Madness of war spares few in traumatised Chechnya

Hidden from the world, deep in the endless ruins of the Chechen capital Grozny, a young man smiles at his mother through a cage door.

She holds the key, but Iriskhan’s true jailer is the madness he has suffered since the war in his homeland began just over a decade ago.

Iriskhan was 18, a gentle boy who loved drawing and tinkering with electronics, when Russian troops first laid siege to Grozny, his mother Raisa says.

Along with hundreds of thousands of other civilians that winter of 1994/95, he and his family found themselves hiding in cellars and fleeing through the countryside. But Iriskhan lost his mind along the way.

”He began to shake,” Raisa says. ”After three days, he began to laugh. Then it got worse.”

Today, Iriskhan is almost unable to communicate and suffers violent fits that — in the absence of specialist health facilities in Chechnya — force his parents and 23-year-old brother Shamil to isolate him in a room behind a cage door.

Looking through the bars with sad brown eyes and an ironic smile, he seems blissfully unaware of the ongoing conflict that has sent his family into hiding, killed tens of thousands of Chechens and, according to psychologists, caused mental trauma to the vast majority of survivors.

The aid group Médécins Sans Frontières (MSF) says its studies of internally displaced Chechens show 77% feel psychological distress. Seventy percent have experienced armed attack, 89% have lost someone close, and almost one in four have witnessed killings.

”Psychological stress has become normal for the people of war-torn Chechnya,” MSF says.

Khapta Akhmedova, a psychologist in Grozny, said almost everyone in Chechnya suffers some level of trauma. Some cope by ”living by the day,” while others ”lose all emotion”, Akhmedova said.

”Others become aggressive. They feel that if people can destroy their home and kill their family and friends, then they have the right to do the same thing.”

The Muslim Chechens’ traditional social structure provides a net for many who fall ill, yet the most extreme mental cases and the non-Chechens, such as the few remaining ethnic-Russians, often have no hope of proper diagnosis or recovery.

At the Grozny asylum, there are 79 patients, many of them highly disturbed, but no staff psychologist.

Zainap Tavgireyeva, the indomitable nurse running the institution, described her priorities as: ”Feeding them, then ensuring hygiene, and only then trying to give medication.”

Patients include a deranged woman who has kept her head shaved since being raped during the war and Liliya Aksanova (82) who lost everything except her life in the carpet bombing of Grozny.

Aksanova now locks herself in her room, refusing to mix with the others. ”You realise, they’re all mad,” she whispers conspiratorially.

The authorities’ inability to cope with Chechnya’s mental problems has been particularly evident in a strange episode in northern Chechnya, where last December dozens of school children fell ill from what their families suspected was poisoning, but which most doctors now say is a form of mass hysteria.

More than two months later, about 80 children — all but one of them girls — are still sick, a doctor close to the investigation told Agence France-Presse (AFP). They suffer depression, weight fluctuations, and extreme convulsions that can require several adults to control.

Poisoning cannot be ruled out in some of the cases, but many more might be self-induced copycat attacks by children who were ”sensitive, scared, or had experienced great fear or personal traumas,” AFP’s source said.

Even outwardly healthy Chechens harbour deep-seated problems linked to the trauma of losing family members and the fear of being caught in Russia’s ongoing anti-insurgency campaign.

”For years I slept with one ear open for military vehicles. I’d hear tank tracks on the main road and sit bolt upright,” said Aslan, a Grozny civilian whose parents were shot by Russian soldiers five years ago. ”It got better last year, but now it’s getting bad again, because you can never be confident.”

Surrounded by vast tracts of destroyed, deserted houses, Iriskhan’s family can offer nothing other than love. This is not even their own home, having had to flee from another part of Grozny after soldiers tried to arrest the younger son Shamil.

Iriskhan lives behind the cage door in a tiny room, his bed constructed on a platform made from old refrigerators. His parents Raisa and Mussa and brother Shamil sleep in the other equally small room, their only belongings stored in plastic bags hanging from the cracked walls.

Iriskhan has never been properly diagnosed and the family, living on Mussa’s meagre pension, cannot possibly afford to take him to a well-equipped facility in Russia.

”I took him to every healer, to every mullah, and to the hospital, but that was all on my pension and without a thick wallet you can do nothing,” Mussa said.

”I’m tired now. I have no hope left except in Allah.”

Raisa cleans Iriskhan and tries, unsuccessfully, to prompt him into conversation. When he is calm, he is allowed out. She strokes his hair tenderly.

In summer he even stays outside, sitting among the rubble.

”Once he saw a helicopter flying overhead,” Shamil says. ”He picked up a brick and threw it into the sky.” ‒ Sapa-AFP

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Sebastian Smith
Sebastian Smith
AFP White House correspondent. Previously Rio, NYC, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, Paris -- and a couple years at sea.

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