Chechnya war veterans – How Russia treats its heroes

« One shared assumption is that the way a society treats soldiers will reflect its humanity by measuring the value that it places upon compassion »

Russian soldiers were often young boys coming from poor backgrounds; they usually received little or no military training

Russian soldiers were often young boys coming from poor backgrounds; they usually received little or no military training. Photo by Heidi Bradner from the “Lost Boys” series

Forgotten Victim of Chechnya: Russian Army

Soldiers in ripped sneakers and frayed uniforms beg for food at city markets from here to Moscow. Outside the Chechen war theater, suicides accounted for one-third of the army dead last year. As many as half of all Russian draftees now simply refuse to serve. For those who do, housing shortages have become so acute that thousands live in boxes or forage for space in abandoned factories. Even the general staff in Moscow acknowledges that a quarter of all servicemen have no place to live.

”Anya, I have solved my housing problems,” Capt. Andrei Golubev, based in remote eastern Kamchatka, wrote in an all-too-typical suicide note to his wife last month. He then drew his service revolver and blew his head off. (read the full article here)

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Report on the situation of Chechen war veterans

source: http://www.pipss.revues.org

Veterans of local wars in post-Soviet Russia consider themselves as victims of negligence and bad treatment, often exposed to unnecessary risks on the battlefield.
Once returned to civil life, they speak about rejection and abandonment. Although the history of the Soviet Union demonstrates that lost wars lead to the social abandonment of veterans as much as victorious wars, the fate of disabled veterans seems to be conditioned by the cultural heritage of the Soviet period which glorifies a muscular body and favors work capacity as a criterion for Russian citizenship.

The fate of disabled veterans seems to be a particularly unhappy one, conditioned by a Soviet cultural heritage which glorifies a muscular body and favors work capacity as a criterion for citizenship.

1. Sending conscripts to the battlefield with a minimal training
Sergei, 35 years old, was born in Novokouznetski, Kemerovo Oblast. He was conscripted during the first Chechen war he was sent to the front with one week of training. He was badly wounded during the storming of Grozny in 1994.
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Officers knowingly allowing conscripts to use defective weapons:
Aleksandr, 28 years old, was born in Kovrov, Vladimir Oblast. He volunteered to fight in the second campaign in Chechnya, serving as an artillery sergent.. A few weeks before his demobilization Kovrov’s gun was ordered to fire despite being in dire need of maintenance. He was assisted by four newly arrived volunteers, his old crew having already been discharged. The gun exploded. Sergei was the only survivor.

2. Aberrant orders given under the influence of alcohol leading to accidents and injuries.
Valentin is 27 years old. He chose to go to Chechnya deliberetely. He loudly and clearly insists: « We were betrayed by our commanding officer ». Valentin and his fellow soldiers were ordered by their commander to pursue Chechen guerillas on February 23rd, Defender of the Fatherland day in Russia – a day many servicemen celebrate with alcohol. They were dropped by helicopter and told they would be picked up again three days later.
But on the third day, his commanding officer, obviously still drunk, refused to pick them up. The only other route back for the patrol required them to cross an extensive Russian laid minefield of 12 km. Unwilling to send a helicopter, the commander ordered them across the minefield.
Their sergent was the first to activate a mine. Valentin was the second, suffering severe leg and foot injuries. He also lost his right eye. Vision in his left eye is now also declining.

Russian soldier in Chechnya war North Caucasus checkpoint

The currency of passage at Russian checkpoints in Chechnya was often cigarettes. Sometimes it was food to fight off starvation. The Union of Soldiers’ Mothers Committees of Russia joined with Chechen women in Nazran to find their lost sons, often lacking even basic information such as the regiment name. Critics claimed that the Russian army treated its conscripts as cannon fodder or slave labour for officers.
Source: theaftermathproject.org

3. Neglect by medical staff

Valentin, mentioned above who tripped a mine was treated with improper surgical materials in a military hospital; the doctors using corroded needles instead of stainless steel needles to bind his bones together. .As a result of thismedical negligence, Valentin developed severe complications and almost died.

Sergei was a conscript who was sent to Chechnya during the first war against his will . He was trapped during the storming of Grozny and shot in the stomach. He lay unattended for several hours and was conscious enough to hear the medic say that there was no use doing anything for him as he would not survive until the next morning.

4. Rehabilitation in a State sanatorium (or any psychological care) is an alternative rarely offered to veterans.
Most do not even know they are legally entitled to this service and never file an application for admission.
Several of the interviewees mentioned that they were sent to a sanatorium (dom otdykha) in Abkhazia, in an ironically improper environment.
Albert fought in Chechnya as an officer, where he was wounded and sent, along with his wife and daughter, to the sanatorium in Abkhazia. A war was fought here between 1992 and 1993 between Georgian government forces and Abkhaz/ Russian forces. Albert recalls that the medical complex was surrounded by signs « Beware of the mines », by destroyed houses and signs of gunfire and artillery. « From a walking distance towards Sochi, there is a river Psu in which you could see the skeleton of a tank ».
During his stay in hospital which lasted more than a year and a half, Valentin was visited by a young female psychologist who asked him all sorts of questions and records their conversations.
He says of her : « She exhausted me, she tormented me », and he recalls : « she left. Then two days later she showed up again and said – ‘you are all sick, you need to get help’ – and she never came back ».

5. The state denial of responsibility towards wounded soldiers.
In January 2005, a regional court of the Orel region overruled the decision of a lower court compelling the Ministry of Defense to compensate Gennadi Uminsky, a military contractor gravely wounded during the battle of Grozny during the first Chechen war.
Young Russian soldiers in Chechnya, year 1995

Young Russian soldiers in Chechnya, year 2000

Cut off in a cave, his section remained isolated there until the end of the war. Left for dead, Uminsky and his companions survived, although they were officially declared “killed in combat”.

After a year in hospital he was released, and classed as an “invalid of the second group”, implying that he would be in need of constant medical supervision. After having tried in vain to obtain a pension from the Ministry of the Defense, Uminsky went to court. No pension was granted and compensation was awarded to Uminsky. Some plaintiffs demanding compensation for war wounds were asked to provide proof that the Federal Army was responsible.

In the end, they were told to request compensation from the Chechen combatants, those in fact responsible for the wounds.

Ex: Disabled Soldier Sues Rebels “I know Basayev (chechen rebel) will laugh when he learns about this, and I will laugh with him over this idiocy. But what else can I do if the Russian government and the Russian courts have put this absurdity on me?”

6. The idea that veterans themselves are responsible and that the state cannot be held responsible for their resulting suffering.
Valentin was told by medical authorities that his loss of eyesight due to an exploding mine could not be linked to his service in the Federal Army. Therefore he was ineligible to be treated in a military hospital nor would his expenses not be met by the State.
Chechnya Russia wars russian soldiers chechens North Caucasus
7. Delegating social and medical care for the disabled to private networks (family, friends) and to Philanthropic Organizations

The economic crisis of the 1990s led Yeltsin’s government to neglect the social services and to transfer the economic burden of the army to the local authorities. Some local authorities provides assistance for disabled veterans, while others were unable or unwilling to become involved.

Pensions granted by the state are not sufficient to cover medication, prostheses, wheelchairs etc. therefore associations and personal networks are solicited to compensate for the failure of the state.

Veterans organization struggle to get funding for medical equipment and medication for disabled veterans.
In the December 2004 issue of Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, the case of a disabled veteran from Afghanistan is mentioned. This veteran is able to survive only thanks to the support of his former comrades. The man lost his sight and his two legs as a result of his service in Afghanistan.
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In 2003, The All Russia Organization of Invalids of Afghanistan (joined also by Chechen veterans) conducted a survey among its members and found that

  •  -46% of them have an income only sufficient to meet basic needs;
  • 90,7% have a difficult time finding a job;
  • 87,7% have no professional qualification for use in civilian life;
  • 50,7% have no apartment and will have to wait several years before getting one;
  • 91,4% have received no monetary allowance whatsoever.

Half of the respondents had never been to hospital or to a sanatorium despite having obtained invalidity status.

From 1990 to 2005 the Center for Sociological Research of the Ministry of Defense conducted a series of annual studies showing that war invalids constituted the most underprivileged citizens of Russia.
  • 26,6% are forced to live with parents or relatives;
  •  35,2 % have been waiting for housing for more than five years;
  •  79,6%, their disability pension is their only means of subsistence.

Only 5.8% of disabled invalids receive financial support for civil life rehabilitation; 5.2% are cared for in military hospitals; 4.3% in convalescent homes 1,5% receive help in psychological and medical centers in their district; while more than 80% do not receive any medical and psychological help from the government.

As Sergei, aconscript who served during the first Chechen campaign, says:

« The soldier who is going to war to serve his country has to give up his health, although he would like only to adapt and find himself in a social environment, but the state does not want this. You are left to your fate, and you are not needed by anyone. You are given a miserable allowance on which you are supposed to live.
When my mother found out how much I was given, she burst into tears […] and then she said : « Sergei I will send that money to the Kremlin, to Yeltsin with the following note : – take this money and just give him back his health ».
Today, the only rehabilitation home for invalids of local wars in Russia (Dom Sheshira) is a philanthropic organization which has struggled for its survival since its creation in the 1980’s.

8. There is no official data on the number of victims in the Russian Army for the Chechen wars.

Although veterans associations estimate that the counting of the missing and dead in Afghanistan is not finished, official figures that have nonetheless been published and tend to coincide with Western estimates.

The situation is completely different for the campaigns in Chechnya: here the only estimates are those made by Russian military journalists or Western military specialists. The absence of statistics testifies to the total disregard by the State for the veterans.

9.The Non-Recognition of the Chechen war

 (how Non-Recognition of the Chechen war affects the other side of the conflict – read here Difference between combatant and insurgent “Fighter” or “Terrorist“)

The status of veterans and the social policy depends on how the state defines war: if it refuses to call a conflict a “war”, then the war does not exist and there are no veterans. The official aim of the first Chechen conflict was to “restore constitutional order” and the second, beginning in 1999, was fought as a “struggle against terrorism”. It was only in 2002 that Chechnya was added to the list of “operations outside Russian borders”, granting veterans a legal status, along with rehabilitation measures and financial compensation. As noted by Sergei Oushakin, prior to this amendment, veterans of Chechnya were handed documents in which they were categorized as invalids of the Great Patriotic War. The “absence” of war led to the denial of the existence of veterans and their sufferings, and therefore a belated response to the needs of this population.

10.Hiding the failure of Social Policy -Victorious war veteran vs Crippled reality

From the 1920s to the aftermath of WWII, the state tended to hide the crippled veterans that tarnished the image of the Soviet Union as a nation free from social problems.

In 1947, the cities were cleared of beggars (most of them veterans). These unfortunates were allegedly sent to Valaam Island in Karelia. The Samovary – men without legs and arms – died there during the following winter in terrible conditions. Working Camps were created for invalids of the civil war, WWI and WWII.

“There are no invalids in the USSR!”

A more recent account of the state relationship to disability was made by a journalist who was in Moscow in 1980 on the Olympic games. The journalist asked an official organizer of the Olympic games if the Soviet Union would participate to the paralympic games. The Russian official responded « There are no invalids in the USSR ! ».

Some of the interviewees, when complaining to their fit companions about their impossibility to find work in their physical condition heard themselves told: “Well, stay at home” (“Nu, sidi doma”).

The culture of Heroism opposed the image of the Mutilated Body
December 1995, Russian soldier wounded in Chechnya

December 1995, Russian soldier wounded in Chechnya tries on a prosthesis

Post-Soviet Russia has inherited a culture which glorifies heroes and muscular bodies. Post-Soviet cinema and State patriotic programs glorify heroes of Russian history. The persistence of a heroic, militaristic conception of masculinity is still perceptible in today’s Russia. One need only look Putin’s press photographs flying military planes, riding horses, firing weapons etc.
As far as newspapers are concerned, there are very few accounts of the fate of disabled veterans of the Afghan war and none from the Chechen campaigns. The subject remains taboo in the Russian media.

11. The capacity of Work as a criteria for Russian Citizenship
Since the Second World War, pensions aim to compensate for the loss of income rather than physical damage, and that does not cover the expenses of medical care.

The state sends two messages: work has healing virtues and veterans have duties, even debts, to the state.

As if it were not enough to have risked their lives in the service of the homeland, veterans discovered on their return that having a place in society was linked to continued work and that they will be receiving social benefits and state aid only after additional service (work).

Chechnya

In Chechnya

The military press has also continuously to refer to the additional obligations of veterans:

“Veterans must take part in the organization of special days for conscripts, in competitions for the best preparation of citizens for military service, in the organization of the draft in municipal establishments and schools. They must to the best of their ability aid in the training of youth for military service. They must organize the implementation of the State Program in the Armed Forces “Patriotic Education of Citizens of the Russian Federation, 2006-2010”. It is also evident that they must contribute to the preparation of manifestations linked to the 65thanniversary of various events of the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945.”

As far as disabled veterans are concerned, being unable to be useful to the state – they are not included in those state patriotic project and therefore not promised any examination of their situation.

Conclusion

Most of the disabled veterans interviewed have internalized the idea that they cannot be useful to society and describe themselves as the waste:

Sergei « […] When I came back home, I had a strong inclination for alcohol. I drank really a lot. For a year I kept drinking. My mother tried to make me stop : « Sergei stop, your health is not good, do you wish it to worsen? » You feel completely rejected, abandoned to your fate. You are not useful to anyone, you are similar to waste… »

Valentin when questioned “Why does Russian state refuse to care about us ? Because they don’t want to, that’s why. Maybe we are not indispensable. The state, they probably see us as the scum of society ».

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Nazran Museum to Ingush and Chechen victims of oppression

 

Nazran, Ingushetia – Memorial complex dedicated to the Ingush and Chechen victims of Stalinist political oppression.

The monument was erected in early 1998, on the anniversary of the 1944 deportation (which killed almost half of the population). The hosts of the opening ceremony were Ruslan Aushev, Ingushetia’s president, and Aslan Mashadov,  Chechnya’s then president.

Life in Grozny after war

A few excerpts showing life in Grozny in 2001-2002 through the eyes of photographer Thomas Dworzak – after the end of the second war in May 2000.

All photos and text belong to T. Dworzak.

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Chechnya. Grozny. March 2001.
Market.

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Chechnya. Grozny. March 2001.

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Grozny, Chechnya. February 19, 2002. One of the few remaining ethnic Russians. The 87 year-old blind woman lives with her daughter and receives no aid whatsoever. Her grandson was killed when Russian forced randomly rocketed their neighborhood late last year. She says that she feels permanently threatened by the Russian soldiers, “as they consider us as Chechens”.

Grozny Chechnya after war elderly russian woman

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Chechnya. Grozny. Hospital March 2001.
Mother visiting her son in hospital after he was beaten up and kept in a ditch for 3 days by Russian soldiers.

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Grozny, Chechnya. 02/2002. Chechen men having a picnic in a bombed out neighborhood near Minutka square. They try to find valuable scrap metal to resell. Very few people remain living in the destroyed apartment blocks.

Grozny Chechnya after war ruins

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Grozny, Chechnya. 02/2002. Outpatients in mostly destroyed “Republican Hospital”.

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Grozny, Chechnya. 03/2002. People living in the ruins of their houses.

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Grozny, Chechnya. 03/2002. Hospital #9. More than a dozen civilians where heavily injured when a Russian Army APC run into a bus with Chechen civilians. Reckless APC driving is a common complaint of Chechens.

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Grozny Chechnya after war chechen man woman wounded North Caucasus wars

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Grozny, Chechnya. 03/2002. Destruction in the city center. Nothing has been rebuilt since the two wars.

Grozny Chechnya after war destroyed North Caucasus wars

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Grozny, Chechnya. February 2002.
Side street in destroyed residential area of Oktyabrsky Rayon. Body of an unknown middle aged man who was shot by four Makarov bullets in plain daylight a day earlier. No one wants to bury him.

Grozny Chechnya after war dead man shot sniper

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Grozny, Chechnya. 03/2002. Burning oil refinery on the outskirts of town. Russian soldiers at a nearby checkpoint target practice at the abandoned factories.

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Grozny, Chechnya. 03/2002. Destruction in the city center. Nothing has been rebuilt since the two wars.

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Grozny, Chechnya. February 14, 2002. Relative showing the picture of a Chechen jobless civilian who disappeared several weeks ago. He crossed the street to see a neighbor shortly after darkness, was shot and picked up by unidentified Russian soldiers. The authorities deny any knowledge of the incident.

Grozny Chechnya after war missing chechen man North Caucasus wars________________________

Grozny, Chechnya. February 19, 2002. Chechen man who lives off digging oil in backyards. 3 days ago he was arrested and beaten unconscious by a Russian “death squad” when he wanted to cross the street in front of his home to continue drinking with a neighbor. He says what saved him was that he smelled of alcohol, a fact the “death squads” seem to appreciate. According to him, other detainees were tortured by electroshock, needles under the fingernails etc. until they admitted belonging to a rebel group. He was released the day before, has still difficulties to speak and his ears are ripped.

NOTE: He fears for his safety, only to be published with mosaic.

Grozny Chechnya after war beaten old man North Caucasus wars________________________

Grozny, Chechnya. February 18 2002.
House of the Blind. Oktyabrsky Rayon. Totally abandoned by any sort of State Welfare, a dozen blind survivors of the wars in Grozny live together in the remains of the former “House of the Blind”. Extremely sensitive to noise, they are particularly traumatized from the shooting and bombing. Though, most say they are happy to be unable to see the destruction.

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Grozny, Chechnya. 03/2002. House of the Blind. Without any Humanitarian Aid, on a 640 Ruble = 22$ pension – a remaining dozen of blind people survive in the badly hit by the bombing “House of the Blind”. One of the blind is creating energy to shave, listen to audio book tapes and “electricity for light bulbs!!!” with a bicycle turned generator.

Grozny Chechnya after war 13 Caucasus wars

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Grozny, Chechnya. February 20, 2002. Barely inhabited and almost entirely destroyed neighborhood in the “Zavodskoy Rayon”. 84 year old ethnic Russian woman living in a bunker.

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Grozny, Chechnya. 20/02/2002. 25-year-old Chechen shooting heroin in the backyard of a neighbors house. Uncontrolled gas burns in most houses as the pipes haven’t been fixed since the bombings. Since the wars and the “situation without exit” the number of young men taking drugs is exploding. To finance his habit (50 Rubels a shot, bought at one of the many neighborhood dealers) he steals and collects valuable metals in the ruins for resale. Almost all of the youngsters like him still live with their families.

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Grozny, Chechnya. February 2002.
25 year-old Chechen drug-addict preparing a shot of heroine in a friend’s car. Drug addiction among young men is on a skyrocketing rise since the wars. Mostly, heroin is easily available (50 Rubels, = 1,5 $ a shot).

Grozny Chechnya after war chechen young man

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Grozny, Chechnya. February 17, 2002.
Chechens collecting bricks in the rubble of the bombed out Zavadskoij Rayon. For 400 bricks they recieve 100 Rubels (= 3,5 $).

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Grozny, Chechnya. 02/2002. Trauma ward at hospital #9. Women with bullet or shrapnel wounds after they where shot at in a bus and in their home by Russian forces. Random shootings are common.

Grozny Chechnya after war chechen women hospital

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Grozny, Chechnya. 02/2002. Anti-war graffiti in the hallway of a destroyed house.

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Grozny, Chechnya. 02/2002. Former Cold-War nuclear shelter inhabited by a Russian family. They have been missing for several days.

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Grozny, Chechnya. February 2002.
Mother and uncle of a year old 24 Chechen girl who blew herself and the former Russian Army Commander of Urus-Martan, up in a Kamikaze attack. Commander was responsible for the death of her husband and 2 brothers. After the attack, Russian Forces confiscated all of the girl’s belongings.

Grozny Chechnya after war elderly chechens Caucasus wars________________________

Grozny, Chechnya. February 2002.
Street in destroyed part of the city.

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Grozny, Chechnya. February 2002.
Street in a less destroyed part of the city.

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Grozny, Chechnya. February 2002.
Checkpoint near a police station. Pro-Russian Chechen police. There are 48 checkpoints of all sorts of Russian or pro-Russian police, army, and interior ministry troops around the town.

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Grozny, Chechnya. February 2002.
Bazaar, burning gas pipeline, in the Microrayon district, the only part of town where residence sometimes dare to venture out at nightfall.

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Grozny, Chechnya. February 2002.
One of the few remaining ethnic Russians. The 80 years old woman lives in the basement of her bombed out house.

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Grozny, Chechnya. February 2002.
Chechen man, 52 years old, showing his torture marks. He was just released from custody with the Russian Forces. During a 10 days “Zatshiska” – a cleaning up or mobbing up operation, the village Stari Atagi was entirely sealed, and house to house searched, conducted by different groups of the Russian forces. Interior Ministry, Army, FSB, … The man was arrested, beaten unconscious and mock executed several times, apparently because he bears a name similar to a “Wahabbi Rebel”. After 5 days held in a ditch he was released, his passport confiscated. All in all, about 26 men had a similar faith, 4 villagers where killed in a shootout, apparently rebels, and 2 FSB soldiers where ambushed.

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Grozny, Chechnya. 02/2002. Hospital #9. Pro-Russian Chechen militia where shot at at a Russian checkpoint without obvious reason. Injured in the foot.

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Grozny, Chechnya. 02/2002. Some few remaining civilians live in the ruins of their houses. Zavadskoy Rayon. There is no running water or electricity. “Lijudi” (translated to “people”) written on the door in a vain hope to have the mercy of looting Russian soldiers.

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Ingushetia, Chechnya. February 2002. Home for retarded youngsters and kids where refugees/patients from Grozny live. Between 200 and 400 000 Chechens fled to neighboring Ingushetia since the 2nd Chechen war started in 1999. Chechens and Ingush where formerly in one Republic, their language is very similar.

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Grozny, Chechnya. 03/2002. Home of the elderly and mentally ill “Katajama”. Poster of Malik Saidulayev. Poor widow and her 3 kids moved in with the patients.

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A chechen widow moved in the sanatorium with her children

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Grozny, Chechnya. 03/2002. Patients waiting in the Respublikansky Hospital – which is devoid of electricity.

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Grozny, Chechnya. 03/2002. Checkpoint of the pro-Russian Chechen militia, OMON. There are currently 48 permanent check-points in the city and regularly mobile ones.

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Grozny, Chechnya. February 2002.
Body of a Chechen man who worked in the Traffic Police Department of the Pro-Russian Chechen militia and was shot in his car. The man had been missing for several days. After he had left home one afternoon, his car was found bloodstained near a Russian checkpoint in town. The authorities denied any knowledge of the incident. A search party of relatives finally found the body, beaten to death, in a oil well-dump on the road to the main Russian military base Khankala.

Grozny Chechnya after war ;

Grozny Chechnya after war .,

Funeral

Funeral

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Chechnya. February, 2002. Russian conscript guards a site where deminers blow up mined houses.

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