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Survival Skills Excel in War-Torn Chechnya

In a muddy field behind an abandoned cattle shed, Kyura Imkhajil surveys a tangle of rusty tanks and pipes and warns visitors not to smoke.

This quiet corner of Chechnya, close to some old oil wells and far from prying eyes, is where he refines his homemade gasoline.

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"It's just like making moonshine," he says with a smile. "Anyone with a head on his shoulders could figure out how to do this."

Mr. Imkhajil's method is certainly primitive. An ancient tank sits in a ditch, heated by flames from a burning gas pipe. When the tankful of oil boils, the steam is forced into a pipe that passes through a long cattle trough full of water: The result is gasoline, or something close.

Jerry-rigged, precarious set-ups like this are typical of life in Chechnya today, five months after the end of the unsuccessful war that Russia waged to stop this small Muslim republic from breaking away.

Hopes are high among Chechens that the new government they elected last week will put an end to the lawless limbo in which they have been eking out a hand-to-mouth existence. But given the scale of the war's destruction, and the government's lack of money, life seems likely to remain tenuous for most Chechens for the foreseeable future.

Certainly Elti Yangalov, a pensioner standing forlornly behind a bucket of corn at the market in Argun, just east of the capital Grozny, does not expect his life to improve markedly any time soon.

A former road digger, he has not received his pension since last March. Last fall, he harvested 300 pounds of corn from land behind his shell-damaged home. He lives now on what he earns from selling it, bucketful by bucketful. What he earns, he says, is enough to buy himself a loaf of bread a day and sometimes some onions. That is the diet he has been living on for months.

At least he reaped a harvest. Thirty miles west, the villagers of Goiskoye do not dare go into their fields: They are still strewn with deadly hidden mines left by Russian troops. "We cannot plow or sow, and some children have lost their legs," complains Mansour Yeskiyev, the village mayor.

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Goiskoye, where more than half of the 600 houses were destroyed, lives on help from outside: Relatives with easier circumstances bring potatoes and carrots; the government intermittently hands out barley and margarine. But drinking water comes only from a village two miles away. The mayor's daughter, Failya, walks there and back with two pails every morning.

All Chechnya's factories and businesses are either destroyed or closed down for lack of customers. When the electoral authorities needed ballots for last week's election, for example, they could find no one in the republic who could print them and had to turn to a company in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia.

There are almost no jobs. Those few that exist - in schools or hospitals or the skeleton local government offices - rarely pay wages.

The center of Grozny has been reduced by Russian artillery and air bombardment to a grid of smoke-blackened, shattered buildings gutted by fire. The skyline is stark with derelict hulks of apartment blocks fit only for destruction. There are few signs of economic life.

Two satellite-telephone centers (Grozny's land-line telephone network was smashed beyond repair), a handful of cafes, and some tourist agencies are the only functioning businesses.

The tourist agencies are not booking holidays. Rather, they sell tickets on flights to Turkey, from where shuttle traders bring back foodstuffs and clothing to sell in the roadside bazaars that have sprung up around Chechnya.

No shops are open yet; everything is sold from the back of a truck - like the loaves of bread driven into Grozny from Ingushetia and always sold at one particular crossroads in the center of the city - or from shacks cobbled together from plastic sheeting or corrugated iron.

Some schools in Chechnya are open; others are not. It depends not only on whether the building still exists, but on whether there is any heat, and on whether teachers, who have not been paid for nearly a year, still feel like coming in.

The traffic police are hard at work, and the security services are functioning. The fire brigades are on duty in most towns (although not all of their fire trucks have gas in their tanks), and hospitals are taking patients.

But with electricity rationed to a few hours each day outside Grozny (where it exists at all), and running water a luxury, doctors are hard pressed to care for the sick.

The government has money for nothing, so nothing gets done. In Grozny, Mayor Lecha Dudayev - nephew of the slain leader who launched Chechnya's bid for independence - acknowledges that he has not even begun to think how he might revive the shattered capital.

"Without financing, we cannot draw up any plans or projects - and we have no financing," he explains simply. "I should be getting funds from the government and the tax authorities. But taxes is one of the problems that the government has not resolved yet."

Back at his personal refinery, testing the quality of his gasoline by the simple expedient of setting a light to it, Imkhajil is not waiting for the government to solve his problems.

"When they discovered oil here a hundred years ago, this is how they refined it then," he says. "So we can do it now."

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