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The Angel of Grozny: Inside Chechnya, by Åsne Seierstad, translated by Nadia Christensen , Virago, 2008
When Åsne Seierstad returned to Chechnya, she discovered the real burden of Putin's Chechen campaigns was born by the children. She resolved to tell their story
Monday March 3, 2008
I have never struggled with a book as I did with The Angel of Grozny. Compared to this, my other books were written with ease. But the stories of Chechnya are even more hidden than those of Afghanistan. It's a more inaccessible place than Iraq, and when you get there, people have horrifying stories to tell. To begin to write about them is tough; to finish them tougher. Because where does a story end?
Parts of the story were already in me, in memories of the first war I covered, the First Chechen War of 1995-1996. Aged 24, I was finishing my degree in Russian at the University of Oslo while working as a freelance journalist in Moscow. Alongside Russians from every corner of the vast empire, I sat petrified in front of the TV during the first days of 1995, watching as the Russian army attacked the Chechen capital, Grozny, and was met with fierce resistance. After just a single day, 1,000 Russian soldiers were dead. In the decade to come, over 100,000 civilians would be killed in the conflict.
During those early days and weeks, I covered the conflict from Moscow, but the Russian capital was a fog of words, and I couldn't find my way through or around it. My thoughts began to spin disconcertingly: to go, or not to go; to go, to not go; to go ...
On my first trip to Chechnya, I hitchhiked with a Russian military plane. I was paralysed by what I saw. The devastation. The dead, rotting in the mass graves. The children who had had their legs blown off. The mothers looking for their sons. I lived with the civilians, I lived among the fighters; in hidden locations I met with guerrilla commanders who in the years to come would one by one be killed by the Russian forces. We travelled in and out of the bombed-out republic. The Russians didn't mind us; this was the era of Boris Yeltsin.
After the 1996 presidential election, I left Russia to cover other conflicts - but I never entirely forgot about Chechnya. Its people had crept under my skin: almost 10 years later, they itched. I realized it was time to go back. But this was easier said than done. Vladimir Putin was president now, and he understood something that Yeltsin never cared about: the power of the free word.
On a freezing day in January 2006, I found my way back to Moscow. To go south to Chechnya was next to impossible. In order to report, you needed journalist accreditation from the ministry of foreign affairs in Moscow, as well as a special card granting permission to stay in "zones of anti-terror operations". To get that, you had to travel in a group administrated and guided by the Russian authorities. Who would speak freely to me under such conditions? I needed another way. I found one. Her name was Zaira.
"You need makeup", she told me. "Our women want to be beautiful". My eyebrows and eyelashes had already been dyed black. More colours were applied before a dark scarf was knotted firmly at my neck. I looked down at my long skirt and coat belted at the waist. Pointed high-heeled boots completed the outfit. "Most important of all," Zaira told me, "don't look around as you usually do. Don't smile, it gives you away immediately. Keep your head down. Frown. Look unfriendly."
And so I made it into Chechnya on several trips in 2006 and 2007 disguised as a Chechen woman, hiding from the Russian authorities - the only way a journalist can work without supervision in this part of Russia.
Initially I travelled around with the human rights organization Memorial. It was an odyssey of human horror: the disappeared, the tortured, the maimed, the revenged. Slowly I discovered the extent of the devastation - social, moral, mental - to which Chechnya had been subjected since I left in the mid-90s. I met families from which all the men had been taken, one by one. In one family, the last in the line had disappeared just before I got there; a week later he was found in a nearby wood, missing one leg, one arm and one eye. Putin had got the brutal local president, Ramzan Kadyrov, to do the dirty work for him: it was now Chechen against Chechen. Under Kadyrov's rule, there were families nobody spoke to or visited; they were on the wrong side, outcasts. Either you were with Kadyrov, or he was against you.
The risks were great. I could never stay long in one place, as the families were being watched, and I could seldom go back to where I'd been visiting. My notebooks were filled with stories, each worse than the last. But the cruellest truth is that stories of horror, torture and grief come, in the end, to resemble each other. I felt I was in danger of compiling an Amnesty Report; a collection of anonymous stories of human rights abuses. Where was my book in all of this?
After six months in the region, I found myself back in Moscow on a stormy night when trees were being knocked down and lightning flashed through heavy rain. I was sleepless; my project seemed hopeless and I wanted go home, live my own life, leave the horror behind, forget about Chechnya again. But then I remembered a film I had seen about an orphanage in Chechnya, and decided that before I gave up, I wanted to meet the children who have lost everything, who grow up with the war inside of them. It was this decision that led me to Hadijat - the "Angel of Grozny" - a woman who had saved hundreds of children by dragging them out of cellars or ruins, approaching them as they were begging in the markets, and given them a safer place to live.
These children are the true victims of the conflict, of any conflict. One whom I came to know well is Timur - a boy who grew up on the streets and is so filled with pain and anger that the only thing calms him is killing - dogs, cats, pigeons. I call him the little wolf. Getting to know him and hearing him talk of the "terrible fire" inside him was hard, and harder still to write about. How to describe the mind of a child of war?
I took me several attempts to work out how best to get the children's stories down on paper. For the first, introductory chapter, I adopted the novelistic style I used in The Bookseller of Kabul, describing a person from the inside, his thoughts, his feelings. Some people ask, how can you know what's going on in this little boy's head? How can you know the colour of the sky when he was throwing stones into the river? And how do you know exactly how the river looked like?
I don't. I have to rely on his accounts. We had 10 long interviews; he showed me the place he had lived, the riverbank where he squatted. And he told me about what he had thought, how he felt, how cold he had been, how the sky had looked when the sun set.
In truth, of course, it is not possible for us to creep into a little street boy's head. But I want us to try. I want to invite the reader into Timur's story, just as Timur invited me into his life; the life of a boy who has seen little good, and who can't get rid of his memories.
Timur is just one among the millions of children trapped and hurt in wars and conflicts. I have tried to write down their stories as accurately as I could.
Åsne Seierstad has worked as a correspondent in Russian, China,Serbia, Afghanistan and Iraq and is the award-winning author of The Bookseller of Kabul. The Angel of Grozny: Inside Chechnya is published on March 6 by Virago
March 9, 2008
The Angel of Grozny: Inside Chechnya by Asne Seierstad
Reviewed by Christina Lamb
The Angel of
Grozny: Inside Chechnya by Asne Seierstad
Virago £14.99 p340
How do you live with yourself when you write a book that gives you worldwide fame and fortune, but destroys the life of the family you wrote about and leaves you a pariah in their country? The Bookseller of Kabul was an astonishing book that revealed how an Afghan bookseller who had become a rare hero, risking his life to save precious books from burning by the Taliban, was at home a domestic tyrant who oppressed his wives and denied education to his sons.
I was one of those who gave the book a rave review, in these pages, describing it as “a compelling read” and “an intimate portrait of Afghan people quite unlike any other book”. But I was unsettled by certain aspects. Its author, Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad, had taken the hospitality of Shah Mohammed Rais, staying with his family for five months, then torn the man apart. How had she reconstructed these conversations when she did not speak Dari? And the sons she wrote of as being treated as their father’s slaves were going to college, contrary to what she had written.
When I later met Seierstad and asked her about this, she replied evasively that she had never expected the book to do so well (it became Norway’s top-selling nonfiction book in history, translated into 26 languages), which left me wondering about the line between reportage and imagination.
This made me uncomfortable reading The Angel of Grozny, where once more there is a wealth of wonderful detail of events and conversations she learnt about third hand.
But this time, Seierstad has been sure to do things properly, pointing out in the acknowledgements that she sent the main characters the sections about them to ensure they had no objections. And one can only admire the incredible dedication and bravery of a reporter, who has no more need to earn a living and nothing left to prove, in going undercover in Chechnya, of all places. In doing so, she has produced the best book in English about one of the world’s most brutal and under-reported conflicts.
Moscow’s blackout on media coverage meant that so little was known about Russia’s dirty war of 1994-96 that Seierstad admits she did not even know how to spell Chechnya when she first heard about it in 1995. She was lodging with a Russian family in a grim Moscow flat, watching the news on a black-and-white television and trying to make a living at the age of 24 freelancing for the Norwegian press.
Once resolved to find out more, as she writes it, she just talked her way onto a Russian military plane and rocked up in Grozny. At the airport she met two German reporters on their way out, who looked stunned by what they had seen and warned her: “Go back to Moscow. This place is Hell.”
But Seierstad is not easily daunted. Despite the risk — she narrowly avoided being raped by a Russian soldier — she spent most of the next year reporting on the war in the breakaway republic from the viewpoint of Chechen families and fighters.
After that she moved on to other wars but, as she put it, Chechnya had “got under her skin” and in 2006 she decided to go back, slipping across the border illegally.
In the Chechen capital, she stayed in an orphanage run by a woman called Hadijat — the “angel of Grozny”. Left unable to have children of her own by a terrible car accident in Siberia, Hadijat now mothers a flock of traumatised street children.
The resulting book, the Angel of Grozny, is about both Seierstad’s first experience of war and her return to the brutalised land a decade later. Filled with terrible stories of “children who have lost their parents and parents who have lost their children”, it is a story told very much from the Chechen point of view.
Among those she interviews is an old man who, as a child, was a victim of Stalin’s ethnic cleansing in February 1944, when Moscow tried to deport the entire Chechen population on the basis that they might fight on the German side in the war. Chechens were rounded up and transported in coal wagons to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, leaving almost a third of the population dead. Many froze to death, others died of typhus and starvation. Those who survived were allowed home only in 1956, after Stalin’s death and Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalinism.
Most Russians knew nothing about the deportation and it was a taboo subject in history books. But in Chechnya, resentment lives on and the 1994-96 war, followed by a second conflict that began in 1999, served as proof that Russian governments know only the language of force.
As Seierstad writes, Russian suspicion of Chechens runs equally deep. Mothers still lull babies to sleep with a nursery rhyme that ends: “a wicked Chechen crawls onto the bank and sharpens his kinzhal [dagger]”.
Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, calls the conflict an “anti- terrorist operation”. Officials in Moscow argue that after their troops left in 1996, Chechnya became a haven for organised crime, kidnapping and Wahhabi militants. They say they sent in troops only in 1999 after a string of random bomb explosions in Moscow and two southern Russian cities killed more than 200 civilians.
When Seierstad returns to Grozny in 2006, she finds construction under way at frenetic pace, all funded by Moscow. Everywhere there are pictures of Putin’s puppet Ramzan Kadyrov, a Chechen warlord whose clan swapped allegiance at the beginning of the second war in 1999.
She is excellent at describing the personality cult she refers to as “Ramzania”. The warlord turned president keeps four lions, a panther and a tiger, and claims that he spits in their faces before petting them to show who’s boss. He is whizzed about town in a motorcade of 30 speeding vehicles she describes as “silver bullets”, and his ministers and advisers all have his picture on their mobile phones.
Beneath the veneer of stability, Kadyrov runs a reign of terror and Grozny has become a place where “streets have eyes, everyone watches”. Seierstad herself is shadowed everywhere, but manages to sneak back in and meet mothers whose sons have been whisked off the streets, and victims of torture.
It all makes for a fascinating, if often horrifying read. If I have a criticism, it is that while she talks to Chechens who are victims of racist violence in Russia, the only Russian victim she interviews is a young soldier who stepped on a Chechen mine and was blinded. It would have been interesting to hear from some of the Russians forced to leave Chechnya after its declaration of independence in 1991.
The book tends to romanticise the Chechen rebels, yet they have been responsible for some of the world’s most shocking massacres of recent years. I would like to have heard from relatives of the 130 people killed in the Moscow theatre siege in 2002, when Chechen rebels strapped with explosives stormed the building, or the siege of the Beslan school that left 331 people dead, more than half of them children.
For, as is clear from the book’s gruesome opening — in which a young boy smashes a dog’s skull with a brick — this is a conflict where those who are most defenceless have suffered most.
Timothy Phillips applauds Åsne Seierstad's moving exploration of the plight of the Chechens, The Angel of Grozny
Saturday March 29, 2008
The Angel of Grozny:
by Åsne Seierstad, translated by Nadia Christensen
341pp, Virago, £14.99
A popular Chechen singer called Liza Umarova, one of the people the Norwegian war journalist Åsne Seierstad met during her travels for this book, says that in Grozny "the extreme has become everyday". Extremes of terror and violence, of grief and cynicism have been muffled for the last few years in extreme silence, as Vladimir Putin and his puppet-thug Ramzan Kadyrov have told the world that Chechnya is getting better and that everyday life is returning to normal. No one believes them, but it has nevertheless become difficult to hear the truth. In The Angel of Grozny, Seierstad bravely breaks the silence, after making several visits to the desolate province over the last couple of years, sometimes under cover, sometimes as the guest of the misnamed Information Service of the Chechen Representation Office. She had been to Chechnya before, during the first war in the 1990s, and one feels that she knew even then that she would return. The heavily militarised peace of the last couple of years provided her with the opportunity.
On her secret visits in 2006 and 2007, she based herself with Hadijat, a weary, devoted woman who runs an unofficial orphanage in the Chechen capital. (State-run orphanages have been closed down since the Chechen president announced that his war-ravaged land had no need of them.) This haven offers genuine love and care to the children of dead civilians and rebels, and offers the readers of Seierstad's book a kind of anaemic hope in a place that has been all but bled dry.
From here, the author travelled around Chechnya, invariably driven at breakneck speed and without a seatbelt, collecting stories from people who have no one else to tell them to: not only has the extreme become everyday, but the number of willing listeners has been diminished through threats and intimidation. Anna Politkovskaya may have been murdered for listening too closely to these difficult stories.
The realities are harrowing. Chechnya has become cold, hard and grey and Seierstad's sensitive accounts of the experiences of many of the individuals who live there are like sharp nails being dragged across steel - unbearable, yet impossible to ignore. The book contains the best account I have read of Stalin's deportation of Chechen people to Kazakhstan during the second world war.
Quoting an unpublished diary telling of the event, Seierstad describes a teenage mountain boy's excitement at seeing a lorry for the first time, only moments before being herded on to it at the beginning of the long, deadly journey into the desert. Another boy, rescued by the orphanage from a brutalised mother after the most recent conflict, takes solace in a love of horses because he cannot trust humans: "'Horses are nicer than people,' he says. 'They never leave you. They always wait for you ... I know they dream about me at night.'"
Kadyrov and his family have lived through many traumas, including the assassination of his own father, the last president but one, in a bomb attack at the Chechen national stadium in 2004. They now live in a world removed from, but entirely responsible for, the grim reality of Chechnya today. Seierstad's description of the young Kadyrov's court, in particular of his inauguration as president, is excellent and provides a darkly humorous relief from the horrors of the rest of the book. Armed with a private army and festooned in a burgeoning personality cult of Lego-like triumphal arches and Technicolor portraits, Kadyrov and his clan are invulnerable. Even his murdered father is "nowadays a robust bronze statue".
Behind the fake façades of Grozny's repaired apartment blocks, non-existent housewives switch on and sit down to watch Kadyrov's uncle on television, dispensing advice about how to live in accordance with Islamic teachings. At the Grozny Youth Palace, young Chechens come together to lobby for a statue to be erected to the Soviet dictator Khrushchev, to thank him for allowing the Chechen people to return from Kazakhstan in 1957. Think of a group of County Durham miners' children raising a collection for a statue of Edward Heath, to commemorate the fact that he didn't close their parents' pits, and you'll start to understand just how utterly wacky this is. At a football match to mark the reopening of the stadium in which his father was murdered, the Chechen leader plays and miraculously scores first. "Of course he does," Seierstad writes. Just imagine being Kadyrov.
Behind the scenes at this farce, the darkest things imaginable are said to go on in Kadyrov's private prisons: electric shocks, acid baths, the dead and dying together in open trenches. All this is denied by the regime's smirking leadership, but the testimony of Seierstad's interviewees and the work of beleaguered human rights charities such as Memorial bear witness all the same. Seierstad writes that "Ramzan likes to say that he spits in the face of an animal before he pets it, to show who's boss", and this could be a metaphor for his relationship with the entire Chechen people.
There is no time in Chechnya, and no need either, to establish guilt or innocence. Just speaking to a neighbour who is related to a terrorist is enough to attract suspicion. "Those who have contact with the outcasts will themselves become outcasts."
The sections of the book detailing the author's meetings with ordinary Russians outside Chechnya add an important dimension to this story. As well as showing a glimpse of the pain and suffering that Chechens have inflicted - on Russian soldiers, at Beslan, in the Moscow theatre siege and elsewhere - they help us to understand why Kadyrov has been given his job and why he is likely to keep it. By appointing the most violent Chechens he could find to rule over the province, Putin has created a situation in which Chechen people are destroying one another, while causing minimum damage to the rest of the country. There are few people anywhere in the Russian Federation who feel moved to protest against this barbarity.
Seierstad follows the families of three youths on trial for a racist attack on a Chechen schoolboy living in Moscow. There is clear evidence that the defendants belonged to far-right organisations. Their families are uneasy about sympathising but still seek to defend them, half deluded by love, half in agreement with their sons' grievances. A swastika tattooed in the middle of one lad's chest is excused by his mother as the lasting effect of a youthful prank. "He was drunk, and when he woke up, somebody had tattooed it on him." Without seeing any contradiction, the woman's husband adds "Stalin did the only right thing: he deported the entire nation ... Do you know why? Because the Chechens shot us in the back. They collaborated with the Nazis.'" Another relative says senselessly that there is no word for compassion in the Chechen language.
What this important book demonstrates is that there is little time for compassion anywhere in Russia's vast expanses, not just in Chechnya. Even as the writer shows empathy to the sometimes difficult and compromised people she meets, they deny it to one another as though it were a luxury that should not be indulged. For Seierstad, that capacity for compassion is what sets Hadijat and her Grozny orphanage apart.
Timothy Phillips is the author of Beslan: The Tragedy of School No 1 (Granta)
The Angel of Grozny, by Asne Seierstad, trans. Nadia Christensen
Shelter for the orphans of Russia's Chechen storm
Reviewed by Virginia Rounding
Friday, 28 March 2008
Timur likes to imagine he's a wolf. He knows how to kick and how to smash a dog's skull. Pretending to be a wolf gets him through the days, and gives him courage in the cold and frightening nights. But he's not a wolf: he's an 11-year-old child, one of many whose lives have been blighted, by the Chechen wars. Åsne Seierstad, who has spent time with such children, tells their stories with poignancy and compassion. The Angel of Grozny reads at times almost like a novel; the pity is that Seierstad isn't making it up.
Timur was a baby when Russia invaded the Republic of Chechnya at the end of 1994. His father joined the resistance and was killed; his mother died a couple of years later. He and his half-sister Liana were sent to live with an uncle who brutalised them, forcing them on the streets to beg or steal, beating them with a red-hot cable if they came home empty-handed. When Timur could stand it no longer, he ran away.
The "angel" who came to his rescue was Hadijat, a Chechen woman unable to have children of her own, who has found herself looking after dozens of the damaged children of Grozny. Many start to flourish in her care. But for some the warping of their characters, by what they have seen and endured is too severe to be repaired. One such case is that of Liana, Timur's sister. No matter what is said to her, no matter how repentant she is and how hard she tries, she cannot give up stealing. Her hands reach out despite herself, and it's hard to see what hope there is.
Seierstad first visited Chechnya during the first war in the mid-1990s, when she was able to cadge a lift to Grozny in a military plane. She returned in 2006, but this time had to be smuggled in; these days, the few officially sanctioned journalists are presented with a sanitised, Kremlin-approved version of the situation.
If Chechens have been damaged, by this conflict, then so have Russians, and Seierstad does not take sides when narrating tales of individual misery. One ex-soldier she meets is Nikolai, the victim of a particularly Russian sort of bureaucracy. After stepping on a landmine, he is utterly dependent on his mother. But when she applies for his veteran's pension, it seems the army has forgotten to discharge him. As far as the officials in Moscow are concerned, the blind and brain-damaged man standing in front of them is theoretically still in Chechnya and hence ineligible for a pension.
Considering the future, Seierstad identifies three issues of concern. The first is the rise of Islamic fundamentalism among Chechen youth, exacerbated, by the sometimes brutal conduct of Russian forces. Connected to this is the deteriorating position of women, and the continued prevalence of "honour killings". On the other side, there is the upsurge of a form of Russian patriotism, whose slogan is "Russia for the Russians", which can become indistinguishable from racism. Chechens are an obvious target. Not only are they implicated in rebellion now, but they have been portrayed in Russian literature as dangerous and wild for generations.
Virginia Rounding's 'Catherine the Great' is published, by Arrow
Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 30/03/2008
Marcus Warren reviews The Angel of Grozny: Inside Chechnya by Asne Seierstad
Warning! Outsiders - and everyone other than the natives is made to feel profoundly alien in Chechnya - should stay away. It's a very dangerous (statement of the obvious) and, for many of those living there in recent years, hellish place (not hyperbole).
But anyone who has ventured there is both captivated and appalled. How could it be otherwise when today's world of massacres, a resurgent Russia, kidnapping and militant Islam collides so spectacularly with a world of blood feuds, clans, warlords and brigands that harks back centuries?
Of course, the blowhards from the fraternity of international war correspondents have passed through from time to time, hotfoot from the Balkans perhaps or en route to Afghanistan or Iraq.
But few ever tarried long. The conflict was too risky to cover, too ambiguous, too impenetrable, too remote in every sense of the word.
Their failure marked an opportunity for new talent, much of it that of women journalists who excelled at bringing alive the fighting and the suffering of civilians caught up in the middle of it. The late Anna Politkovskaya, for example, paid for her efforts with her life: the only conceivable motive for her murder was her reporting on Chechnya.
Now Asne Seierstad, perpetrator of one of the greatest literary stitch-ups of recent times, The Bookseller of Kabul, her exposé of a domestic tyrant lording it over his family, has joined this band of sisters. (Shah Muhammad Rais always seemed perfectly agreeable to me, but then I never inveigled myself into the bosom of the bookseller's family to demolish the man's reputation.)
No, in case you're wondering, Seierstad is not the angel of Grozny of the title. That honour belongs to the heroic Hadijat, a protector of orphans and abandoned children amid the city's ruins.
But yes, here once again Seierstad performs feats of courage, empathy and journalistic enterprise to convey what it is to live under the terrifying rule of Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin stooge who now runs Chechnya in despotic style, personality cult and all.
Many of her fans will love this book. And it certainly succeeds in one thing: it allows the voices of ordinary Chechens, too little heard in the past, to sound beyond the desolate plains and ravines and foothills of the North Caucasus.
So far, so praiseworthy. But for this reader at least it fell far short of the book it could or should have been. 'I do not count the victims... I recount their stories,' the author tells us. Yes, but stories on their own tell us only so much about their narrators and the worlds they live in.
Seierstad is a diligent journalistic digger who, for example, bags interviews with many of the (now dead) leaders of the Chechen separatist movement and Kadyrov himself. She is a good listener too. But she rarely subjects what she hears to any critical interrogation.
Flashes of insight are few and far between. 'Everything in Chechnya had two explanations, one Russian and one Chechen,' is the closest we approach to any real examination of her own role in the narrative.
And such rare passages are muffled by thudding prose such as 'the blood flows into the mud'. Yes, that's how the book really opens. Let's be charitable and blame the translation from the Norwegian.
For all her vivid portraits of individuals, the backdrop against which they are painted is daubed in such broad brush strokes - and the colours used so washed out - that the overall effect lacks life, let alone depth.
'The bear, with all its strike power, was on a wolf hunt,' we are told of the start of the (first) 1994-1996 war between Russia and the Chechen rebels. A few lines earlier we are informed that 'the main reason for invading Chechnya was the political ambitions of Yeltsin and his inner circle'.
Up to a point Seierstad is right about the 'political ambitions'. But in a book more than 300 pages long the reader deserves more, as do the people of Chechnya and the Russians who have lost so many of their young men there.
When everyone believes that they are a victim of someone or something else - and outsiders fail to challenge them on it - the result is a charnel house such as Chechnya has had the misfortune to be in recent years.
September 21, 2008
By PETER BAKER
THE ANGEL OF GROZNY
Orphans of a Forgotten War
By Asne Seierstad. Translated by Nadia Christensen
340 pp. Basic Books. $25.95
They steal, they hit, they kill dogs. And for New Year, they decorate the holiday tree in the backyard with the skeleton of a Russian soldier.
After some 14 years of war, terror and lawlessness, the children of Chechnya have been damaged in ways outsiders can barely fathom. Even now, with the war part of the war essentially over, Chechnya remains a place of hidden horrors, where life is fragile and exceedingly cheap.
The world long ago turned its gaze away, content that the big guns had been silenced and uninterested in peering beyond the illusion of stability that Vladimir Putin’s government in Moscow presents. But Asne Seierstad forces us to look again, to confront the reality of a savage place, to recognize that a broken, brutalized people have only begun to figure out how deep the wounds really go.
“The Angel of Grozny,” as it happens, comes at a grimly appropriate moment, as Russian tanks have once again been rolling through the tumultuous Caucasus, this time in the former Soviet republic of Georgia and its breakaway enclave of South Ossetia, not all that many miles from where Seierstad’s narrative plays out. As a French journalist friend who also once covered the region suggested in an e-mail message, you have a pretty chilling sense of déjà vu if you swap the words “Georgia” and “Chechnya.”
This remote part of the world, with its mix of nationalities, religions and languages, has long endured or rebelled against domination from Moscow, making it the tinderbox at the bottom of the Russian empire. But the trials of these people last far longer than any particular burst of shelling or cascade of bombing. The fear and dysfunction of daily life after the wars, or between them, are no less profound.
Seierstad, a Norwegian journalist who achieved international fame with the best-selling “Bookseller of Kabul,” has gone back to Chechnya, long after most Western writers have moved on, and produced a gripping portrait of a forgotten war zone, looking past the superficial signs of recovery to find that while buildings may be reconstructed, souls are not so easily repaired.
Seierstad was one of many Moscow correspondents who trekked down south during the first Chechen war, which lasted from 1994 to 1996. She did not return until 2006, after the second Chechen war, launched by Putin in 1999, had largely ended, won by Moscow not so much through force on the ground as by buying off enough of the other side and giving converted separatists free rein to rule as they wished so long as they paid official fealty to the Kremlin.
Even now, Chechnya remains a land of disappearances and destitution, torture and travail, reprisals and repression. As Seierstad prepares to enter the region in disguise, she is advised to stop smiling because of course no Chechen woman would have much to smile about. “Keep your head down, frown and look unfriendly,” she is instructed.
She tells the stories of victims from both sides, the traumatized Chechens and the disfigured Russians. She writes about Iznaur, a Chechen boy who disappeared in 2000, not to return until 2007, tortured by a Russian lieutenant who assumed he had information about the separatists. The Russian hammered a nail into his shoulder, drove a pencil into his chest, pulled flesh out of his chest with tongs. “To get me to talk,” Iznaur explains.
Another victim of the same lieutenant, Seierstad writes, demanded to speak to a lawyer when he was seized. The soldiers happily gave him a phone, but with wires connected to his ear and finger, so that when he dialed, the current was activated and he shocked himself. The procedure was called zvonok advokatu — calling a lawyer.
On the other side, Seierstad travels to the home of a Russian soldier blinded and maimed by a land mine and essentially forgotten by the country he served. His mother cannot get the Defense Ministry to help the young man because records show he is still fighting in Chechnya. Even bringing her son to a military bureaucrat’s office to prove he is not does no good.
What’s most telling, though, are the twisted psyches of some of the people she meets, especially the children. She spends time in the home of Hadijat and Malik, who have taken in orphans, many of them troubled or beaten down. Although they make up only part of the book, Hadijat is the angel of Seierstad’s title, and in this rendering she earns the description. These are the children who bash rocks against dogs’ heads and recover the skeletal remains of a Russian sharpshooter for holiday decoration. One of the boys confides to Seierstad that he believes he has evil in his heart.
The book largely stays away from geopolitics, though the author skillfully depicts the fawning nature of Putin’s state-controlled television and includes a revealing visit with Putin’s hand-picked president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, whose armed Kadyrovtsi are widely accused of terrorizing the countryside. Kadyrov denies having anything to do with the murder of the courageous Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, asserting that she was killed by her own patrons. “As a woman,” he says dismissively, “she should have stayed in the kitchen.”
Seierstad skates a little too lightly over abuses by the other side, still referring to it as “the resistance,” a more romantic phrase than may be merited by the trail of civilian corpses left behind by suicide bombings and hostage takings. For those of us who sidestepped body bags filled with children slain in the siege of the school in Beslan in 2004, the romance of that resistance faded long ago.
Still, Seierstad has produced a masterly and much needed call to attention for the international community. In Nadia Christensen’s translation, Seierstad displays the same literary style that distinguished “The Bookseller of Kabul,” a lyrical account of an Afghan family she lived with for several months in 2002. Her portrayal of a sophisticated man of letters who at home could be a cruel patriarch struck a nerve in the West. But it outraged its subject, who complained that Seierstad abused his hospitality and presented a warped version of his family’s life. The bookseller eventually wrote his own volume rebutting hers.
This time around, Seierstad writes, she showed Hadijat and Malik the portions of the book detailing their lives and those of the children they care for, gaining their approval for her accounts. She says she changed the names of all the children and let the adults decide for themselves whether they wanted to be identified by their real names. However faithful the details may be, the portrait she offers is certainly reflective of larger truths in Chechnya today.
These are not truths that Putin’s Russia wants to confront. Like their president turned prime minister, many Russians resent the judgment of outsiders and have little sympathy for the Chechens. Seierstad encountered this bitterness on a train ride when the others in her compartment asked what she was doing in their country.
“The book is about those who have been destroyed in the war,” she explains. “Who have been violated. Who, yes, have been dispossessed.”
“But why do you have to come here to write about that?” one passenger asks. “Can’t you pick on your own country?”
“What right do you have to criticize us?” another asks. “Who gave you that right?”
Fortunately for us, and for her subjects, she has claimed that right anyway. And if there are few angels watching over the orphans of Grozny, at least they have someone to tell their stories.
Peter Baker is a Washington correspondent for The Times and a co-author, with Susan Glasser, of “Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the End of Revolution.”
The Sydney Morning Herald
March 22, 2008
Grozny's lost boys
Asne Seierstad met Chechnya's victors and victims. It is the orphans she cannot forget, writes Jacqueline Maley.
The Angel of Grozny: Inside Chechnya by Asne Seierstad (Little, Brown, $35).
The office of the Chechen President, Ramzan Kadyrov, is festooned with pictures of Che Guevara and Vladimir Putin, and lined with bookshelves sporting weighty titles like The Importance and Ideas of the Koran, A Latin-Russian Dictionary of Legal Terms, and Melodies of the Mountains. The room features a Persian rug and a mahogany desk laid with gilt pens, next to which sits, improbably, a cactus.
Oddly, it is one of the only official places in Chechnya where there are no portraits of the President, and the centre of a huge cult of personality designed to bolster his hold on the country. The streets of the capital, Grozny, are lined with pictures of him, and the evening television features programs devoted to his virtues.
If Kadyrov is in his office he is likely to be lounging in his chair like a louche schoolboy, his feet on the desk, furiously sending text messages. In an ante-room outside the office sit his private bodyguards, the Kadyrovsky, fiddling with their guns.
The Kadyrovsky are a group of heavies who have groomed their Islamic beards to look like their 31-year-old leader, and who are accused of gross abuses of Chechen citizens. One human rights group, The Society for Threatened Peoples based in Germany, estimates they are responsible for 75 per cent of recent incidents of murder, torture, rape and kidnapping in Chechnya.
Kadyrov denies the alleged abuses, just as he denies reports of a private prison on his family compound. He says Chechnya is "now the world's most peaceful place" and declares that tourists will soon be streaming in to visit its mountains. He rejects reports of orphan hordes who prowl the bombed-out streets of Grozny, and he has closed all the state-run orphanages.
"There are no Chechen children who don't have relations," he has said. UNICEF disagrees. It estimates that since 1994 to the present day about 25,000 children in Chechnya have lost one or both parents.
An estimated 100,000 Chechens died or disappeared in the conflict, which began with the Russian invasion in 1994 and continued until the re-assertion of Russian-backed rule in 2000. Since then the insurgency, including bloody terrorist attacks on Russian soil, has claimed thousands more lives.
Kadyrov's rose-tinted vision of his country is at odds with the picture painted by the Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad, whose book examines the beleaguered region years after its wars officially finished and the world's attention moved on.
The book, The Angel of Grozny, is an earnest, if sometimes disjointed, account of the lives of ordinary Chechens. It presents the splintered reality of life after war, in a nation where the bolsters of civil society - mutual trust, confidence in the rule of law and a sense of shared values - have been pulverised.
This social decimation wreaks the greatest havoc on the society's most vulnerable - its orphans, who are deeply traumatised, and who in many cases have learnt to survive through violence. Abused children who in some cases have become abusers themselves.
"You can try to count the dead. You can argue about the numbers. You can count the maimed," she writes.
"Where in the statistics do you find a violated childhood?"
In her book, Seierstad bears witness to these childhoods. She stayed for several months in the orphanage set up by the book's eponymous angel of Grozny, a stout, devoutly Muslim Chechen woman named Hadijat. Seierstad got to know the children, gradually piecing together their shattered, and shattering, stories.
This was not her first visit to the troubled region. She was 24 and working freelance for a Norwegian newspaper when she covered the first Chechen war in 1994. She spent a year moving between the Russian military lines and Chechen villages where separatist rebels were holed up. She went on to cover wars in Serbia, Afghanistan and Iraq, but Chechnya, with its fierce, freedom-loving people, its wild, Sufi-influenced brand of Islam and its soaring mountains, nagged at her.
"I had kind of forgotten about Chechnya but it crept under my skin," she says. "I had these feelings of bad conscience that I had left them, forgotten about them, just like everybody else. Maybe there was some reason that all this experience had stayed with me. So I felt it was time to wrap it up."
In 2006 she returned to Chechnya twice, first in disguise as a peasant woman, and later as an official guest of the dubious Russian-backed Chechen government, where she experienced first hand the cavalier attitudes of president Kadyrov.
But it was the troubled children whose story she most wanted to tell. There is Timur, 12, known as Little Wolf, who ran away from his abusive uncle and lived rough in the bombed-out buildings of Grozny, collecting pieces of broken concrete which he sold for a pittance. This small, abused boy slaughters stray dogs, because it is the only thing that soothes what he calls his "evil heart".
When Timur ran away, he told Seierstad, he left behind his little sister Liana, who was raped on a daily basis by their uncle. Eventually he went back for her, and after living rough for a while both children ended up in Hadijat's orphanage.
Liana bonded strongly to Hadijat, but began to steal. She took trinkets from the other children, money from the purses of the orphanage's staff and, once, Hadijat's entire weekly bread budget. She spent it on ice cream for the other children, in full knowledge that she would be caught.
Liana is sweet and loving, Seierstad says, but struggles to master even the most basic language skills and arithmetic. Her classmates shun her because of her compulsive stealing. "This is a girl who just can't cope with what has happened to her and she's desperate," says Seierstad, who still speaks regularly to Hadijat.
"She is desperate for attention, even if it's negative attention … I would have loved to get them all psychologists …" she trails off.
Instead, Seierstad has used some of the money from this book and her previous bestseller, The Bookseller of Kabul, to buy Hadijat some land. A bakery is being built next to the orphanage so the children will have bread and, later, a place to work.
"Those are the things I can do, help them financially," Seierstad says.
"Someone like Liana, she is not going to learn much at school, but maybe she could become the best baker in Grozny. She could become someone."
It is a sickly weak ray of hope in a country where misery seems to be a way of life. Seierstad's book is swarming with tragic stories, painstakingly recorded years after more newsworthy conflicts have replaced Chechnya in the headlines.
Seierstad has peered through both sides of the looking glass. She has met the victims and victors of the Chechen war. There is the villager who lost five out of six of her children to war, the Russian soldier crippled on the Chechen front and forgotten by his country, and the story of the Chechen immigrant to Russia who suffers a racist bashing.
The plight of Grozny's survivors is most stark when set against the excesses of the war's victors. Chief among them are Kadyrov and his family. Seierstad, granted a rare interview with the President, saw a bullying and erratic man with the attention span of a toddler. He spent large parts of the interview praising Vladimir Putin, who put him in power, and held forth on the "value" of women and their place in the home. He laughed at suggestions he had anything to do with the murder of the Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya.
"We don't kill women, we love them."
For Seierstad, the man who directs the future of this broken land offered little hope of change. "He's of limited intelligence, but I think he has no limits when it comes to violence or killing."
Sunday, March 9 2008
When the Russian bear roared
Asne Seierstad's The Angel of Grozny reports on the lies and misinformation that surround the war in Chechnya, says Viv Groskop
The Angel of Grozny: Inside Chechnya
by Asne Seierstad
Virago £14.99, pp352
In this ambitious account, Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad, author of the non-fiction, international bestseller The Bookseller of Kabul, turns her attention to Chechnya. She first visited the country as a 24-year-old rookie reporter in 1994 and, having made her name and her fortune with the Kabul book, decided to return in 2006 and 2007 to see what had become of it. She wanted to turn her attention to a place the world seemed to have forgotten and to tell the stories of the many Chechens, children especially, who have known nothing but war their whole lives.
The book's title refers to Hadijat, a woman who runs a centre for homeless children. Some of the book's most haunting stories come from Hadijat and her charges, most of them orphans who lost their parents in the war or have just been abandoned and forgotten. 'Hadijat rescued children from the ruins and she never turned away anyone who needed a home. That's how she came to be called the Angel of Grozny.'
The text swiftly veers away from the orphanage and on to stories of torture, honour killings, military cock-ups. Seierstad visits anyone with an extreme tale to tell who is not afraid to talk (which excludes most of the population). She catalogues the nonsensical, quasi-Soviet prattlings of the new regime and even manages to get an audience with Chechnya's infamous President Ramzan Kadyrov, who is supported by Moscow and whose paramilitary force, the Kadyrovtsy, is accused of numerous human-rights abuses.
As a crash course on recent Chechen and Russian history, Seierstad's account is invaluable: she presents all the confusing contradictions of the conflict in a straightforward, accessible way, which is no mean feat. But unlike with The Bookseller of Kabul, an intimate look at a family at the heart of historical events, the aims of this book are not clear. It's not a compelling 'personal meets political' narrative. But it is not a campaigning exposé of human-rights abuses in Chechnya either, in the tradition of books such as A Dirty War or Putin's Russia by Anna Politkovskaya (both published by Harvill, and cited here frequently). Instead, it is a meandering collection of disparate stories, the 'angel' of the title appearing only intermittently.
Then there is the 'imagined' quality of some of the passages, which raises the spectre of the fall-out over The Bookseller of Kabul. The original bookseller, whose family took in Seierstad for several months and agreed that she could write about them, accused her of slander and betrayal. He did not eventually pursue these claims, but the charge opened an important debate about non-fiction and how a reporter portrays what others are thinking and have experienced, especially when the subjects are from another culture and speak another language. (Seierstad is a fluent Russian speaker, but many of the conversations in this book take place in Chechen.)
The bookseller's complaints came back to me as I read the first chapter of The Angel of Grozny, written in a 'faction' style. It describes the street life of a 12-year-old boy who sees himself as 'a wolf' or, rather, the writer sees him as a wolf. It is told in language, idiom and images that no 12-year-old boy could possibly have expressed: 'He was so thin that when he squatted to clean the bricks his bones stuck out like two points from the seat of his trousers.'
From what vantage point is the writer speaking? (She is describing a period in the boy's life long before she knew him.) On the boy as a baby, she writes: 'Before he could walk he saw people stagger, fall and remain lying on the ground.' Again, would a 12-year-old actually say this? Or is the writer just imagining what it must be like to be a baby in a war zone? Sometimes, the blurring of reportage and imagined scenes is uncomfortable.
This is not to underestimate or disparage Seierstad's efforts. To write this book was an extraordinarily brave endeavour, arguably far more dangerous than anything she has undertaken for her previous books on Afghanistan, Iraq and Serbia. Throughout the text, Seierstad does not even seem fully to realise to what extent her life must have been at risk. On one occasion, she smuggles herself into Chechnya illegally. This is either insane, extremely courageous or perhaps both.
But although the stories Seierstad has found are moving and troubling, they are also, as a Russian traveller chides her on the train journey back to Moscow, simply stories of the dispossessed. Such people can be found everywhere in the world - it is when the events they recount can be shown to be systemic, repeated and sanctioned by those in power that they become a matter for outrage. This is the quality her book lacks.
While Seierstad's Chechen narrators have tragic, brutal and shocking stories, their accounts are not cross-checked in any way, something Anna Politkovskaya did extensively in her work because she realised the word of one witness is not enough. You need several corroborative accounts of the same event. Ideally, you need several people independently making similar statements. That is what made Politkovskaya's work so powerful.
That said, Seierstad can get away with a lot because of the strength of her writing. She has a real eye for detail and the human heart of a story. The book is at its most successful when she's describing what this journey is like for her personally; the time when she finds out that her mother has called her editor and asked him to pull her out of Chechnya (he attempts to but she goes anyway), or the moment when she has to extricate herself from the clutches of a soldier dragging her into the woods, presumably to rape her.
Ultimately The Angel of Grozny raises more questions than it answers. Sadly, it also lacks the intimacy that first made Seierstad's name.
October 25, 2008
THE ANGEL OF GROZNY
Orphans of a Forgotten War
By Asne Seierstad
Translated by Nadia Christensen
Basic Books, 352 pages $27.95
The Angel of Grozny, the latest book by Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad, who rose to fame with 2003's The Bookseller of Kabul, is not an easy read.
From the opening chapter, which describes the bleak life of a Grozny street kid, to harrowing accounts of Stalin's mass deportations of Chechens to Central Asia, through to interviews with modern-day victims of "chechenized" violence, the book is not for the faint of heart.
And it is much to Seierstad's credit that she journeyed back to a dangerous land she'd first encountered as a young journalist in the wake of the 1994 Russian invasion. Over a series of clandestine trips in 2006-2007, she captured the horror stories of everyday people in the "peacetime" Chechnya ruled by Ramzan Kadyrov, an uneducated Putin-backed dictator with his own torture farms.
Indeed, others have met untimely ends after doing what Seierstad has done, notably murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. But thanks to a Chechen woman friend and an elaborate disguise - complete with dyed, arched eyebrows, traditional head scarf and modest body language - Seierstad travelled throughout Chechnya incognito, visiting victims of state-sponsored violence and documenting their stories, often never heard in the West.
However, Angel of Grozny can be a difficult read not only for its queasy details of torture and depravity, but also because of its often disjointed narrative. Part quasi-fictionalized account (an often-criticized style the author employed in Bookseller), part sociological study, part journalistic travelogue and part Amnesty International-style document, the book fails to consistently engage the reader emotionally.
One almost senses a deliberate reserve, a certain distance from the Chechens and Russians who appear in her book, perhaps born from the brouhaha that erupted when the bookseller of Kabul himself - Mohammed Shah Rais - launched a media campaign to discredit Seierstad for "defaming" him and violating the guest-host relationship.
Arguments about cultural relativity and journalistic ethics aside, Angel of Grozny disappoints for its lack of emotional connection with the people whose lives it documents, vilifies, celebrates and mourns.
Although the "angel" of the book's title - a childless Chechen woman who runs a home for street kids in Grozny - and her young charges are the book's narrative anchor, they flit in and out of the story line. And even though their tragic tales - and the author's attempt to show the true social cost of war-ravaged childhoods - are brimming with humanity and good intentions, the intimacy needed to make the reader truly care is sadly lacking.
But this emotional disconnect does not diminish the importance of the book and its revelations about a conflict and a long-suffering people too often ignored by Western observers.
There are some truly compelling passages, particularly in the account, recreated from a young boy's diary, of the horrific suffering caused by Stalin's deportation of the Chechens in 1944, in which a quarter of the population perished. The descriptions of emaciated children being fed "pancakes" made of straw and water, corpses unceremoniously dumped by Russian soldiers from the death trains and, most hauntingly, the story of two young children abandoned in a frozen wasteland when the train doors slam shut in front of them, are powerful.
Seierstad also draws important historical parallels between Stalin's labelling of many ethnic minorities in the former Soviet Union as "enemies of the people" through to Yeltsin and Putin labelling all Chechens as "terrorists" and dismissing massive aerial bombardment of civilian areas as attacks on "bandit country."
Still, apart from some interesting detail about traditional Chechen animism fused with Sufism versus the Wahabist Islam introduced by foreign fighters in the nineties, a few folk songs and poems, and some evocative descriptions of cuisine, the author does not penetrate the soul of Chechnya.
But Seierstad does make some valiant attempts. In one chapter, she interviews a shy, affable young man, full of religious ideals and moral pronouncements, about how he murdered his elder sister for "family honour" based on rumours about her "bad" behaviour. Similarly, she presents a moving account of a Russian soldier, blinded and maimed by a land mine outside of Grozny and then abandoned by his government, but who still spouts jingoistic phrases about the fatherland and racist slurs about Chechens. In a long chapter documenting the trial of three young Russians charged with racist violence (against Chechens and Jews), she provides composite portraits of their families, who can't quite believe their children are neo-Nazis and yet seem openly sympathetic to their "Russia for Russians" ideology.
In a chapter where Seierstad - part of a Moscow-sanctioned press trip full of enthusiastic minders spouting absurdities about Chechnya's freedom, safety and tremendous potential for tourism - visits Kadyrov's headquarters, she is at her best. Her observations about the Soviet-meets-Alice-in-Wonderland euphemisms of Stepford-wifeish, stiletto-shod young women working at the new Ministry of Information, and their muscle-bound, text-messaging-mad male counterparts, are sharp and witty. Their denials of any human-rights abuses are met by horrific accounts of torture farms, where Kadyrov's young secret police, thugs and paramilitaries feast on lamb kebabs between bouts of gouging out eyeballs. And when she finally gets an interview with the 31-year-old Kadyrov, she reveals him as a fidgety, dimwitted thug, keenly aware of his own vulnerability and puppet-of-Putin status.
Seierstad's descriptions of the Kadyrov personality cult (statues and images galore, man on the street interviews conducted with ever-present government minders singing the praises of the great leader) are reminiscent of Saddam-era Iraq - a comparison she makes herself. But the less obvious, more sinister and current Iraqi comparison lies in her description of the "chechenizing" of violence and torture in the brave new state - essentially the way Russians have found to get the worst elements in Chechen society to do their dirty work. Similarly, her account of the initial, ill-planned Russian invasion of Chechnya, originally conceived as a short-term operation, being met by guerrilla warfare and turning into a 12-year nightmare that has claimed the lives of 100,000 Chechens, reads as a cautionary tale of imperial hubris.
Observers of Israel-Palestine will also find food for thought in Seierstad's descriptions of mutual Chechen-Russian fear and demonization, as well as her moral criticism of both sides, which she holds jointly, if not equally, accountable for ongoing atrocities. The author's well-meaning attempt to show the ills of war via the damage done to children caught in its wake, ending with the heartfelt confession of an abused little girl turned thief who is hoping to mend her ways, smacks of Lutheran zeal.
Intriguingly, the book's most emotionally honest moments come when the author describes her own experiences: crawling through a quagmire of corpses while being shot at and narrowly escaping rape at the hands of a Russian soldier in 1994; having her journalistic ambitions thwarted by her mother calling her editor with concerns about her safety, only to be rescued by colleagues who pay her way to Grozny by hiring her as a translator; giving a Polaroid photo of herself to a Chechen rebel who shows it to his comrades and calls her his "sweetheart."
One almost wishes that the bookseller of Kabul had carried through with his threat of writing a book about Seierstad. She seems like a fascinating person. If only she had revealed a bit more of herself and the emotional truths she discovered, Angel of Grozny might have been more than a worthy account of a long-suffering people.
Hadani Ditmars is author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone. Her next book recounts her return to Lebanon after working with street kids in postwar Beirut.