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The second Chechen war: a Grozny teenager's diary

Polina Zherebtsova spent three years keeping a painstaking record of life in Grozny during the second Chechen war. She still needs to protect her identity. Photo: Max AvdeevPolina Zherebtsova spent three years keeping a painstaking record of life in Grozny during the second Chechen war. She still needs to protect her identity. Photo: Max Avdeev

The second Chechen war: a Grozny teenager's diary

Polina Zherebtsova was 14 when the bombs started raining down.

They hit the market where she worked with her mother, the streets she walked down daily, until Grozny was reduced to rubble, a hometown no longer recognisable.

From the start, Zherebtsova wrote about it, an act of catharsis as much as a document on the second Chechnya war.

She filled dozens of diaries in a messy, scribbled cursive, sometimes embellished with doodles – bomb blasts that look like flowers, blocks of flats seen from a distance.

Polina Zherebtsova's Diary

This week, despite death threats and fears for her safety, Zherebtsova published Polina Zherebtsova's Diary, gathering three years' worth of journals for a rare look into daily life in Grozny under siege.

"I thought, when they kill me, people will find this diary," Zherebtsova said in Moscow, where she has been living since 2006. "I thought, people will read this diary and understand there is never a need to fight."

Filled with the horrors of war and the daily concerns of a teenage girl, the book has already prompted comparisons with the diary of Anne Frank. But Zherebtsova prefers to be likened to Tanya Savicheva, who chronicled the slow death of her family during the siege of Leningrad.

"It kept me from going crazy," Zherebtsova, 26, said, her dyed blonde fringe peeking out from under a headscarf and long gold earrings adorned with dolphins framing her lightly freckled face.

She spent the entire war in Chechnya as tens of thousands died or fled during Moscow's brutal attempt to pacify the mainly Muslim republic.

Although extracts have been published in Russian magazines to wide acclaim, Zherebtsova still works odd jobs to make ends meet: she publishes articles and works as a nanny, sometimes as a consultant, sometimes as a secretary.

Almost every day includes a doctor's visit to nurse the wounds – physical and psychological – that remain.

A bomb attack left shrapnel in her right leg and after several operations to remove the pieces, it is still painful. Her teeth fell out after weeks of hunger and years of malnutrition. The nightmares, she said, have eased since she finished the book but they persist.

The fear of death in war has now been replaced with the fear that writing about the horrors of Chechnya – a still taboo subject – will bring repercussions.

Publishers wanted no problems with the government

One by one, publishing houses refused to publish the book.

"Everyone said they really liked it but wanted no problems with the government," she said. Last autumn, she finally found a saviour in Detektiv-Press, a small publisher devoted mainly to history books and memoirs. Days later, the calls began.

"One time they said: 'So, you will write about Chechnya? Do you want to live?' I don't know who it was," Zherebtsova said. Since then, the calls have come dozens of times over, from unknown numbers. No words are ever exchanged. In the past two weeks, her husband has been targeted instead, sometimes getting 20 calls a day. Zherebtsova was once attacked in a lift by a man she is certain was waiting for her.

But something pushed her forward. "I was always having nightmares about this war," she said. "These civilians who were killed would come to me in my sleep and I felt I had a duty to them. I felt I had to tell it."

It is a tradition among the women in the family to keep a diary, and Zherebtsova began when she was nine after her grandfather, a well-known journalist in Grozny, was killed in the early days of the first Chechen war.

"We thought there would be no more war, and then it started again," she says of a conflict that raged from 1994-96, died down for three years, and then reignited.

There is no evil in the book

Zherebtsova takes great pains to paint her family as ethnically mixed, and in the book describes how she is mainly Russian on her mother's side, and Chechen on her father's, although she never knew him. Ethnic tension remains sharp in the north Caucasus, and Zherebtsova hopes to avoid politicising the republic's suffering.

"I don't scold anyone in particular, neither the rebels nor the Russian soldiers," she said. "There is no evil in the book – just the life of civilians who fell into life in war."

Zherebtsova fled Chechnya in 2005, first to the south of Russia before making her way to Moscow thanks to a grant from Alexander Solzhenitsyn's foundation. She says she will never go back.

"It's a different country now, one that is no longer mine," she said. "My dream now is to leave and live in a normal country.". "There is no life here. If there's no war, then there's revolution."

Zherebtsova holds little hope that Russia can change, yet there must be some. The book's dedication reads: "Dedicated to the rulers of modern Russia."

~

Polina Zherebtsova's diary of the second Chechnya war – extracts

'A bright flash lit up the sky. A blast! Then another. It seemed the same thing was being blown up over and over again'

Polina Zherebtsova's book cover24 September 1999

10.05am

They bombed us a bit today.

And the neighbours already don't go to work, they're scared.

Mum and I go to the market to trade.I help her.

There are rumours at school that it might shut soon.

Everyone says: "War".

14.05pm

I can hear the roar of the planes. They're dropping bombs, but so far it's far away. In the centre of Grozny, where the market is, I just feel the ground trembling. I don't go anywhere. Where should I go? I'm here.

5 October 1999

So far we're alive! There hasn't been gas for a long time. They're bombing. Our four-storey house has started to sink from all the shaking. The walls have separated from the ceiling in one room. Today the planes flew in circles over the market. Many people ran away.

Including a healthy light-haired guy, Vandam, who studies in the law faculty. He regularly lets me and Mum trade in his wooden stall. It's convenient in the rain. But I don't love him.

21 October 1999

Mum and I were hurt.

I saw a dead woman sitting behind the table. The injured hid in the cafe and in the entry ways of their homes.

The men – volunteer rescuers – picked up the victims of the gunfight, distributed them around cars. The seriously injured first. … Everything started unexpectedly, around 5pm.

We were packing up the goods that remained – two bags. One for me, one for Mum. Then we met Kusum with a little baby. We stood around, talked. All of a sudden a bright flash lit up an even brighter sky. It was followed by heavy thunder.

Out of fear we hid under our table, sat under its iron legs. There was no other hiding place. A blast! Then another. It seemed like the same thing was being blown up over and over again. We ran, losing our goods, into the yard of Fashion House. Right in the centre of Grozny. Rosa Luxembourg Street.

28 October 1999

Then the aeroplanes started to buzz! We heard the first bomb drop.

We ran to the residential part, across the street. We found a basement, but a small one.

Five people were already standing inside, pushed up against each other. There was no room to enter. Back! To the entryway of a house! OK, it wasn't locked. We crouched in the corner of someone else's house. An explosion!

Another explosion! A man in a house across the way screamed.

The top floors were burning.

26 November 1999

A bomb fell next to the neighbouring house this evening.

It broke through two floors – joined them together!

Raisa, the Armenian who converted to Islam not long ago, 12 days ago, was killed. She was praying. It didn't interrupt her. An old Chechen lady, who was teaching Raisa the Islamic faith, was with her. But she got scared and ran down the stairs. That woman was saved. She sat on the stairs the whole night through.

I cried. I'm scared to lose somebody to this war.

Alladdin touched my hand and said: "Raisa is in heaven! She couldn't have sinned in 12 days."

24 December 1999

We found a jar of jam. I ate the jam with a spoon, until I got sick.

Our main food is a glass of water with one spoon of flour and diced onion. We drink it and lie down.

Five of our cats have already died. Mum buried them in the garden behind the house. She cried for each one, as for a child.

One cat remains. He's big and striped. He, like with the new people, showed up from another neighbourhood.

We call him Khattab. The cat really wants to live!

26 December 1999

Mum is getting angrier and angrier. Her personality is totally ruined. Probably from hunger. I try not to snap.

My stomach always hurts. I constantly want to eat. I keep imagining a piece of real white bread. It seems there's nothing more delicious.

To eat that, it wouldn't even be that scary to die.

8 March 2000

Morning! Mum still feels bad. She can't sit, even when she leans back on two pillows.

Thankfully, Alik helps. He's been chopping wood for me, for a week already.

Mum's face has gotten big and strange.

Sometimes I think she'll die, that she'll die right now.

31 March 2001

I'm 16!

The age of one's first ball! I think Tolstoy wrote that?

There's mess all around me.

Holes in the hallway floor, from the damp basement it smells like rats and filth, pieces of wall hang over our heads, and dirty damp wood seems to have settled permanently in the kitchen.