The continuous thump of artillery and the crackle of small-arms fire as townspeople scavenged for food and fuel in the ravaged capital Tuesday signaled that the battle for Chechnya is far from over.
Rima Nikitina, 60, pointed a grimy hand to a fresh pile of earth where a small bunch of red plastic tulips sat neatly on top and sighed: “My mother Galya - she died today.”
“She survived the shelling, but she died of cold and hunger,” the former teacher said, muffled up in a greasy scarf. Her mother’s grave was in a yard behind her apartment, not far from the ruined presidential palace.
The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates 65,000 people never fled the fighting in Grozny, once home to 400,000. Those who stayed, many of them elderly, now live in homes with no heat and little to eat.
“I stayed in my apartment on the third floor for most of the time. I can’t walk very well,” said Varvara Irayeteva, 73. She sat outside an apartment building by the central market, also the scene of ruthless fighting.
“There are a large number of old people who didn’t manage to leave Grozny,” said Terry Lewis, Red Cross relief delegate.
Irayeteva said she had already received a Red Cross food parcel. “But I have no wood or gas. I’ve nowhere to cook,” she said.
Russia’s battle to crush the independence drive in Chechnya is far from over, with Chechen fighters still holding the Chernoreche district in the south of the city and several towns and villages across the south of the republic.
Renewed shelling Monday and Tuesday followed the expiration of a truce on Sunday.
No new peace talks have been announced, but Ruslan Aushev, president of neighboring Ingushetia, said consultations by telephone have been under way on the possibility of new talks, the Interfax news agency said.
Aushev was quoted as saying Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev had called Tuesday morning and confirmed he was in favor of continued talks.
On Tuesday, as four helicopters flew high over Grozny, the sun was partly obscured by black smoke pouring out of fires in the city.