Polina Zherebtsova’s Diary of the Chechen War – Part 2
My mum and I were wounded on 21 October, Thursday.
I saw: a woman, killed, sitting at a table. The wounded sought shelter in the cafes and at the entrances to houses. Volunteer rescuers gathered up the victims of the crossfire, and carried them off in vehicles. Those with the worst injuries were taken away first.
Suddenly a bright flash lit up the entire sky. A loud thunder followed. Frightened, we rolled behind our stall, hiding between its iron pillars. There was no other cover nearby. An explosion! And another… It felt as though the same explosion was repeating itself over and over. We ran, discarding our stock, to the courtyard of the House of Fashion. This was the very centre of Grozny. Rosa Luxembourg Street. As I ran, an huge piece of the last explosion whistled over my head.
At that moment, time stopped and moved in slow-motion, as in a film. I realised suddenly that nobody, not mum, nor anybody else would be able to save me from death if I were to cry out for help. It made me laugh; I no longer desired anything – belongings, bags, valuables. I realised that I could take nothing, absolutely nothing, with me There.
The shrapnel glinted and time returned to normal. Swishing over my head, it caused sparks to fly from the brick walls of the house it struck. My legs were suffused with agonising pain, a metal rain, but my momentum kept me going.
I collapsed after a few further steps… But then I was raised off the ground.
We threw ourselves into the doorway of a house, but instead of a door there was an iron grill that allowed nobody past. We ran back into the courtyard again, and in shock, darted into yet another entrance, where used to be the shop ‘Fisherman’. When I sat down, huddled in a corner, the agony in my legs made itself known again. Mum and Kusum pushed into the entrance, throwing aside a young Chechen woman. The woman’s knee was smashed; I could see at once the exposed white bone.
There were other women and children in the entrance. Mum said that there was a hole in her pocket and that her thigh was burning a little. She found another piece of shrapnel in her pocket. When some men looked into the courtyard, everyone shouted that the young woman without a leg should be taken away first. She had lost a lot of blood. She looked to be 17 to 20 years old. The men took her away.
The volunteer rescuers looked into the courtyard again. They were young fellows. Among them was Aladdin. They decided to take me for bandaging to a pharmacy on Victory Street (which used to be a bakery). Aladdin carried me in his arms, whispering to me, “Don’t cry, my princess! Don’t be afraid! There will be help.”
As I was carried under the crossfire, I saw three dead. They were lying separated from each other. Someone had covered them with a cardboard. One was a woman, another a man, and I couldn’t make out the third.
At the chemist’s, a woman I didn’t know pulled out the fragment out of mum’s thigh. They could only bandage my legs, as the shrapnel had embedded itself deep inside. Aladdin consoled me, stroking my head and chewed on a cupcake.
They decided that we should return home; the hospitals were overflowing with the injured, the marketplace having been filled with women, children, and the elderly. There were few men there, hardly any. We had been far from the epicentre, almost three blocks away. How many had been killed there?
We were given a lift home by some strangers in their car. Frequently I had to clap my hands over my ears – there was a ringing noise and a feeling that I might faint any moment. Everything around me appeared to swim… Did I have a concussion?
I heard someone repeatedly say, “Whoever does good to Polinka will see it; whoever does ill to Polinka will see it.” I guess it was part of a prayer. Actually, it goes like this: “Whoever does an atom’s weight of good will see it; And whoever does an atom’s weight of evil will see it.” (Sura 99) But there was ringing in my ears and in my semi-delirium, I heard my name repeated in these lines.
In the morning, the pain in my leg worsened. No sooner had we had breakfast than my mum began to beg the neighbours to take me to a doctor. The tenants on the top floor agreed. They took me in their runabout to the hospital ?9, our main hospital. The doctors immediately said, “You need an X-ray. We don’t have it. There’s no mains electricity, and the generator has been misplaced in all the confusion.” Still, I was sent to the operating theatre.
A striped cat roamed around the dark and dirty operating theatre on the first floor. He rubbed himself against the table legs and purred. At the threshold of the open doors stood weeping people. Everyone was covered in blood, their clothes torn, some draped in sheets. People ran around looking for their relatives and friends. Those with mild injuries were sitting on the floor or on chairs; they had been awaiting their turn to be examined by the doctors since the previous day. Muffled moans came from the loved ones of those who had died within the hospital walls. A Chechen woman screamed loudly: her children had been killed. A middle-aged woman asked for money for an operation on her son and for medicines. People gave her what they could.
The doctor who examined me was exhausted. He could barely stand. He told of how at night during surgery the electricity had been switched off several times as hundreds of people were being operated on. Many perished.
A young German journalist, wearing glasses and a checked shirt, asked the doctors about the numbers of casualties during the nights. What sort of injuries predominated? He asked me if I had been frightened. The doctor quoted some figures. He said that everyone couldn’t be accounted for in the confusion, because of which many people couldn’t locate their missing kin.
They forgot to anaesthetise me when they treated my wounds. I screamed, although I was ashamed of it. The doctor collected himself and gave me an injection. He looked for the shrapnel but couldn’t find any. “Without X-rays, we can’t help,” said the doctor. “We are needlessly traumatising the leg. You should go where they have a working X-ray machine.” They could only take out minor fragments. At that time, mum’s leg was bandaged. But she was able to walk.
We purchased painkillers, lots of bandage, surgical towels and antiseptics.
Yesterday a wonderful thing happened! In the latter half of the day, we had unexpected guests. Kusum and Aladdin! The same Aladdin who had carried me through the yard of my childhood! They hadn’t known our address. They found us after asking about victims. They only knew which district of Grozny we lived in, and had to search for a long time. Both were exhausted.
Mum made tea. Kusum had brought fruit. Aladdin gave us 70 roubles for bandages; he didn’t have any more money. He was silent throughout. I didn’t speak either. We didn’t look at each other; we averted our eyes. Only the adults talked – mum and Kusum.
I am crying. My wounded leg hurts worse in the evenings. All these days, the neighbours have been going into town at night. Many talk of a large tail-less rocket. They say that there is heavy radiation where it lies.
There are lots of foreign journalists in town. They managed to get through! Someone measured the radiation with a meter. People are specially coming to the market to look at the death-rocket. I ask my mum to persuade the neighbours to take me there. I want to see the filth that has brought me pain.
The Russian side refuses to comment on the bombing of the marketplace. But the Chechens do not have such large rockets. It is said that those who were near the rocket were torn to pieces; now their loved ones recognise them by the remnants of various things: buttons, shreds and pieces of clothing.
Mum bought a few loaves of bread. She distributed them ‘for my well-being’ to the neighbours who crowded around our entrance.
Mum found a walking-stick that belonged to grandma Yulia that she had bequeathed to us. It is a brown wooden hooked stick, sort of like that of Baba-Yaga. I’m learning to walk with it around the room. I repeat that I want to see rocket that killed all those people and injured me. Mum whines that we have already spent all our money; there’s none left for the operation and the medicines. Today she was at the stall for twelve hours, and she saw the rocket!