Polina Zherebtsova’s Diary of the Chechen War – Part 3
Early in the morning when there were few people about (I am reluctant to walk with a walking stick), Mum and I went to the market. I looked at the remnants of the missile. It was huge! Boys were climbing all over it. They announced that it was ‘infectious’ and had to be removed. The missile had destroyed everything around.
Some of our acquaintances arrived to trade. Mum wanted to sell on our ware, so that it wouldn’t get lost. But people were scared to oblige. “There’s a lot of theft,” they explained, and said it had gotten worse after the explosion. Twelve people had been shot on the spot for stealing. Looters were at it day and night. They took things off the dead: gold, raincoats, shoes, clothing, cosmetics. They did this under the guise of locating their family members. Some came with their children to steal. A father with a kid ‘searched’ for the mother. And the mother with her other offspring was, at the same place, looking for the father. The guards didn’t cotton on immediately to this trickery.
One of our neighbouring traders showed uncommon courage. After the rocket exploded, she dragged an injured Chechen woman to safety; at the same time, thieves ran off with her entire merchandise. But she had no regrets. I spoke to her. She had done well!
Our market has shrunk now. In the morning there are hardly two rows. Tables have been placed along the Mir Prospect. People have decided: here will be the cafe, here the barber, and here the entrances to the residences – it would be easier to seek shelter.
Seeing me with my walking-stick, passers-by and the traders joked, “A youngish grandmother!” Everyone wished me the speediest recovery.
The loudspeaker in the Mir Prospect area that used to play music throughout summer now repeated the same thing over and over: “500 people are missing; 1000 people are wounded. There is no count of people taken to villages and rural health centres.”
We burst into tears on hearing that at the candy store, a girl was killed – she was my age. Her elder sister and her mother were both wounded! Our neighbour Rosa was also killed while selling cabbages. She was eight months pregnant. Her seven children are orphaned. There are many such others.
We bought bread and went home. We were not the only ones wailing in the bus. Got home and boiled up some tea. Almost at once Aladdin appeared. I didn’t feel like talking at all.
Aladdin began to take his leave. Mum was taken aback when he put an envelope in her hands: “For the operation and medicine,” he said, “Or for food, in an emergency…” “We’ll pay it back!” I called out as he left. We were embarrassed. We knew that it wasn’t good to take money from someone we scarcely knew. But we had no way out. Without money, there would be no treatment. There were almost 200 roubles in the envelope! Aladdin asked me to call him ‘elder brother.’ I liked the idea and agreed.
In the morning, Aunt Maryam brightened our mood. She lives in the apartment next to ours. Ever since Mum moved into this house in December 1986, she and Aunt Maryam have been friends. Maryam kissed me and promised, ”You’ll be right as rain soon! Just bear it a little longer.” She gifted me a head-scarf, a cream coloured one with a delicate border. And powder! We had breakfast together. Maryam warned us that she would move a part of her property to her relatives in Ingushetia. And she would lodge a family from the house across to the next-door flat on the first floor. We wouldn’t be alone anymore! And if she could find a way, either she would come or send one of her sisters to help us leave as well.
We sealed up a part of the window with pieces of wood, to block shrapnel. Zolina’s little daughter came over to play with me.
Mum got ready to go to the market. She decided she would trade till lunchtime and then buy some food. Our larder is empty. Again we’ll be spending instead of saving! We quickly finished our breakfast and took with us in two light packages a few magazines and newspapers. Maybe someone will want them? Mum is a naive person.
And then began a terrible shelling! It thundered everywhere from the direction of downtown and the marketplace. The sky turned red from the fire. Mum was, like, who cares? She said it was all rubbish. Just then a woman carrying pickled cabbage in a bucket ran toward us. She was crying and talking to herself, “Everything is bloodied again! Everything has been bombed! The market is aflame!” Mum stopped her, offered her water to drink. The woman caught her breath at our front gate and said, “This is not weapons fire. It’s an aircraft! It bombed the market! There are many dead! The bomb fell at the corner by the House of Fashion, where women were selling bread!” She left, crying.
Mum collected herself. “Chop chop! We have no food. Our area is still calm. Let’s go to the nearest market, the little one, to the Beryozka stall. We’ll buy some produce.”
Mum is very stubborn. I got ready quickly. I didn’t take the scary walking stick. The road is not far, barely one stop on the bus. I went, leaning on mum.
We passed our yard successfully. We crossed the road. And we began to move through someone else’s yard. And then the airplanes roared into view. Bombs exploded. We threw ourselves across the road. We found a basement but it was quite small, there were already five people standing in it, crowding into each other. No space to enter. Back out again! Now we were at the entrance of an apartment building! Excellent, it was not locked. We squatted in the corner, under a door.
An explosion! Another explosion! A man screamed from the house opposite. The upper storeys were aflame. Another man spoke comfortingly to the injured one, “Take it easy, take it easy, I’ll just tie it up.” But the wounded man continued to scream terribly. The airplanes headed in the direction of the private sector and began to drop bombs there. We went out onto the street.
The building to the right of us was missing a corner. From below its roof, black smoke streamed out. The house across the one we had hidden in was on fire on the upper floors. The shrieks came from there.
Still driven by Mum’s obstinacy, we went further to the little market. There were goods in the stalls but no sellers or buyers!
“They’re in the shopping gallery,” guessed Mum. We entered it.
Inside was a crowd. Adults with kids, preschoolers. People sat by the marble columns and prayed. The entire floor was covered in glass. The windows had been smashed into smithereens. Some of the buyers and sellers went into the basement. We also went there.
Ovens were burning in the basement. Civilians sat around on empty wooden and metallic boxes. Women offered each other nuts and water. People prayed in Russian and Arabic. They decided: “If we have to spend the night here, we’ll give our clothes to the children. We’ll spread them out on the floor so the kids can sleep.”
It was cold. People talk to each other in low voices, as though they might be overheard. Mum and I sat around for an hour or two, for as long as the bombing went on. Everyone was frightened. Nobody wanted to go upstairs to the first market hall, let alone the street, as long the bombs were falling. At last, we came out.
We bought all that we could. And headed home on the lower side of the road, where the shopping gallery was, so that it would be easier to hide in case the bombing started again.
People came over and told us that the missile that had fallen on the market, the one that had wounded me, had been launched from the Caspian. Journalists had uncovered this news. Within only five days, the Russian army had admitted it. They had aimed the missile at another target – at the stock exchange building – but they missed. It fell on the peaceful market.
I just cannot believe that this is the third war in my life! The first was in 1994 (I was nine years old); the second, in the summer of 1996 (from 6 – 22 August; I am 11 years old) – how many neighbours perished then! And here’s the third one. Autumn, 1999 (I am fourteen).
What to do? Aladdin hasn’t come.
Our neighbour, Uncle Valera, had a surprise for me. He handed me some gifts from Muslim, a chap who lives in the first entrance to the building. A white scarf with a blue border, and gray autumn boots. Muslim is a relative of a very kind woman, Zulai. I have spoken to him all of one time. Long ago, last spring. Muslim met me on the way from school. He told me that he liked me more than Hava, his neighbour. He understands that I need to study! But if I completed 16 years of age, then we could get engaged! That’s the custom here. I had been amazed.
And now, unexpectedly, I received his short note: “If you remember me, please pray for me!”
I closed my eyes and at once saw him. A gentle face. Light eyes, dark hair. Muslim always stood in the doorway of his entrance, neat and modest. I wanted to cry. My nerves! Absolutely useless. “In vain did you, Muslim, worry about the opinions of the elders in the yard! You feared their judgment! All because my mother is Russian,” I muttered to myself, and stared at the gifts. I thought we might have become friends! Seeing his note, I felt so good in my heart. At once, I could breathe easily and freely. “Muslim! I will not forget your name in my prayers!” I promised silently. “But, forgive me, the shoes are too small for me. I gave them to Mansour’s mum. I only kept the head-scarf.”