Polina Zherebtsova’s Diary of the Chechen War – Part 1
[This is a loose translation of the original Russian diary, an abridged excerpt of which appeared in the journal Bolshoi Gorod on 30 September 2009. Part 1 here, others to follow.]
24 September 1999
We were bombed a little today. The neighbours did not go to work, they were so scared. Mum and I are off to the market – to sell our wares. I help her. There’s talk that my school is closed. Everybody says: War.
27 September 1999
In our Staropromyslovsky district, the station ‘Beryozka’ was bombed – it’s right by us. They’ve been bombing it since morning. I am going to read Shakespeare. Our library has twelve of his books. These are old books, printed early in the 20th century. My grandfather, the journalist and cameraman, bought them. He was killed in a crossfire in 1994 at the beginning of the first war.
I have terrible dreams at night.
Update: it’s evening. 420 people were killed. Many injured. Hospital №7 has been bombed. Mum and I were in the market, selling.
29 September, Wednesday.
Bombing. My favourite neighbour, aunt Maryam has left for Ingushetia. No other news.
30 September, Thursday.
They were bombing bridges. On the radio we heard that the tanks of the federal forces will likely be advancing on October 10.
I thought about it and decided that since it’s war, I should go and buy some black lingerie. It won’t need to be washed as often.
Huge queues for bread. People seem to have gone out of their minds.
Yesterday and the day before, there was bombing.
The city is rife with rumours. Often these pieces of ‘information’ contradict each other.
There would be a new round of war in August, we had been told by Professor V. Nunaev – the famous cardiologist. We hadn’t believed him, and bought new stock. On August 6, we found out that the widow of the late President Dudaev had fled from Grozny. So much information! We can only believe those who have seen things happen with their own eyes. And under no circumstances can we trust what we hear with our ears!
In the market, people were exchanging addresses, befriending each other. If there’s heavy bombardment or damage, perhaps they will have a place to go to, to stay. Nazar gave us his address. He and his wife sell all sorts of produce. Kossior Street, №8, apartment 66. A Russian woman, too, gave us her address. Her name is Lelya. She said to us, “If you are downtown and there’s an air-raid, run to Victory Prospect to house №5; we have a big underground shelter in the courtyard.” To die, I guess, is not scary; what is scary is to lie wounded amidst the ruins and die slowly.
I thought about the various religions. They are all good, except that people are remiss in following the laws of God.
At our neighbour Fatima’s, her son died. He was only a little boy.
Alive so far!
There’s been no cooking gas for a long time. The drains still work.
Bombardment. Our four-storeyed house has been subsiding under the vibration. In my room, the walls have separated from the ceiling.
Airplanes circled above the market today. Many people fled. Among them was that bright fellow called Vandam who studies at the Law school. Occasionally he allows me to sell from his wooden kiosk. It is convenient when it rained. But I don’t like him.
At home we boiled potatoes in the electric kettle. The gas supply has been cut off to minimise explosions and fires in the houses during cross-fires.
The fighting continues. From afar we hear rumbles like thunder. We decided to sell more newspapers. We have no way out. Nobody is buying our wares. We don’t have enough money to eat. The day before yesterday I went and met the wife of Sulim, the man who buys newspapers and magazine in bulk. She introduced herself – Sonia. And at once she gave me magazines on account.
Yesterday, our neighbour in the market, the one who sells medicines, came up to our stall with some colleagues of her son. One of them, whom I didn’t know, presented me with a beautiful little book. The woman is called Kusum. She wants me and her son to become friends. Her son is very tall, and so he stoops. He is modest, shy. His name is Daud. He attends training courses at the Petroleum Institute. There are always chemistry texts in his hands.
Daud is 21 years old, and I am 14. Mum says it is too soon for me to get married. She insists, “She must study!” Kusum is offended and says,”You are the only girl whom my son has eyes for. If you officially become his fiancee, we shall wait till you finish your ninth grade at school.” By Chechen standards, this is a flattering offer. I can see that he is a good fellow. But I like his friend better – the one who gave me the book.
Daud’s mother bought me a lovely summer shirt and solemnly handed it to me. She explained the gift thus – “To the first girl my son ever liked!”
Our neighbour, a merry fellow nicknamed Pinocchio, has not been seen for several days. He is a wonderful narrator of books and films. He sells music cassettes not far from us. He lends me cassettes to take home, to listen for free. He lives in the town of Urus-Martan.
I don’t go to school. There are no classes. I am helping mum.
Some idiot in the pouring rain doused a tree with kerosene and set it on fire the day before. The result was a massive bonfire. Just then an airplane flew over and began to circle. Everyone was terrified – what if they drop a bomb? But nothing happened.
The woman who sells medicines introduced me to her sisters. She says that everyone has taken a liking to me. But I must wear a scarf so that nobody knows that my mother is Russian and will treat me better. These adults are chatty. They are always handing me little presents. Maybe now I will have some friends?
I love scarves and shawls. I don’t like the emancipated women of the West. Any dress with a scarf to match is romantic and tender and mysterious. A friend of my mother’s advised her to make me wear a scarf. He explained: “I’ll then be able to look out for you. You will look older – you need protection!”
They don’t know that my father’s father was a Chechen. And so if you consider the male line, I’m Chechen as well. My surname is my mother’s because seven months before I was born, my mum separated from my father. She didn’t want to be reconciled with him. It’s true that I have never seen my father. I know that he has a son with his first wife, also a Russian. The woman is called Tanya. I’ve been told since I was little: “Your father is dead!” But I want to believe that this is not true.
Today my favourite and dearest aunt Leila came to our stall. Leila has always helps us. At one time she used to work with mum at the big factory, the “Red Hammer”.
No sooner had she come near us than she began to beg us to leave Grozny. My mum paid hardly any attention. She said, “I don’t know what kind of people there are elsewhere. How do they live? They have no customs or rules. I have no close relatives anywhere. No acquaintances either. I have lived here all my life since I was fifteen. Here I have the graves of two relatives – my grandmother and my father. I own my house – that is very important. Ruslan is here. So what if it’s not an official marriage? I still have support. If I leave with the child, what are we to do? Am I to live alone?”
I was very offended by that Chechen fellow, Vandam. He saw me in my scarf and burst out laughing. “Why are you all dressed up? Where are you off to?” he said. Then he spat, the swine.
Once he sent his aunt over to us to get acquainted. His aunt made much of my mum, gave her treats. This is customary in the East, to get acquainted and to introduce a boy and a girl to each other. She even openly asked for my hand in marriage to her nephew. But she concealed the fact that he already had a wife. We learned this from some other folk.
At night we listen to the booming guns. In the daytime, we ply our trade. Sonia’s attitude towards us has worsened. I don’t know if I have offended her with my frequent requests. Or have our competitors said something to her?
These days I wear a scarf like Aunt Kusum. She often praises me. She sits next to us in the market and brushes my hair. She says, “Come on, let’s get you a perm!”
Daud’s friend came over again. He bought me an ice-cream. Does he like me? I heard this from Aunt Kusum, Daud’s mum. This chap asked me, “How old are you?” When he heard that I was only fourteen, he was surprised. “You are so small! I thought you were older. You know, you look so much like Princess Budur in my favourite fairy-tale.” I laughed and declared that he was Aladdin! We looked at each other for a long time in silence. I was taken aback at my own courage. Previously I would keep quiet in the company of boys, and only listen; now here I was – talking.
Aladdin has lovely eyes. His hair is black, curly, down to his shoulders. He is definitely like a prince. I remembered that I saw him once in a dream. It was a long time ago, when I was a toddler, before I went to school.
Aladdin told me he is 23 years old. His father has another family. He has his mother and his sister. They live in a village. Suddenly shy, he stared for a long time at his shoes, and left without saying goodbye.
Our business is barely alive. We have money to buy food, but we can hardly save anything.
The papers have troubling news about how escaping refugees have to go half the way on foot, how they are freezing, and how vehicles carrying them are shot at on the roads. The way out of the city is very dangerous!
In the morning I went to school. Perhaps there won’t be classes till spring. All the youngsters are wearing military uniform. Many are being called up. No weapons in hand as yet, only radio-sets. The adult men have automatic weapons. Whoever is thirty years or older is armed.
Kusum is in tears, says that her son has left home. She wants my mum to help her bring him back. She begs permission to say that I will agree to marry him. If only he would abandon his new friends and come back! We support Kusum’s idea. I warn her that I would definitely help her, even if I left later. In the event, Kusum didn’t dare take me with her and went by herself. But she came back without her son. Daud said he trusted his companions and wouldn’t leave them till the end… We all wept.