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A Chechen Dream Crumbles For Family on Edge of War

Independent spirit stalls Russian advance

LAST month, Osman Dushayev was living the Chechen dream.

A family man with a thriving practice, Dr. Dushayev and his wife, Marjam, had recently settled in a spacious home in this village on the border between Chechnya and Dagestan in southern Russia.

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Their two grown children, Leila and Anzor, were studying just an hour and a half away in the Chechen capital of Grozny. Most weekends, they would return home to enjoy Marjam's cooking.

``We built this house with our own hands, with our own blood,'' Dushayev, a handsome man with a thick moustache, says. His family's old home was seized after the Soviet government accused Chechens of collaborating with Nazis in World War II, deporting them en masse to Kazakhstan.

``We built it all ourselves,'' he says, proud of the brick building's upstairs bedrooms, Western-style kitchen, and fully equipped bathroom. Only recently did the government give him permission to build a new house.

But despite such conveniences in an area where not everyone has indoor plumbing, the Dushayevs' lives have been anything but comfortable the past few weeks.

Although the Dushayevs live away from the violence in Chechnya in neighboring Dagestan, their lives have been changed - perhaps irrevocably - by the violent events unfolding there ever since Russia sent troops and tanks into the rebellious republic on Dec. 11 to quash its three-year independence drive.

Because of their relative prosperity and strong Chechen traditions of family and hospitality, the Dushayevs have welcomed more than 25 Chechen refugees who landed on their doorstep, their only possessions the few clothes they could carry by hand.

Among them are 10 children under the age of 8 - including four infants - whose fathers stayed behind in Chechnya to fight the Russian advance.

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Previously almost-empty rooms, decorated in the traditional Arab style, are now crammed with cradles, blankets, and toys. Wet laundry fills the hallways, the kitchen is always crowded, and the line for a hot shower is several hours long.

``We're even ready to take in more people, if it comes to that,'' says 18-year-old Leila, who was preparing a lunch for more than 20 people consisting of tall stacks of Russian blini, or pancakes, to be eaten with hot, spicy tomatoes. ``The more the merrier.''

A brown-eyed beauty who was studying to be a doctor like her father, Leila was proud of her status as a university student, even though her family's Muslim traditions dictated that, as a woman, she stay home and raise the family.

Two years ago, Leila's great-uncle made the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, becoming the first Dushayev to do so since the Chechen people broke free of the Communist rule that forced their prayers underground.

But despite her ambitions, Leila is frightened to leave Khasavyurt and resume her studies in Grozny ever since a university dormitory was partially destroyed in a Russian bombing raid.

Her fears for the future are more evident in her mother, Marjam, who teaches at a local kindergarten and prefers to speak Chechen at home. She has been so upset over recent events that several times she has fainted during class.

``We have to stop the bloodshed. It can't go on,'' she says inside the kindergarten building, where a mass influx of refugees who fled Chechnya by bus, tractor, and truck are being temporarily housed.

For the moment, Marjam's most overriding concern is her son, Anzor, a lean young man in a track suit and leather jacket who at age 20 already sports a row of gold-capped teeth in the popular Chechen style.

IN November, Anzor was just another college student planning to go into business. But now he is intending to cross the Chechen border with his father and join the fight.

``The Russians shot at us, they killed Chechens. I saw it all with my own eyes, and I know what's going on,'' says Anzor, who witnessed a prelude to Russia's major Dec. 11 assault when Russian tanks filled with Moscow-backed opposition fighters rumbled into the Chechen capital on Nov. 26.

``The Russians are doing everything they can to destroy our people,'' he says. ``Of course I'll fight.''

Unlike many Chechen men, neither Anzor nor his father owns any weapons. But so strong are their beliefs that they are ready to face the enemy unarmed.

``I consider the border between Chechnya and Dagestan to be arbitrary. Stalin made it arbitrarily, and it doesn't really exist. I am Chechen, and I live in what I consider to be Chechnya,'' Dushayev says, referring to the former Soviet dictator's decision to draw borders that turned the ethnic regions in the area into autonomous republics. Many Chechens who live in Dagestan do not recognize the crude border lines that separate them from their people.

``As head of the household, I am most afraid of this war spreading throughout the Caucasus region,'' he continues, as the sound of the mullah calling people to prayer reverberates from a nearby mosque.

``But I'll do what all men do, of course. I'm ready to defend my family to the best of my ability,'' he says.

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