Fight for a future

9th June 2000 at 01:00
The war in Chechnya has displaced tens of thousands of school-age children. And, unlike the young refugees of Kosovo, there is little prospect of them returning home. Kate Brooks visits a camp in Ingushetia where the lucky few are still getting an education - just.

Every morning, like millions of children all over the world, six-year-old Opti Musanov kisses his mother goodbye and trots off to school. Except that, for Opti, home is a disused railway carriage and school is a tent. He and his family are refugees from the war in Chechnya. They have been living with dozens of other Chechen families on the overcrowded train carriages at Sleptsovsk, in neighbouring Ingushetia, since they fled the Chechen capital, Grozny, last November. Their carriage, number 61, is one of 105 from an abandoned diesel train, each crammed with more than 60 people. Next to the train is a tented camp holding 9,000 people with facilities for fewer than 5,000. They are living off handouts of soup and bread.

Opti says he wants to go home, but he understands that he no longer has one. Having just started primary school when the Russians attacked Chechnya last year, he did not know a single letter of the Cyrillic alphabet when he and his family fled into Ingushetia.

He is one of 75,000 school-age Chechens registered as refugees in Ingushetia. He is also one of the lucky ones: his parents are alive and he has been able to continue his education.

According to Ramzan Avtorkhanov, director of the school at Opti's camp, there has been virtually no education system in Chechnya for five or six years. The present generation of children and adolescents has grown up amid the violence, wreckage and poverty of conflict with no schooling. When the first round of fighting ended in 1996, many schools, especially those in villages, did not re-open. Those that did often had to ask parents to pay fees because teachers were receiving no salaries. The cost - 50 roubles a month (pound;6 at the time) put classes beyond the reach of many. "A generation of children is growing up illiterate and inumerate," says Ramzan Avtorkhanov.

The origins of the war go back to 1991, when Chechnya declared independence from Russia. Three years later, the then president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, launched a full-scale invasion to reclaim the breakaway republic, which contains rich oilfields and a crucial oil pipeline linking the Caspian Sea to Russian ports on the Black Sea.

The Russians took Grozny in 1996, after virtually razing the city in a war in which 80,000 Chechens died and another 300,000 were displaced. Yeltsin offered Chechnya autonomy within the Russian Federation, but the Chechens refused and reassumed control of their capital.

A ceasefire agreed in May 1997 broke down last September when Vladimir Putin - then prime minister but since elected president - sent the Russian army back in to crush the rebels, whom he blamed for a series of terrorist attacks in Russia and for fomenting trouble in neighbouring Dagestan. The Russian flag now flies over what is left of Grozny, but the war continues in the mountain areas.

As a result of the fighting, most teenagers have been educated only to primary school level. "They are well informed about current affairs," says Radima Chakhciyeva, an educational therapist who runs a psycho-social group at the camp, five kilometres from the Chechen border, "but when they are asked to write compositions or make drawings, you can clearly see how poorly educated they are."

At the camp school, 20 teachers are trying to help 83 students - traumatised by war and living in appalling conditions - catch up on their lost schooling. "When the child lives in an unstable and unpeaceful situation, he is unable to concentrate," says Moussa Dalsaev, president of the Association of Psychiatrists, Narcologists and Psychologists of the Chechen Republic. "Sometimes just a few words are said by a teacher that flashes him back to war. Those children must be rehabilitated, otherwise the trauma will stand between the teacher and the student."

As a result, pupils at the school, aged from six to 16, attend classes for just two hours a day from 11am, concentrating on rehabilitative exercises. But the children still need frequent breaks of 10 to 15 minutes. Acute stress can pass within a month after the event if dealt with effectively. But if left untreated, the next stage - post traumatic stress syndrome - can lead to severe personality disorders.

Drawing pictures of war and writing essays about what they have witnessed is an effective therapy for traumatised children. One child at the camp school wrote a "letter" entitled "What I would tell Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin about War", which railed against the politicians who stoke the conflict: "Those who are sitting on the top don't watch the pain of wounded citizens. They do not hear mothers moaning for their dead sons; the child in search of its mother's milk and hand when she is lying dead.

"And they do not know how it feels when there is no grave to bury one's mother's body because there are snipers everywhere outside.

"And they don't know how it feels when one's beloved, adored native town is being ruined.

"And they don't have the experience of staying outside in the night because one's home is only ruins.

"And they don't how hungry I feel when watching people eating on TV."

The rehabilitation classes are very popular among the children. "The school and the group are the only places for them to be relaxed, to feel what they are and to feel that they are cared for - that's why even the kids who don't attend academic classes come," says Radima Chakhciyeva. "Now they at least draw and speak of war. They are active, not suppressed."

The traditional Chechen dancing classes with "The Sultan" are a particular favourite. Every afternoon, from 4-6pm, the children proudly stand to attention in their tattered clothes with a white cloth around their waists, girls separated from boys to ensure they do not touch. Sultan Sihanov tells them that, in spite of the war, they must continue to practise their traditions. "Our spirit will not be broken," he says.

Having discovered that Sultan is from his neighbourhood in Grozny, Opti hopes that one day he will be able to study under him in Chechnya proper.

The Russian military claims the conflict in Chechnya is drawing to a close, but it seems a long war of attrition lies ahead. In a sign of what may be to come, last month guerrillas ambushed a Russian convoy in Ingushetia, killing at least 18 troops.

Opti Musanov and children like him will remain refugees in Ingushetia for the foreseeable future. Their plight is not helped by the reluctance of the major aid organisations to interfere in the internal affairs of major powers, especially as hundreds of aid workers have been kidnapped and tortured in the region in recent years. For now, school is the one stable influence the children can latch on to. "They want a normal life," says Radima Chakhciyeva. "But they have started to understand that school is the best thing they have."

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