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Russia: Moscow Exhibit Reveals Impact Of Chechen War On Children In Grozny

  • Francesca Mereu

The traumas suffered by the children of Chechnya during years of war in the breakaway republic are reflected in their drawings, which are on exhibit in Moscow. The organizer of the exhibition is the director of an art school in the Chechen capital, Grozny. Khava Makhmudova says she tries to encourage the children to draw colorful pictures representing life, but that they prefer to depict the destruction of Grozny and the sad plights of their families, drawn in dark colors.

Moscow, 14 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- War is especially hard on children, and those living in Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya have witnessed many atrocities: Land mines, bombs, and other weapons have injured them physically and emotionally, as well as mutilating or killing many family members and friends.

The psychological scars of Chechnya's children are expressed in artwork on exhibit at library No. 15 in Moscow through the end of the month.

The organizer of the exhibition is Khava Makhmudova, director of an art school in Grozny. Makhmudova said the older children have survived two Chechen wars and that most of them have never experienced what life feels like in peacetime.

The school, attended by some 250 children and young people, is located in the Northern Staropromislovskii Raion of Grozny. Makhmudova said the school was created by 15 teachers, backed by the local government, who wanted to offer the hint of a normal life to children living in Grozny. Children at the school, which is situated in an old sports complex that has survived the Russian bombings, are taught music, theater, and art.

The school opened in 2000, and Makhmudova said the students, the majority of whom have witnessed death and destruction first-hand, have largely been unable to enjoy being children. She said the images they create in their art are images of war. "I remember it was the year 2000. Most of them, girls and boys, drew war. Despite my trying to distract them from the issue, they always went back to that issue, and they drew what they had experienced during the war," Makhmudova said.

Children, she said, often draw tanks, hand grenades with detonator pins, and helicopters. Many of them draw corpses covered in blood. "Boys usually draw the fight itself. Girls draw compositions with many people [hiding] in basements. [In the compositions, usually] there are baby children with grandmothers and grandfathers [sitting] in the dark with only a small candle lit. Children even try to reproduce in the portraits pensiveness, sorrow, and sometimes fear," Makhmudova said.

Step by step, Makhmudova said, teachers are working to make the children of Grozny forget the war. If sometimes they succeed, she said, bright colors are still absent from their art. The prevailing colors are black and gray.

Once, Makhmudova said, to encourage children to use bright colors, she asked them to draw landscapes, but the majority depicted Grozny as a wasteland of bombed-out buildings and piles of rubble. What's more, she said, most children drew the city at night.

One of these pictures, on exhibit in Moscow, was drawn by 15-year-old Khava Romanova. Khava's Grozny is a dead, burned-out city, with its houses in ruin. "[Children] reproduce Grozny as it is today. In [Khava's] drawing, the city is black and wrecked. The sun is rising on the city. But it is a reddish, dirty sun. It is a very gloomy work that makes you worry," Makhmudova said.

Twelve-year-old Zarema Khamsatova and other children in Grozny were asked to draw the world. Zarema's drawing of Earth is also on exhibit in Moscow. "I thought they were going to draw [the world] using bright, sunny colors. Zarema drew the Earth with bluish, greenish, and brownish colors to represent it. But in the middle of the Earth, there is a kind of crack [made of] black lines with something red in the middle representing the wound inflicted on her land," Makhmudova said.

For many years, Vera Abramenkova, a professor at the Institute of Psychology at the Russian Academy of Education, has been studying drawings made by children who have survived wars or natural catastrophes.

Abramenkova said a child's drawing is not only a reflection of what is happening around him but is also an expression of how a child sees the world and what impact a certain situation has had on him or her. Children express their fear and anguish through their art, she said.

Abramenkova said wars and natural disasters leave indelible scars on children's souls "A war, like any disaster that a child has witnessed, goes through the soul of the child. It touches his consciousness. It [goes] inside his mind and personality. And all this finds expression in the drawings. For this reason, a drawing can give us an idea of what the child is feeling and his attitude toward different events," Abramenkova said.

Abramenkova said it is possible to discern detailed information about the feelings of children through their drawings. "When children draw war, they use first of all black, brown, and red. But they mostly prefer brown and black colors and less red. I saw the drawings of the children of the civil war, at the beginning of the 20th century, and there, red prevails. They perceived war in red. Today's children perceive war in black. Perhaps because [war] is today a more tense and tragic event," Abramenkova said.

Makhmudova said the Chechen wars appear to have robbed children of their imagination. For example, she said she once asked children to draw Grozny in peacetime, but the children were unable to imagine it that way. She said some of them didn't even understand what the word "peace" meant. "Once I suggested a subject in the sixth grade. It was the topic of peace. I told them, 'Kids, let's imagine our city, Grozny. How do you imagine it in a year's time? What do you think? Will our Grozny be rebuilt? Will it be the way it used to be before the war began?' But these children didn't see the city as it was before the war. They don't know. They have never gone to the circus, to the theater, or to a park for a walk. They don't know [that there was once] a different city. For them, it is very difficult to imagine peace. A girl from the sixth grade, who is about 11 years old, asked me, 'What does peace mean, and what is it?' I remained literally speechless," Makhmudova said.

Makhmudova said the school can't offer much to help stimulate children's imagination. There is no electricity or water, nor money to buy crayons, paints, or paper. Sometimes, she said, children draw on the back of wallpaper.

Makhmudova said the children always draw in a hurry, as if they fear they won't be able to finish the drawing before the next bombing begins. "Even now that air raids are rare in Grozny," she said, "children hurry anyway."

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