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Sunday Times: Author Asne Seierstad enters hell with the angel of Grozny

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  • Jeremy Putley
    Sunday Times March 2, 2008 Author Asne Seierstad enters hell with the angel of Grozny Asne Seierstad found fame as the author of The Bookseller of Kabul, based
    Message 1 of 4 , Mar 2, 2008
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      Sunday Times

      March 2, 2008

      Author Asne Seierstad enters hell with the angel of Grozny

      Asne Seierstad found fame as the author of The Bookseller of Kabul,
      based on her experiences in Afghanistan. She has now gone to
      Chechnya and tellswhy she was drawn to its street children

      Marie Colvin

      In a cramped basement flat in Moscow, a beautiful young Norwegian
      woman is watching her first images of war on a black and white
      television screen with her Russian hosts. There are images of
      charred bodies, the outlines of children frozen into the ground and
      burnt-out tanks.

      Asne Seierstad, only 24 at this time, is just starting out as a free-
      lance journalist. She writes rather confused dispatches based on the
      television images, learns how to spell "Chechnya" and finally
      decides she has to go there to understand what is really happening.

      Talking her way onto a Russian military aircraft heading south, she
      sits on a folding seat between two pilots who will soon be bombing
      Chechen rebels in ravines and mountains, mostly hitting civilians.

      With incredible courage, Seierstad then spends most of the next year
      reporting on Russia's dirty war from the viewpoint of both Chechen
      families and fighters. She also narrowly avoids being raped by a
      soldier with a Kalashnikov.

      That all happened 12 years ago. The book that she has just written –
      The Angel of Grozny, published this week – is about both her first
      experience of war and her return to the brutalised city a decade
      later.

      This time, she slipped illegally into the Chechen capital and took
      up residence in an orphan age run by a woman called Hadijat –
      her "angel" – with a flock of traumatised street children.

      Why did she go back? In the years since she first went to Chechnya,
      Seierstad has grown rich on the proceeds of her surprise
      international bestseller, The Bookseller of Kabul. She is tall,
      beautiful in a blonde-haired Scandinavian way, and could easily
      afford to drink mojitos under palm trees for the rest of her life.

      So why spend months sharing a bedroom heated by a gas stove with an
      elderly Chechen woman, eating communal meals of bread and soup? Why
      risk her life in a place where just venturing onto the streets can
      be fatal? And why expose herself to horrifying tales of abuse told
      by the children in Hadijat's orphanage?

      "I felt it was my duty to go back," Seierstad says in crisp English
      that carries only a trace of her native Norwegian. "Chechnya had
      been forgotten . . . this hidden place about which Vladimir Putin
      [the Russian president] was controlling the flow of all information.
      I had an advantage – contacts, language, patience. There, I thought,
      I can make a difference."

      Bizarrely, she was based in a small town in Ohio in 2005, writing a
      book about America, when she suddenly had the urge to return. The
      catalyst was a friend's photographic exhibition in Norway that
      showed images of Chechnya. Seierstad, briefly back in her home
      country for a wedding, found that the photos brought all her
      memories flooding back. Instead of flying back to the US, she
      returned to Chechnya.

      During her first visit to the country, she was surprised at the
      extent to which she was personally affected after just a few
      weeks. "There was a fragment of mirror glass above the sink," she
      recalls. "I saw eyes there. The eyes were filled with fear and
      horror. Then I realised they were mine and I was so shocked."

      One day she ventured out in a car, which then came under fire. She
      tumbled out of it into a ditch and, desperately happy to be alive,
      ran to a Russian checkpoint. There, a young Russian soldier,
      stinking of vodka and stale sweat, waved his Kalashnikov at her,
      yelling that she and her companions were under arrest. Then he told
      her he wanted to take her alone into the woods, claiming it was a
      short cut to headquarters, and aimed his gun at her stomach.

      Seierstad heard a tank coming down the road. "I tore myself from the
      soldier's grip and began shrieking and howling and waving my
      arms. `I don't want to go into the woods!' I was thinking. " `Tears,
      tears, scream for mama, scream that you want to go home, scream
      anything at all!' I remember thinking. `I can't leave this
      checkpoint because what will happen in those woods will be
      terrible.' Even if he put a gun to my head, I was not going into
      those woods."

      The tank stopped, and she was saved.

      With her striking beauty, it became imperative for her to learn how
      to frown and look unfriendly when she went outside. Her first war –
      she has covered others since – undoubtedly marked her. "When I went
      back to Moscow to recover, I became depressed. I had lost my drive:
      I just wanted to go back again. Real life was in the mountains in
      Chechnya, where people were waging a life-and-death struggle."

      On her more recent trip, she tried to teach English to the
      traumatised children in the orphanage. Among them was Leila, who had
      been raped for years by her drunken uncle after her parents were
      killed by the Russians. Leila was unable to stop stealing, even
      though she was now safe, and regularly filched the week's bread
      money, spending it on ice-cream cones for the younger children.

      Seierstad has now funded a bakery next door. "Maybe Leila can become
      a baker. Maybe she can be the best baker in Grozny," she says.

      Since returning to Norway, Seierstad has become pregnant for the
      first time – by a jazz saxo-phonist called Trygve Seim, the first
      man she has ever been serious about. That was 4½ months ago. "We
      still call the baby `it'," she says, laughing. "I want it to grow up
      in the same way that I did: to trust in yourself."

      She is nervous about revealing her pregnancy. The Norwegian press
      has pursued her since The Bookseller of Kabul made her not only a
      bestselling international author but the biggest-selling nonfiction
      writer in Norwegian history. When Shah Mohammed Rais – the
      bookseller of Kabul himself – flew to Oslo to launch a legal action
      against her because he didn't like the way she'd portrayed him and
      his family, his arrival caused a sensation.

      Before her book was published, he had been viewed by many as a
      liberal intellectual who had saved many of Kabul's books and
      manuscripts from the Taliban. But when Seierstad lived with him and
      his family, she saw first-hand how badly he treated his family.

      Part of the fallout from Rais's protests was a barrage of criticism
      from other foreign correspondents – but Seierstad is the kind of
      woman some people love to hate. She speaks five languages, is "okay"
      in four and has studied in France and China. In person, however, she
      is open and self-deprecating.

      She says she didn't write about the big picture in Chechnya "because
      other people do that better than me. I wanted to write about what I
      saw". And what she saw was nearly always heartbreaking. She tries
      to "put armour" around her emotions now she is back home, but
      clearly needs to guard herself carefully. "We had mice at home in
      our basement and a company came and put down eight traps," she tells
      me. "But I couldn't bear to see the little mice trapped and dead."

      She has, of course, seen much worse things in war – "children with
      stomachs torn open, people who are not going to survive" – but she
      knew she could not cope with even a few dead mice in the place she
      identifies with safety. "I just couldn't risk having that image in
      my head," she says.

      The Angel of Grozny: Inside Chechnya, by Asne Seierstad, is
      published by Virago Press on March 6 at £14.99
    • Kristjan Sander
      Dear All We could try to assemble a must read list of books on Chechnya. I would recommend it to include books by independent and objective observers, not
      Message 2 of 4 , Mar 2, 2008
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        Dear All

        We could try to assemble a "must read" list of books on Chechnya. I would
        recommend it to include books by independent and objective observers, not
        the warring parties (although I greatly admire Alla Dudayeva).

        What do you think? What about Politkovskaya's "Dirty War" for instance?

        Best regards,

        Kristjan
      • Andrea Jeska
        Dear All, in this context allow me to point to the book: Chechnyas forgotten children, which was published in Germany last year in three languages (German,
        Message 3 of 4 , Mar 5, 2008
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          Dear All,



          in this context allow me to point to the book: Chechnyas forgotten children,
          which

          was published in Germany last year in three languages (German, English and
          Russian). It carries the German title: Tschetscheniens vergessene Kinder and
          was highly praised by the German press. I am the author and the photos were
          contributed by the Chechnyan photographer Musa Sadulayev. Andrea Jeska

          Von: chechnya-sl@yahoogroups.com [mailto:chechnya-sl@yahoogroups.com] Im
          Auftrag von Kristjan Sander
          Gesendet: Sonntag, 2. März 2008 15:04
          An: chechnya-sl@yahoogroups.com
          Betreff: Re: Sunday Times: Author Asne Seierstad enters hell with the angel
          of Grozny



          Dear All

          We could try to assemble a "must read" list of books on Chechnya. I would
          recommend it to include books by independent and objective observers, not
          the warring parties (although I greatly admire Alla Dudayeva).

          What do you think? What about Politkovskaya's "Dirty War" for instance?

          Best regards,

          Kristjan





          [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
        • David McDuff
          Please note that the Prague Watchdog website maintains a select bibliography of Chechnya-related works (currently over 50 titles):
          Message 4 of 4 , Mar 7, 2008
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            Please note that the Prague Watchdog website maintains a select
            bibliography of Chechnya-related works (currently over 50 titles):

            http://www.watchdog.cz/index.php?show=000000-000015-000008-
            000001&lang=1

            or

            http://preview.tinyurl.com/35wu98

            Regards,

            DM


            --- In chechnya-sl@yahoogroups.com, "Kristjan Sander" <kristjans@...>
            wrote:
            >
            > Dear All
            >
            > We could try to assemble a "must read" list of books on Chechnya. I
            would
            > recommend it to include books by independent and objective
            observers, not
            > the warring parties (although I greatly admire Alla Dudayeva).
            >
            > What do you think? What about Politkovskaya's "Dirty War" for
            instance?
            >
            > Best regards,
            >
            > Kristjan
            >
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