Nick Holdsworth reports on how a war-torn city's schools are being brought back to life. Bomb-damaged schools in the Chechenian capital of Grozny are being rebuilt as the Russian drive to bring people back to the war-devastated city increases .
Night-time gunfire can still can be heard in the ruins of Grozny. The Russian army is still bombing and shelling villages only 30 miles away as Chechen separatist militias continue their five-month-long struggle for independence, Amid the fighting, however, Russian federal authorities are determined to re-establish the education system.
There were 58 schools in Grozny before the Russian army launched its assault on Chechen President Dudayev's forces last December. Many became focal points for the street-to-street fighting which followed and 26 buildings were destroyed and a further 12 seriously damaged.
The city centre is in ruins, with the scale of devastation being compared to that experienced by Dresden after Allied bombing in the Second World War. The 20 schools still standing are mostly in suburban areas, and although they have gaping holes where windows and walls used to be, they are still able to function.
Vladimir Batsin, deputy federal education minister in Moscow who has just returned from a fact-finding tour of Grozny, said: "It's quite easy to imagine what the city looked like after being bombarded and pounded with artillery, especially when you consider that the schools were points of resistance and defence by Chechen fighters."
He does not avoid difficult questions about Russian troops deliberately burning and vandalising schools after hostilities ceased. Their behaviour is a "shameful point", he concedes.
"But today the main task of the federal ministry is to tackle the difficult and complex problem of providing education in Chechenia."
Rebuilding or repairing schools, replacing staff and gradually returning about 20,000 refugee schoolchildren are among the priorities. The ministry's blueprint for Grozny schools shows 41 should have been functioning by early May, with more than 760 staff teaching some 6,300 students The ministry has also appointed a new Chechen education minister, Yefim Galymen, and is parading his Jewish background as a sign of Russian tolerance.
Mr Batsin described the horrors of President Dudayev's education policy over the past three years such as reducing compulsory education to just three years for girls and five for boys, and boasting that the young men doing best in business often had little or no education.
"Despite this, virtually no schools were shut down," said Mr Batsin. "It seems impossible, but teachers taught there for three years with virtually no wages." The challenge now, he said, is "to return the education system to functioning as it did before Dudayev".
There is a whiff of propaganda about much that Mr Batsin says. But Russian educationists confirm life is beginning to return to schools in Grozny.
Grigoryi Tarasevich, a reporter with Moscow-based education newspaper Uchitelskaya Gazeta (Teachers' Gazette), who was in Grozny last month, reported that schools are being restored. He saw one with a gaping hole in the first floor, but lessons were taking place and the school was working as normally as possible in the conditions.
"Builders are working on restoration projects, but they complain that there is no accommodation for them and no money for their wages," he said.
It seems clear that federal cash is being spent on Grozny's schools. But Mr Tarasevich claimed that 430 other schools in Chechenia's rural areas, many of which have also been damaged during the conflict, are being neglected.