The Chechen soldiers' return to the courtyard at Kahdizhat Gatayeva's orphanage meant fun for the children. They could run around inspecting the different uniforms, gape at the grenade launchers and rifles, accept gifts of candy. It pleased them to do errands for the heavily armed men who chatted amiably under the trees.
For Gatayeva herself, however, the return was yet another sign that catastrophe was around the corner. The last time they gathered there regularly was during the Chechen war for independence from Moscow in the mid 1990s. The toll of the conflict is still visible all over Grozny, the Chechen capital: dozens of destroyed buildings casting jagged shadows on shell-pocked concrete; shattered and empty industrial plants; graveyard after graveyard studded with decorative metal stakes to signify war dead; and, in Gatayeva's care, 27 orphans whose parents were killed in the conflict.
And now, Gatayeva knows, war is back in Grozny and throughout Chechnya. Russian troops are in control of a line north of the Terek River no more than 30 miles from the capital. Bombs fall nightly from high-flying warplanes on Grozny and its suburbs. There is no electricity in the capital, no running water. Moscow has cut off natural gas supplies; frightened and displaced civilians are streaming from the capital and other towns and villages.
Gatayeva, 33, was a nurse with Chechen rebel forces when they drove Russian troops from the territory in 1996 and asserted local sovereignty -- a status not recognized by the Kremlin. But she has extensive maternal responsibilities now and knows she must flee. The problem is how to get 27 children -- and her own 2-month-old infant -- out of harm's way.
"For me, I would stay, but I've got the children to take care of. I remember the last time; so do they. I can't let them go through that again," she said in a basement shelter at the orphanage. It is easier to put the children to bed below ground than to herd them down several flights of stairs every time Russian jets fly over.
Gatayeva's children call her Momma -- even those who are 16 and think they should join in Chechnya's defense. Single-handedly, she says, she has rescued 87 children from the streets of Grozny, during the previous war and afterward, running her home on a shoestring all the while. All but the remaining 27 have been placed with relatives.
Gatayeva's budget is especially tight now because foreign donors who might help are afraid to come to Chechnya. A wave of ransom kidnappings and an atmosphere of general lawlessness here has scared them away. Moreover, widespread suspicion that Chechen extremists organized lethal bombing attacks on apartment buildings in Moscow and other Russian cities has tarred them as a terrorist people.
Meanwhile, the Chechen government, with virtually no money to spend for anything other than weapons, has declined to aid Gatayeva because her orphanage is a private venture. So she relies on local donations. Prominent among the givers is Shamil Basayev, a redoubtable guerrilla commander during the previous war whom many Chechens accuse of provoking Moscow into the current one. This occurred in late August when Basayev and a band of Chechen guerrillas overran several towns and villages in the neighboring Russian region of Dagestan with the express aim of establishing an Islamic state there.
"Shamil's office is right next door," said Gatayeva. "And he sometimes brings children from the street here for help. His people are good with them. It's complicated in Chechnya."
Gatayeva started noticing the street youngsters at the end of the 1994-96 war and soon she was collecting them. In their short lives, they have survived the loss of parents; the shock of bombs and artillery shells bursting around them; street-to-street gun battles; rape at the hands of Russian soldiers; beatings by merchants from whom they stole to live; addiction to glue sniffing, a substitute for food among street children.
Ahmed, for example, a skinny towhead in a baseball cap, lost his father and pregnant mother in a Russian air raid. He wandered Grozny's streets, lived in basements and stole from markets for three months before Gatayeva invited him to her apartment for food and warmth. He stayed.
Hussein, a shy 15-year-old, ran messages for the rebels until the end of the war. Then they turned him over to Momma. And there's the little girl with hepatitis B, contracted from a dirty needle when she was treated for illness during the war.
"I would search basements and bazaars," Gatayeva said, adjusting her colorful head scarf. "It wasn't hard to convince the children to come. The only condition was to give up glue." Gatayeva is stout and almond-eyed. Her scolding is done in short, low-volume sentences. She doesn't refer to her charges as orphans, but as family. Her husband pitches in.
She herself was an orphan; her parents got sick and died when she was 5. She and her sister were sent to a Soviet "children's garden," which Gatayeva remembers as impersonal and harsh, with a military atmosphere. The caretakers rapped her on the head with their knuckles and punished her for hoarding bread in her pocket. She and the others were tightly controlled and could rarely exercise. Now that she is a care giver, she says, "I let the children run free. The city is wrecked, but it is their home. Of course, now the war is changing that."
Chechen soldiers under the command of Aslambek Abduljayev, a Basayev associate, came to the basement today to chat. Abduljayev spoke of fighting a war of attrition against the Russian troops, battling them in neighboring Muslim regions, and he vowed never to give up. The children were enthralled. Gatayeva sent the boys to gather wood and the girls to cook; without natural gas, meals are prepared outside over wood fires.
Gatayeva said she hopes to take the children to Lithuania, where they spent a few weeks at a children's camp last summer without charge. Or perhaps some other country might invite them.
"We will come back after the war is over," she said. "This is a poor place, but this is home for the children. I'm not sure it would be easy to adjust elsewhere. And this is a family, even if big. They can't be passed around as if they came out of an institution."
"The life they've had in Grozny is not like anywhere else. They fit in better here, for better or worse."