With four children, no husband, no home and nothing but milk from a borrowed cow for income, Bikisat Eskiev has not a ruble to spare.
So to save the equivalent of less than $2 a week, she sent her son, Umar, now 13, to sell the cow's milk at the ramshackle outdoor market in the center of this bombed-out capital of the breakaway region of Chechnya.
People took pity on the dark-haired boy toting five bottles of milk through the early morning darkness. For three years, his mother recalled, drivers picked him up for free, shoppers readily bought his milk, and he managed to navigate the perils of war-zone life, from collapsing walls to Russian soldiers who detain even preteens as suspected anti-government rebels.
Then on June 9, as he cut through a field to shorten his journey home from the market, Umar noticed what looked like a can of condensed milk in the grass. He gave it a kick, hoping a soldier had dropped it, unopened.
The resulting explosion blew away his left leg below the knee.
Few places in the world are as laden with unexploded land mines, grenades and mortar shells as Chechnya. An estimated 500,000 explosives pepper a territory the size of New Jersey, according to the United Nations Children's Fund. UNICEF estimates that 10,000 people, including 4,000 women and children, have been killed or injured by explosives since the start of Russia's first war against Chechen rebels in 1994.
Last year Chechnya reported 1,153 casualties from mines -- about 200 fewer than Afghanistan, one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, according to the nonprofit International Campaign to Ban Landmines, based in Washington.
Yet unlike Afghanistan and many other mine-infested regions, Chechnya receives no international aid for mine clearance -- and aid to victims of land mines is delivered only outside Chechnya's heavily guarded borders. Humanitarian groups say Chechnya is simply too difficult a place to work, both because of the continuing conflict between Russian soldiers and Chechen militants, and the long-standing penchant of Chechen gangs to kidnap foreigners and aid workers.
International organizations have spent $192 million since 1988 trying to rid Afghanistan of its land mines, most of which were planted by the Soviet military in the 1980s. Another $64 million has been pledged in the past year, Landmine Monitor reported.
No one is working to clear Chechnya of mines except the Russian military, which sweeps major roads and military areas daily to protect its own troops. The HALO Trust, a British de-mining organization, began work in Chechnya after the first Russian-Chechen war ended in 1996. It was the only humanitarian group ever to undertake a de-mining campaign in Chechnya but withdrew in late 1999 after Russia's Federal Security Service accused its workers of sowing mines to aid the rebels rather than clearing them.
Tom Dibb, who helped run the program for the London-based organization, said the FSB allegation was "nonsensical." He accused the Russian military of deliberately endangering HALO's Chechen employees by firing two rockets into a field near a school in western Chechnya where they were searching for mines in October 1999. Four workers died, Dibb said.
Officials of other humanitarian groups said they tread cautiously with their programs because the Russian government is so fearful that rebels would benefit. For instance, hundreds of signs warning of minefields, prepared by UNICEF for distribution in mine-strewn areas of the republic, remain stored in a warehouse. Enrico Leonardi, a UNICEF program coordinator in Moscow, said the organization is concerned the signs could be stolen and used to trick the Russian military.
While Afghanistan has 60 rehabilitation centers for victims, Chechnya has none. The single UNICEF clinic is in Vladikavkaz in the Russian republic of North Ossetia, more than an hour's drive from the Chechen border and a world away for many Chechens who live in remote villages and are often turned back on the roads by Russian soldiers on guard for rebel attacks.
UNICEF's clinic has provided 150 women and children with free prosthetics and psychological counseling over the past 15 months, but it does not offer medical care.
So Umar lies on a thin mattress in Grozny's decaying hospital No. 9, where last month he underwent his third surgery. The hospital is short on skilled surgeons and supplies, and Umar's previous two amputations did not heal properly.
He paused from munching on a bag of popcorn to greet a visitor as his mother brushed the crumbs off his hospital gown. Reluctantly, he lifted a worn white sheet to reveal the raw stump where his leg now ends, just below the knee.
"He says he doesn't want to live," his mother said, wiping her eyes with a wadded up gauze bandage.
Fear of mines keeps villagers out of Chechnya's forests, where they would normally be cutting wood now to heat their homes through the winter.
Instead, they said they must use their meager incomes to buy firewood off a truck. Mines also prevent many Chechens from growing hay or grazing cattle, once their livelihood.
Meanwhile, new mines are sown every week. Chechen militants continue to use mines as their main weapon against the Russian military, recruiting children to plant them for about $50 a mine.
In the most deadly incident in nearly two years, 18 Chechen civilians were killed last month when their packed bus was blown up as it crossed an intersection in Grozny. Russian officials said militants hired three teenage boys to hide remote-controlled explosives in a trash can, hoping to hit two Russian military vehicles that crossed the intersection just ahead of the bus.
For Ishkirian Aibaev, 15, stumbling on a mine in a garden behind his home in Grozny three years ago has deprived him of all semblance of freedom. He was blinded in one eye, and both of his legs had to be amputated below the knee.
UNICEF has built a two-story school for the children in his refugee camp in Sleptsovskaya. But Aibaev, with two artificial legs and a metal cane, cannot make it across the shallow dirt ravine that divides the refugee tents from the school. He has not been to school since the sixth grade.
One recent afternoon, he sat on a narrow bunk in the stuffy, one-room green and blue plastic tent where he has lived with his mother and two older brothers for two years. Asked what he does all day, he folded and refolded the ends of his black-and-white striped pants under the stumps of his legs.
"I sit at home," he said.
His main diversion comes from four friends -- all amputees -- who also live in the camp and periodically visit him. When school let out, one of those friends, 16-year-old Usup, stopped by.
Shielding his shortened right arm from view, he described how he found a metal canister in a field two years ago in southern Chechnya and twice banged it against a fence post. Now he is astounded at his stupidity. But at the time, he said, "it was interesting to me."
Madina Gishlarkaeva, a UNICEF worker in the Russian republic of Ingushetia, has seen children at all stages after the trauma of a mine injury. She said the initial shock of an amputation can take months to subside.
Ahead may lie more surgeries that impoverished Chechen families are hard-pressed to pay for. Sometimes a child's bone continues to grow, even when the rest of the limb does not, and must be cut again for a child to use a prosthetic.
The adjustment is harder if the initial operation was botched -- a frequent occurrence in Chechnya, especially at the height of the war. "Operations were done in a hurry, in basements, by the gynecologist or the dentist," she said.
Ishkirian is only now noticing the consequences of his own flawed surgery. In his tent, he pulled up the legs of his pants to show Gishlarkaeva how his right leg turns at a 10-degree angle below the knee.
"Why it is growing like that?" he asked softly, feeling the badly scarred tissue. "We'll have a doctor look at it," she answered cheerfully.
The loss of his legs is one of many tragedies in Ishkirian's life: His 25-year-old brother went to the market in Grozny in November 1999 and never came back. All but one room of the family's three-room apartment in the Chechen capital was destroyed that same winter, leaving the family homeless.
He said he remains unbowed. "I will go back to Grozny. I will find a job. I will finish my studies and look for my brother." His mother said he hopes to find a girlfriend, and to marry.
It took Ishkirian a good 15 minutes to strap on his artificial legs for a walk. He called his mother to help him pull up his new black jeans that matched his shirt and tennis shoes. Near his mother's small vegetable garden, three younger boys kicked a soccer ball.
Ishkirian, metal cane in hand, hobbled by them with the gait of an old man.