Entertainment Books

Tuesday 13 November 2018

An angel in a hell on earth

The Angel of Grozny; Inside Chechnya
By Asne Seierstad
(Virago, Stg£12.99)

Asne Seierstad creatively
evokes her characters
in The Angel of Grozny
Asne Seierstad creatively evokes her characters in The Angel of Grozny

Frank Shouldice

Having stated her aspiration to look behind the headlines Asne Seierstad's journalism has taken her to wartime Serbia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Her Afghan journey inspired the hugely successful Bookseller of Kabul and now she lifts the veil on another beleaguered conflict to take us behind the scenes in Chechnya.

Formerly an autonomous region in the USSR the Chechens proclaimed full independence when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Moscow refused to allow Chechnya secede and despatched the Russian army to bring Chechen separatists into line. It sparked a bloody, gruesome war which ended briefly in stalemate before restarting again in 1999. Disputed elections installed Akhmad Kadyrov, a pro-Moscow Islamic cleric, as president. In keeping with events in such a turbulent region Kadyrov was assassinated five years later. He was succeeded by his son Ramzan.

Russia is eager to keep oil resources in the Caucausus, so Chechnya was given broader powers as long as it remained part of Russia. In practice however, an oppressive regime and a continuing insurgency has cost tens of thousands of lives and reduced everyday existence in Chechnya to a matter of survival.

Seierstad's Afghan bookseller may not have provided a sympathetic central character but the woman whose nickname prompts this book's title is a remarkable human being. With the most meagre resources Hajidat runs an orphanage in the Chechen capital Grozny, offering shelter and kindness to the forgotten children of Chechnya's forgotten war. Somehow undiminished by huge suffering through her own life Hajidat and her friend Malik welcome every abandoned child who arrives at their door.

The author's aim is to show how people have been brutalised by war and the personal tales of those she meets are indeed brutal, often shocking. Finding a mass grave outside Grozny she observes, "The corpses were black with flies. Fat white worms crawled around among the dead. Some bodies were naked, others had their hands bound; some were missing arms or fingers, their skulls crushed, their bodies pierced with bullet holes. Others had been burned and could only be identified by their teeth. . . there were mostly men in the ditches and mostly women searching." The book starts brilliantly. The author juggles the time frame and creatively evokes the world of her characters. From there on the style changes with Seierstad writing in the first person, reflecting more journalistically her experiences in Chechnya. Courageously, she travelled to the war zone to meet Russian soldiers, Chechen rebels and the many -- like Hajidat and her charges -- who suffered terribly from the conflict.

Suffering and conflict is nothing new in the Caucausus. The Chechens revolted against Soviet rule during World War Two and because this was seen as treachery Stalin took severe action at the end of the war. He banished the entire Chechen race of over one million people to impoverished Kazakhstan and Siberia. Thousands perished and not until the 1950's did Brezhnev allow the survivors return to their homeland.

The antipathy between Russians and Chechens has not diminished with time. Chechen life operates on very traditional grounds, including an eye for an eye philosophy that exacts full revenge for wartime atrocities committed by the Russian army. This has led to Chechen separatists carrying out a series of horrific acts on Russian soil, including a siege in a Moscow theatre and bombing a school in Beslan.

With all these acts the Norwegian author goes behind the story to try understand why people are driven to such acts. It is to her credit that she frequently succeeds. As a journalist she left the region in 1996 and returned a decade later to see where Chechnya had gone.

Effectively this divides The Angel of Grozny into "before" and "after" and her return visit offers a less compelling read. She illustrates key themes -- prejudice, revenge, corruption -- with detailed case studies. One such case -- a racially-motivated assault by skinheads on a Chechen family in Moscow -- runs for 37 pages, sacrificing narrative pace with an attempt to show how all participants become victims of one sort or another.

Although the second half of the book does not maintain the momentum of the first The Angel of Grozny does offer a valuable insight into what is going on in Chechnya. In taking the reader to a region virtually abandoned by the outside world, the Norwegian journalist-author has surely done us all a service.

Frank Shouldice is a director/ producer with 'Prime Time Investigates'

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