeared - people saw only two large childish eyes and an emaciated body - whereas Timur became more stooped and scowling. He looked like a petty crook, in fact, but preferred to gather bricks from tumbledown buildings rather than risk being caught stealing. He was paid two roubles for the bricks - about four pence - at building sites. It was hard work because the bricks weren’t scattered individually; they might form part of a wall, a doorway, a brick edging. You had to hack away pieces with a sledgehammer before you could scrape off the plaster, concrete or cement. Only then would you get anything for them. He had to fight for the best locations because there were many who tried to earn money this way, adults with families to feed as well as children like him. To deal with the larger pieces of masonry the young boys preferred to work in groups, where the youngest children, who cleaned off the plaster, were only six or seven years old. Timur stood hunched over as he hacked with his hammer; sometimes he got so tired he had to sit back on his haunches. He was so thin that when he squatted to clean the bricks his bones stuck out like two points from the seat of his trousers.
Zavodskoi - ‘Factory Town’ - was the site of big production plants. Its oil refineries had been among the largest in the Soviet Union. Now they lay like leaking chemical disasters. Mines had been laid in many of them, too. Timur learned to watch out for mines and explosives that had not detonated. To risk a mine exploding was better than getting another round of blows on his back from the glowing copper. Besides gathering bricks, he collected all the metal, iron reinforcing rods, aluminium and wires he could find. For that he got two roubles a kilo. One morning a heavy metal plate fell on to his foot. A deep open wound, infected and full of pus, eventually became an aching, crooked scar. All summer he limped around with sledgehammer in hand and a knife in his belt and developed an even more dangerous look.
But when he lay next to his half-sister on the cold kitchen floor hearing his uncle snoring in the other room, he felt knotted up. He thought about a life in which he wouldn’t have to be afraid. The thought occurred to him that Omar, lying there in a drunken stupor, was an easy target. A brick hidden in Timur’s hand: bam, on his uncle’s head; a knife, swish, across his throat, and . . . But the thought always ended in a nightmare: the uncle woke up, grabbed the hand holding the knife and turned it on Timur.
In the neighbouring flat lived another man with young relations who had lost their parents. The neighbour and the uncle often drank together, and sometimes they brought in Timur and the neighbour’s nephew, Naid, who was two years younger, and ordered them to fight. Whoever lost would get a beating. The two drunkards cheered and shouted. Naid was smaller and even thinner than Timur, so usually he was the one who got a good thrashing from the two men as punishment for losing the fight. Like Timur, the boy next door also grew up with burn scars across his back and on the backs of his legs. Sometimes a neighbour came in and scolded the men for making such a racket and threatened to report them to the police. Timur hoped she would carry out her threats, but she never did.
At that time, Grozny lay in ruins. There were fighter planes in the sky, tanks in the streets, bursts of gunfire at night. Many of the inhabitants had fled; those who could leave, did. Others hung on, had no place to go, and struggled to cope somehow in the chaos. Few paid any attention to the children.
As Timur gradually became more adept with the sledgehammer he managed to put aside a few roubles. When he was ten years old he bought beer and a packet of cigarettes for the first time. He thought that if he drank he’d get stronger, because his uncle hit hardest when he was drunk. Timur drank some beer and wanted to find someone to beat up. But he only became dizzy. He didn’t grow strong; he just felt more miserable and more lonely.
Dusk was the worst. Every afternoon, just before it got dark, he was ordered to leave while his sister had to stay at home. Timur wasn’t allowed to come back before the last rays of sunlight had disappeared.
One afternoon when the door had been locked behind him, he drifted down to the river and began throwing small stones into the water. The sun was setting and a rosy glow that had settled over the rooftops struck his eyes. One pebble after another created rings on the surface until they disappeared in the current as the river passed on under the bridge. His eyes followed the patterns until he began to shiver. The warm light was suddenly gone, the city looked bleak again. A couple of dogs limped around in the rubbish along the water’s edge. He looked around, picked up a large stone from the rubbish, and whistled to one of the dogs. He leaned down, clucked and beckoned as if he had something to offer. When the animal approached him, he raised his right hand, the one holding the rock, and brought it down on the creature’s head with all his strength. The dog howled and sank to the ground. Then Timur took the sharp stone in both hands and struck again. They were such wretched creatures, these mutts - scrawny, weak and trembling. Hungry dogs weren’t dangerous. It was the satiated, the well-fed ones, that bit you.
He sat by the river for a while. The rocks were ice-cold. The air was raw and the damp seeped into his clothing. He started to get up to go home, but then sat down again. He couldn’t bear the thought of his uncle, the foul-smelling apartment, his sister’s sobs. He decided he’d never go home again.
When it got dark, he lay down in some large pipes a little further along the riverbank. They provided a little shelter, but all night he lay cold and frightened, listening to the wild dogs howling. The dogs that were so easy to kill during the day became slavering wolves in the darkness.
At night they were the strongest ones.
The little dog killer lives in Russia. He was born in Russia, he speaks Russian, he looks like a Russian, with pale eyes and blond hair. During the few days he attended school he learned the same Cyrillic alphabet as the children in Siberia, had the same history lessons as students along the Volga, and he memorised the same poems by Pushkin as the children in St Petersburg. He is one person among Russia’s declining population, one of barely 150 million citizens. If a proper census were taken across the nation, and if someone had found him down there by the muddy riverbed, he would have counted as but one citizen in the far-flung realm. But at no time in his life has any state wanted to count him in. Let alone wanted to look after him. Or cared about what he’s lost: his parents, his childhood, his schooling. Or what he’s never had: care, upbringing, security - because of a war that this same government started.
Timur is not among those whom most Russians would call ‘one of us’. On the contrary, boys like him are a problem. A threat against the true citizens. The true Russians. There are two words for being a Russian. There’s rossianin, which means a Russian national, and then there’s russky, which refers to ethnicity. Only Slavs are russky, ‘one of us’. When President Vladimir Putin speaks to the people of Russia, he will of course, rightly and properly, use the word rossianin which includes all citizens, be they Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Buddhists or Jews. Timur is rossianin but not russky. He’s a citizen of Russia, but not a Russian. Timur is Chechen. In addition to Russian, he speaks his mother tongue, Chechen, but he’s never learned to write it. He knows his culture through myths and legends, but has never learned his history. He knows he’s a Muslim, but has never learned to pray. He tries to be proud, but doesn’t really know what he’s proud of. He knows he wants to fight, and he knows against whom.
A census would have revealed many things. Soviet figures from 1989 showed that the number of Chechens had just reached one million. Since the wars started, five years after that, around one hundred thousand Chechens have been killed.
Among the dead are thousands of children. They could hardly be called bandits or terrorists, as the authorities label those who resist. Not yet, anyway. But if you ask Timur what he wants to be when he grows up, he answers that he wants to be a resistance fighter. He wants to trade his knife for a Kalashnikov. He wants to fight, to fight back. He wants to exchange the dogs for Russians. He wants people to be afraid of him. That’s what he wants most of all.
You can try to count the dead. You can argue about the numbers. You can count the maimed. You can argue about those numbers, too. What does it matter to lose a leg. An arm. To become crippled. To become blind. To have your hearing blasted away.
Where in the statistics do you find a violated childhood?
UNICEF reports that since 1994 up to the present day twenty-five thousand children in Chechnya have lost one or both parents. Some of them live in cardboard boxes, in bombed-out apartment buildings or in pipes by a riverbank.
A blanket of pitch-black darkness wraps itself icily around him. The night is bitterly cold. Is it wolves or dogs that are howling? Or jackals maybe? Huddled inside the pipe he tries to stay awake, because he’s afraid the wild animals will attack him while he’s asleep. And when the first streaks of light filter through his eyelids he creeps out, trembling with cold, and begins gathering pieces of wood and cardboard to make a hut. Before the sun is up he has built himself a small shelter out of the concrete pipe on the riverbank. It doesn’t protect him against the cold night air but he hopes it will help against the dogs.
He tries to imagine that he’s a wolf, a merciless wolf, a swift creature with teeth sharp as an awl. But the game doesn’t warm him up and he has to abandon it.
After a while Timur moves in with gypsies. He pays them a few roubles to be allowed to sleep in their huts and sit by their fires, while he dreams of belonging to the real wolf pack. The resistance fighters, the heroes who attack the Russians from bases in the mountains, who blow up armoured vehicles. Up there, in the snow-covered mountains, that’s where he wants to go. He wants to fight, as the wolves before him have fought for three hundred years according to his grandfather.
Even if he hardens himself, he still harbours painful thoughts. He has left his half-sister in a helpless situation. Alone with his uncle. He fantasises how he will rescue her. How he will break in when the uncle is lying in a drunken stupor, how he will threaten the man with a knife and save his sister.
He kills a dog instead. Kicks yet another corpse. Dopes himself up, sniffs glue. He ends up in a fight with the gypsy boys and is thrown out of the roving pack.
Once again he sleeps alone down by the riverbank with the dogs around him. Dogs that he can kill at any time. They’re so weak, so cowardly, he snorts. They’ve forgotten they’re actually wolves.

... sharpens his kinzhal
I can’t remember the first time I heard about Chechnya. But I remember the first time I had to spell it.
Russian television, the first days of January 1995: streets filled with distorted bodies. Charred, black fragments that had once been human beings. Children’s corpses frozen into the ground. Dark bloodstains in the snow. Panic in a frozen city. In the midst of this, a burned-out army tank with a star-shaped figure on its roof like a blackened copper statue - a Russian soldier with one hand on the gun barrel, the other outstretched. He’d been fused to the metal by the intense heat as the tank he commanded became an inferno. He died in that position, caught in flight.
All across Russia people sat mesmerised in front of their television sets.
For the military leadership, it was the morning after.
What had gone wrong?
On 10 December 1994, Boris Yeltsin had been admitted to hospital for a nose operation. The next day forty thousand Russian troops rolled across the snow-covered plains and crossed the border into Chechnya, a republic that had declared its independence from Russia three years earlier. The president lay on the operating table, and was therefore neither seen nor heard, but the day before the operation he had persuaded the Russian Security Council to approve ‘disarmament of all illegal armed groups’. Then he disappeared under general anaesthetic, and his minister of defence, Pavel Grachev, took command of reality.
For several weeks Russian forces launched sporadic attacks in order to make Chechnya’s president, former Soviet general Jokhar Dudayev, change course. But the attacks only made the president more intransigent, and in the morning hours of New Year’s Eve 1994 the assault on Grozny began. Pavel Grachev, who had celebrated his forty-fourth birthday the evening before, had declared ‘a single paratroop regiment can solve all the problems within two hours’. After the first twenty-four hours, a thousand Russian soldiers had been killed.
Calmly, without firing a shot, the tanks rumbled forward on huge caterpillar treads. They did not have orders to attack, just to ‘occupy the city’. They passed through the suburbs without encountering any resistance. The same was true of the apartment blocks on the outskirts of Grozny. The heavy columns rolled on until they reached the inner city. There they met the counterattack. The Chechens stood ready in Grozny’s forest of tall buildings. Tanks were set ablaze. The soldiers inside fled from the flames, only to be shot down, one by one, as they leaped out. Those who sought refuge in the buildings were attacked in the entrances, where the city’s defenders stood ready with knives, swords and kinzhals - daggers.
How could the Russian army allow itself to be so humiliated? What kind of intelligence information was this? The minister of defence had himself said that bandits in the republic numbered in the tens of thousands. Bandits - that’s what he called the separatists. Had he imagined they would run away when they saw the tanks?
According to highly placed military sources, it gradually came out that Grachev’s order to storm Grozny on New Year’s Eve was given almost on a whim during a drunken party at the military base in Mozdok. ‘A birthday blitz’, the idea was called.
The troops had been sent in without maps, without firm orders, without knowing where they should go. The tank drivers had merely been told ‘Follow the tank ahead of you’. Many of the soldiers had never handled a weapon, and those who had had generally lain flat on the ground and fired at a target. None of them had received any training for urban warfare - the most difficult of all battlefields. The army had not yet adjusted from a Cold War strategy based on nuclear warfare. Most of the tanks were old and lacked communications equipment as well as protective armour. The Chechens could toss grenades from high-rise buildings and let the ammunition and fuel that exploded inside the vehicle do the rest.
As the fighting raged, television stations broadcast a taped recording of the president’s traditional New Year speech. In front of the Russian flag, Boris Yeltsin delivered his greetings; when he got to the armed forces, he lethargically intoned: ‘When you risk your lives, even on New Year’s Eve, remember that you are serving Russia, you are defending Russia and the Russians.’
The soldiers he addressed never got to hear those words.
I sat in shock in front of the television, together with my Russian hosts, Ludmila and Alexander, in their apartment near Belorussky Station in Moscow. We were witness to a humiliating catastrophe for the Russian army. A catastrophe that flashed on to the screen in all its horror. This was during the short period in the nineties when the Russian media were actually free to edit their own broadcasts. The TV pictures showed burning tanks every ten metres, charred, rigid corpses and body parts hanging in the trees.
How could the world’s biggest army have made such an elementary mistake? Tanks, with no infantry support, inside a city where snipers swarmed over each other. ‘Tanks can rule in a field, but in a city they are blind,’ Grachev himself had said.
The disastrous attack might have been taken directly from the books of John F. Baddeley, who described the Caucasian wars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries:
The result was as expected. The troops in the centre got separated from those in the front and those in the rear, and the enemy swarmed in between, shooting from all positions, from behind every tree trunk - and even from the branches, because the huge beech trees sheltered large numbers of Chechen sharpshooters - and wherever there was confusion, they streamed forth to finish the task with a sword or kinzhal.
I was twenty-four years old and on my first assignment as a journalist. I had rented a small room with a window in the home of a family with three children in Moscow. Anything else was out of the question on my freelancer’s budget. To cover expenses I took jobs as an interpreter. For one fumbling year I had written newspaper articles for Arbeiderbladet, articles without head or tail which were patched together by an understanding foreign editor. Fortunately for me, Øyvind Johnsen believed it was easier for someone who knows Russian to learn to be a journalist than for a journalist to learn Russian. He threw himself into the task body and soul, and eventually I could supply articles with lead paragraphs, headlines and subtitles. I knocked about in Moscow’s streets, squares and alleys, or caught trains across the Russian steppes.
But now an old black and white TV that needed to be thumped in order to get a clear picture was my only source of information about the war. I was at a loss. I was supposed to report about hell from a place I could barely spell.
First Che, then ch, and then nya.
Little by little my fingers got used to the word. More and more frequently that winter I had to write about this place that I’d never been to or had any desire to visit. I took notes frantically from the television there in mouldy apartment seven, building fourteen, on Leningrad Prospect. One evening after the broadcast Ludmila started reciting a poem:
The Terek streams over boulders


On Sale
May 25, 2010
Page Count
352 pages
Basic Books

Asne Seierstad

About the Author

Åsne Seierstad is an award-winning journalist who has reported from such war-torn regions as Chechnya, China, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The author of A Hundred and One Days as well as The Bookseller of Kabul, she lives in Norway.

Learn more about this author