Γιορτάζοντας την Παγκόσμια Ημέρα Ποίησης 21 Μαρτίου σας χαρίζουμε αποφθέγματα της Πωλίνα Βίκτοροβνα Ζερεμπτσόβα.
Zherebtsova Polina, a documentarian, poet and author of the famous diaries, covering her childhood, adolescence and youth that witnessed three Chechen wars. Since 2002, she has begun to work as a journalist. She is a member of PEN International and the Union of Journalists of Russia. She has been awarded the Janusz Korczak international prize in Jerusalem in two categories (narrative and documentary prose). In 2012, she was awarded The Andrei Sakharov Award “For Journalism as an Act of Conscience”. Since 2013, she has been living in Finland.
I live in Grosny on Zavety Ilyicha Street. My name is Polina Zherbtsova. I am nine.
For my birthday on March 20, Mom bought a cake with nuts. We were downtown. There were many people on the square. People were screaming. There were old men with beards. They were running around.
Lenin used to stand in his galoshes. A statue. Then people knocked him over, but the galoshes are still there.
Why are people screaming? What do they want? Mom said: “It’s a protest.”
I wrote a poem.
I dream, like all children,
Of sailing on a boat!
And finding a magic shell
On the ocean floor.
I woke up. Did the dishes. Swept the entryway from the fourth to the first floor. Started doing the laundry. Washed some clothes in a washtub, and now I’m reading.
Why is everyone a snowflake, but I’m not? They dressed me up like Little Red Riding Hood for the holiday. Mom made me a costume out of her skirt. I want to be a snowflake! All the girls in my class are snowflakes.
My cat Mishka is sitting next to me on a pillow. I’m reading The Three Musketeers. There’s a queen in the book, Milady, and D’Artagnan. I like a world where queens wear beautiful dresses. There are musketeers and guardsmen!
It’s boring at home.
We played hide-and-seek. We hid behind trees and in gardens. I hid with Hava and Alyonka. They’re my friends. Then I rode a bike. But it broke.
I lost the mouse. Mom bought it for me for being good. The mouse sat in my pocket. It probably fell in the grass. Alyonka, Sashka, and I looked for it. We didn’t find it.
Mom said she won’t buy another toy mouse for me. She said I’m a screw-up.
Katya and her daughter Vera invited me over. They are our neighbors from the fourth floor. They told me to stop by in the morning. I got up and went there at 6. Mom was sleeping. Then everyone got upset with me for going so early. But they invited me themselves! I sat in the kitchen. Katya let me in. She was making crepes. Then Vera woke up and we played.
Vera has a boy doll. And I don’t. I have a girl. We decided they should get married.
I saw Baba Lyuba and Dyeda Styopa from the second floor. They have a funny dachshund. He’s called Button.
Today is Orthodox Easter!
We walked in the city. It rained. We walked to the church.
All the neighbors wished each other a Happy Easter. They were treating each other to little pies. Children ate dyed eggs. Baba Zina gave them to everyone. Islam and Mohamed ate more than anyone else. Vasya and Alyonka didn’t get any. Baba Nina gave them some little pies.
It’s been raining since morning. Mom and Anya said it was a bad sign. When it rains, God is crying because there are many sinners in the world.
A hurricane. Trees fell to the ground. Everyone was scared. Then they went to the yards to pick up apricots. But they aren’t ripe yet, still green.
I had a scary dream: a monster was trying to force its way in through the window. It had claws, and it knocked the grate off the window.
We played: Patoshka, Vera, Asya, Hava, Alyonka, Rusik, Arbi, Umar, Dimka, Islam, Sashka, Vasya, Ilya, Igor, Seryozha, Denis, and me. First, we played tag, then we played ball!
Mom gave us some Yupi juice mix from a packet. We mixed it with water in a bucket. We drank it. My favorite is orange, Alyonka’s is red. Strawberry. Then Mom gave us all Turba bubble gum. There are cars on the wrappers. Everyone was very happy.
Mishka the cat got sick.
I helped Mom sell cookies at the Beryozka market. Mom isn’t getting paid at work. We don’t have enough food. Katya says: “It’s the times. Hard times.”
We made soup from chicken feet and ate it. We used to make it with a whole chicken, and now we just use feet. They sell chicken feet by the kilo. Chicken was yummier. Much yummier.
Mom wants to send me to a different school.
Some high-schoolers hit a girl on the head with a chair. She’s in the hospital.
I was friends with Nadya since first grade. I told her my secrets.
I collect stickers, and I only needed one more. To win a doll called Cindy! Nadya asked for a book, and I gave it to her. I forgot that the sticker album and the stickers were in the book! Nadya gave back the book, but the album wasn’t there. Mom and I went to her house. They live in a private house. Mom asked her grandfather for it. They refused. I cried. Now I don’t have an album or a friend.
In their house I saw a little baby pig. It ran like a puppy.
Nadya is silent. Won’t give back the album. And Hava said: “How about you don’t give something back to her?”
And I knew I had Nadya’s dictionary. And I didn’t want to give it back, but then I gave it back. If she’s like this, I’m not.
I like Elena Aleksandrovna—she plays with us. She’s our teacher. I also like Aleksey who sits at the same table as Yulka. I think I love him. He bought me a roll in the cafeteria. Also, he’s not afraid of getting shots. And I and the other girls hid in the bathroom, but they found us and gave us shots in the back anyway. We cried.
The Year of the Pig is here! That’s the sign of the Zodiac.
They were shooting at our apartment building all night long. We were lying in a niche in the hall. There are no windows there. Before then, we sat on a sled on the bathroom floor. The building was shaking. Burning. Tanks were going down the boulevard, shooting. They made a horrible scraping sound. Mansur ran to look at the tanks with the boys.
Planes were dropping bombs. And then a missile went “boom” so loud that the grate fell off the window in the kitchen. And it fell on Mom, Baba Nina and Varya. They were celebrating New Year’s on the floor. Now their heads are hurt.
I’m drawing Mansur’s portrait.
They’re shooting but I’m used to it. I’m not afraid. When the noise is close to us, Baba Nina sings songs or reads naughty rhymes with bad words. Everyone laughs and it’s not scary. Baba Nina does a good job!
We cook in the entryway on a brick. I look at the fire and think: salamanders live there.
We’re dirty, filthy. Everything’s covered in soot. To get water, we go behind the buildings where the pipes are. Sometimes we lie on the ground, so we don’t get killed. We have to.
Baba Rimma is sick. She’s Alyonka’s grandma. I’ve been going to their place in entryway number two. They have a makeshift wood stove! It’s very cold at our place. We sleep in our boots and coats. We make an oil-lamp in a jar with a wick and kerosene. That way it’s not dark at night, and we can whisper while planes drop bombs.
Everything is burning. Bombs from the sky.
A woman was killed in a street, and a family was killed in another building. People die when they go out for water or look for bread.
A man came to us, asking for kerosene. Mom didn’t give him any.
There are many of us. There’s nothing to eat. Mom went to the warehouse with some other people. The warehouse is a place, it has ice-cream in boxes. Everyone steals it. Mom and Valya brought some home. We warmed it up and drank it with flat bread. Delicious.
We melt snow. But there isn’t much of it. And it’s not very yummy. I used to think icicles were yummy! And this snow is sooty, grey. Mom says it’s from fires.
At the “Neftyanka” bus stop, we saw a Chechen girl with red braided hair. She had a green ribbon on her head. And in her hands was a small machine gun. She looked about sixteen. She’s fighting for Grozny. She was with a boy younger than her. He was probably her brother.
An old man at the bus stop said: “She is defending her country. When you grow up, you will, too!” and he pointed his finger at me.
And Mom said: “A beautiful girl. God give her luck!”
The redhead blushed and left.
I also learned that the little machine gun is called a “tulip.” Just like the flower!
There’s no food anywhere. No bread. Baba Nina got ahold of some cabbage. We are eating cabbage!
I’ll be ten soon.
Mansur was showing off a flare gun. It’s a tube. It’s used to send signals. He found it on the street.
Sultan, Hava’s dad from the first entryway, caught a chicken somewhere, boiled it in a big bucket and let everyone have some broth. And he gave us some. We all pounced on it and ate it up. I mean, drank water from the chicken. Oh, it was great! Sultan also gave us two potatoes.
Hava is not at home. She and her mom are in Ingushetia.
Baba Olya’s son came here through the blue mountains. She is old. She stayed with us. The soldiers and the rebels wanted to shoot him. He told them all: “I’m going to my Mom!”
And they didn’t kill him. He’s brave.
We were so hungry! And he went to the warehouse and brought us half a box of sprats! Oh, how delicious! He took Baba Olya with him. They’re going to leave the city on foot.
No food. No water. It’s cold. I often sit in the bathroom. There is no glass in the windows. No grates. Missiles took them all. There’s snow on the floor. I fight with Baba Nina. She wants to burn books instead of wood! I fight with Bashyr. He pulls on my hair. Stupid fool! Yurochka is fooling around. And I’m in love with Mansur. But it’s a big secret! And to make sure nobody finds out, I’m going to hide you, Diary, behind the wardrobe. If Bashyr finds you, I’ll be shamed forever. He will tell everybody.
Mansur is brave. He tries to find food and isn’t afraid of the shooting.
Also, some rebels set up a trap at a bus stop. They half-cut some trees and caught APCs and tanks. They threw Molotov cocktails at them. Then shot the soldiers and left.
Then some boys from our house ran there. And they said one soldier was still alive. He asked to be shot. He had no legs. They had burned. He asked himself. Aly, who lives a block away, said so. Aly is thirteen. He killed him.
And then he cried because killing is scary. He killed him with a pistol. Baba Nina crossed herself and everyone cried. Aly gave the women a letter. This is what the soldier wrote: “Take care of the daughters. We’re descending on Grozny. There’s no choice. We can’t turn back, the guns of our tanks are pointed at us. If we turn around, it’s treason. They’ll shoot us. We’re going to certain death. Forgive me.”
The women wanted to throw the letter away but Mom put it with the books. She promised to mail it. There’s no street or house number. They burned. But it says: xxxxx region. I feel bad for the soldier. I won’t go through the yards to the bus stop. His corpse is there, and there are other dead bodies.
Soldiers have been shooting dogs. The dogs have been eating corpses.
There are dead people on the streets and dead dogs. I try not to look at them when I walk by. I close my eyes. Because I scream when I see them, and I can’t stop. Mom yells at me. Tells me I’m a coward.
The rebels are fighting Russian soldiers. Rebels are people who defend their country. This is what Baba Zoya said.
Baba Zoya’s grandson is five. His name is Slavik.
Mom and I saw Sultan. He was walking through empty stores, maybe looking for food or firewood. He didn’t find anything.
The fighting doesn’t stop. They say many people have been killed in the villages.
I’m sitting on a mattress in the niche in a hall. There’s shooting all around. They’re aiming right at our house.
Yesterday I slept at Valya’s, Alyonka’s mom. There’s nowhere to sleep at our place. Everyone’s sleeping on the floor or the sofa. There’s no place to put your feet.
Why did the war start? Mom and I went to a march for peace in the fall.
The diaries begin in 1999 in an autumn of war, when their author was fourteen.
The names of some of the people mentionedhave been chang
From a field notebook:
“All of us, shot through by the war, have become part of a blind spot – just as a bullet hole in a skull becomes part of the skull, indeed its third eye, gazing wide-eyed into non-being.”
The Season Is War
24 September 1999
There was a bit of bombing today. The neighbours didn’t go to work because they are scared but I will go and help Mama at the market. There is a rumour at school that it is going to be closed. Everybody says a war is coming.
You can hear the roar of aircraft. Bombs are being dropped but for now they are far away. In central Grozny at the market I only feel the ground shaking. Nothing worse. I’m staying.
Anyway, where could I go? I will look after myself.
25 September 1999
Fought for bread in the queue today. The Azerbaijanis who brought their goods to our city have left. What are we going to sell?
Also decided to write a recipe for cheese pyshki. They taste so good!
I will make them from fresh ingredients when peace comes back.
26 September 1999. Sunday
We did not go to the market because the drains are blocked. One of our neighbours has blocked them but won’t admit it. We sent for a plumber. He was Russian, drunk, and became ill. We had to run to get the nurse and she gave him injections. He nearly died of a heart attack.
The drains are still blocked.
27 September 1999. Monday
They are bombing Beryozka in our Staropromyslovsky District. That is really quite near. They have been bombing it since early morning.
[The entries in the diary after this have got wet and and are illegible]
I will read Shakespeare. We have 12 volumes of him in our library. They are antiques, published in the early 20th century. My grandad was a news cameraman and he bought them. He was killed in 1994 at the start of the first war when the hospital on First of May Street was shelled.
I had dreadful nightmares last night.
Mama and I traded at the market.
29 September Wednesday 1999
I saw the Knight of the Water. He bought me an ice cream. My favourite neighbour Aunt Mariam has moved to Ingushetia.
No other news.
30 September 1999. Thursday.
The bridges have been bombed.
It said on radio that Federal Russian tanks are planning to enter Grozny around 10 October.
I decided that if there is going to be another war I need to buy some black underwear so it doesn’t need washing so often.
Got bread after a fight. People seem to have gone crazy.
1 October 1999
Bombing yesterday and the day before. Rumours in the market that they have hit No. 7 Hospital. Local radio said 420 people were killed and about 1,000 injured.
The city is filling with rumours. Often the ‘information’ contradicts itself.
Professor Nunayev, a heart specialist we know, warned us in August there was going to be another war but we did not believe him. We stocked up with new goods.
On 6 August we heard that the widow of assassinated President Djohar Dudayev had left Grozny.
So much information! You can only believe what you have seen with your own eyes. No way should you believe your ears!
On 30 September the drains flooded again. We phoned for plumbers but nobody came. We had to do it ourselves. Our dear neighbours carry on pouring everything down them. We cart their sewage out in buckets.
In the market people were swapping addresses with friends they have made, in case the bombing gets heavy or we get bombed out and need somewhere to go and live. Nazar gave us his address. He and his wife sell food. Microdistrict, 8 Kosior Street, Apartment 66, bus No. 29. A Russian woman gave us her address too. Her name is Lyolya. She said, “What if you’re in the city centre and there is an air raid? Run along Victory Avenue to No. 5A (which is close to the market). We have a big cellar in the courtyard.”
I don’t suppose being killed instantly is all that bad. What is horrible is being buried under rubble and dying in agony. I remember Russian old people dying like that in 1994 in the centre of Grozny. There was no machinery to shift the concrete slabs.
Their apartment block was bombed from a plane and they were on the upper floors and found themselves on the inside of all the rubble. People of different nationalities came. They cried by that mountain of slabs, hearing the people’s groans.
It went on for several days and then everything went quiet.
That is a really horrible way to die.
I have been thinking about different religions too. They’re all good in their way, only people aren’t good at obeying God’s laws.
The son of our neighbour Fatima, who lives on the central staircase of our apartment block, has died. He was just a little boy.
5 October 1999, Tuesday
We’ve had no gas for ages. Bombing.
Our four-storey house is subsiding because of all the shaking. The walls in our room have come away from the ceiling.
Planes were circling over the market today. A lot of people ran away, including that big fair-haired boy, van Damme, who is studying in the law faculty. He periodically lets my mum and me trade in his wooden kiosk, which is good when it’s raining, but I don’t like him.
Back home we boiled potatoes in the electric samovar. We still have electricity, but not all the time now. The gas has been cut off. That’s in case there is shelling, to reduce casualties. Houses burn and people die.
In the morning, Aunt Maryam brightened our mood. She lives in the apartment next to ours. Ever since Mum moved into this house in December 1986, she and Aunt Maryam have been friends. Maryam kissed me and promised, ”You’ll be right as rain soon! Just bear it a little longer.” She gifted me a head-scarf, a cream coloured one with a delicate border. And powder! We had breakfast together. Maryam warned us that she would move a part of her property to her relatives in Ingushetia. And she would lodge a family from the house across to the next-door flat on the first floor. We wouldn’t be alone anymore! And if she could find a way, either she would come or send one of her sisters to help us leave as well.
We sealed up a part of the window with pieces of wood, to block shrapnel. Zolina’s little daughter came over to play with me
11 October 1999, Monday
Fighting. In the distance we can hear what sounds like peals of thunder. We have decided to sell newspapers too. Aunt Tanya and her daughter Yuliya are annoyed. They have been selling print publications for a long time and doing quite well. Now we are competing. We can’t help it. Our goods are not selling and we have no money to buy food. The day before yesterday I went on an ‘impromptu’ visit to see Salim’s wife. He is the man who imports newspapers and magazines wholesale. (I lied and said I was a friend of Yuliya. She has been selling their goods for a long time. Yuliya’s mother used to work with mine, only they weren’t friends, just acquaintances.) The woman said her name was Sonya and gave me magazines to sell straight away.
Yesterday a neighbour of ours at the market who sells medicines came over to our stall with a friend of her son. I don’t know this boy but he gave me a pretty little book. The woman’s name is Kusum. She is trying to get me to be friends with her son. Her son is very tall so he stoops. He is shy and diffident. He is called Daud and is taking preparatory courses for the Petroleum Institute. He always has a chemistry book in his hand.
Daud is 21 and I am 14. Mama says that I’m too young to get married. She keeps on saying, “You need to study!”
Kusum was trying to talk me round. “You are the only girl my son has paid any attention to. If you become his official fiance we will wait until you finish ninth grade at school.” By Chechen standards that is a good offer. I can see he’s a good man, but I prefer his friend, the one who gave me the book.
Daud’s mother bought me a pretty summer T-shirt and solemnly presented it. “To the first girl my son has liked!” was how she explained her gift.
Our neighbour, a cheerful party-going type known as Pinocchio, hasn’t been seen for several days now. He is really marvellous at telling you about books and films. He sells music cassettes quite near us and lets me bring them home ‘on hire’ to listen to, except that I don’t have to pay. He lives in Urus-Martan. I hope he will be all right, and that we will too.
12 October, (Tuesday), 1999
I am not going to school any more. No lessons. I am helping my mum.
The day before yesterday when it was pelting with rain someone poured paraffin over a tree and set it on fire. What an idiot! That was some conflagration! Just at that moment a plane came and circled overhead for a long time. People were afraid it might drop a bomb, but it didn’t.
The woman who sells medicines has introduced me to her sisters. She says everybody likes me, but I should wear a shawl so people do not know my mother is Russian and treat me better. The grown-ups are talking to me a lot, always giving me presents, little things. Perhaps now I won’t be lonely. Perhaps I will have friends.
I do like shawls and headscarves and I don’t like emancipated Western women. Any dress with a scarf the right colour is romantic and looks soft and mysterious. A friend of my mother advised me to wear a shawl. He said, “Then I will be able to stand up for you. You will be an adult. You need protecting!”
They do not know that my father’s father was a Chechen, so if you follow the male line I already am Chechen. I have mother’s surname because she separated from my father seven months before I was born. She didn’t want to make it up with him. Later Mama got a certificate from the doctor to say I was born at seven months and she registered me under her own name.
What is really funny is that my grandmother on my father’s side is Jewish. Does that make him a Jew? Ha ha. Jews believe everything follows the maternal line. So I consider myself a child of the world, although I have never actually set eyes on my father. I know he had a son by his first wife, and that she was Russian too, a woman called Tanya.
Ever since I was little I have been told constantly, “Your father is dead!” but I like to think it isn’t true.
Today my very favourite, dear Aunt Leyla came to our trading place in the market. It was she who took me when I had just been born and my Mama to our grandfather.
Leyla has always helped us. She used to work with Mama in a big factory called “Red Hammer”, only my mother worked in the supply department and Leyla in sales. She is a remarkable woman, the best!
Leyla had promised to bring us home-made jam and jelly. It was she who suggested calling my mother by a Chechen name. Now both at the market and at home everybody calls her –Leyla!
Mama’s old friend had no sooner come over to us than she started urging us to leave. Mama was having none of it. She said, “I do not know what people are like in other places, how they live, what their customs and rules are. I have no close relatives anywhere or anybody I know. I have spent my whole life, since I was 15, here. Here I have two family graves, my grandmother’s and my father’s. I have my own place to live, which is very important. There is Ruslan. It may not be an official marriage but it is a support. A protection. I have got used to it, it’s not the first year. If I leave with my child what then? Will I be both homeless and on my own?”
Leyla shook her head and repeated, “There is no peace here. They don’t let us live normally. First one lot, then another. I would like our girl not to get married too early, not to become a domestic slave. But then, is it better anywhere else? And our younger generation are less demanding.”
Leyla’s daughter lives with the family of her father and they rarely see each other. She has re-married but does not have any new children of her own. That is why she loves me. She treats me like her own daughter and gives me presents.
I was terribly upset by that Chechen nicknamed van Damme. He saw me in my shawl and burst out laughing. “Who are you getting so dressed up for? Are you going somewhere special?” He spat deliberately on the ground, the pig.
One time in the past he sent his aunt round to make our acquaintance. She courted my mother and gave her treats. That’s the custom in the East for getting to know another family and bringing a boy and a girl together. She even openly invited me to become her nephew’s wife, concealing the fact that he already had one! Other people told me.
I do not like van Damme. He is a fair-haired, grey-eyed Chechen who looks like a country boy, a Russian Ivan. He is a big lad, but a bit of a coward.
13 October 1999
At night we listen to the booming of artillery and during the day we trade at the market.
I have fallen out with Tanya and Yuliya and Sonya is not so friendly towards us now. I don’t know whether I have annoyed her with my requests, or perhaps our competitors have said something against us.
Now I wear a shawl like Aunt Kusum. She often praises me. She will come and sit with us at the market and comb my hair. She says, “Come on, let’s go and get you a perm!”
Daud’s friend came to see me again. He bought me an ice cream. Does he like me? What if Kusum knew about it, Daud’s mother! This boy asked me how old I was. When I said I was only 14 he was amazed. “You’re so little! I thought you were older than that. You know, you do look very much like a princess, – Budur, in my favourite fairy tale!”
Then I was a bit cheeky and said he was Aladdin! We looked at each other for a long time and said nothing. I was surprised at my own boldness. Before with boys I kept quiet, just listened, but now I had blurted something out.
Aladdin has lovely eyes, and his hair is black, and it hangs in ringlets down to his shoulders. He really does look like a prince! I remembered I once had a dream about him. A long time ago when I was a child, before I was going to school.
Aladdin told me he is 23. His father has another family. He has a mother and sister (or sisters, I’m not sure). They live in the country. Aladdin became embarrassed and looked at his shoes for a long time and then went away without saying goodbye.
Τις επόμενες ημέρες θα πραγματοποιηθεί συνέντευξη που θα δώσει στο Ινστιτούτο Πειραματικών Τεχνών.