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Chechen teen diary a bitter tale of bombs and survival

* Zherebstova was 14 when bombs began pounding her hometown of Grozny
/ Source: Reuters

* Zherebstova was 14 when bombs began pounding her hometown of Grozny

* She struggled for years against taboos to find publisher

By Alissa de Carbonnel

Polina Zherebtsova was 14 when the bombing began, smashing apartment blocks and leaving corpses in the street of her hometown of Grozny.

Through it all, she wrote about it, detailing the shattering of civilian life during the second Chechen war and confiding her hunger and fears in a carefully kept diary.

The flow of words were an act of catharsis, but Zherebstova, now 26, says she has also come to see them as a testimony against official efforts to paper over the horrors of the war.

Facing down threats and fears for her safety since she began looking for a publisher four years ago, Zherebtsova read out from her newly printed diary at a modest book presentation last week in Moscow, where she has lived since 2006.

"I didn't think it would ever be published. I thought if I die someone might find it in the ruins," Zherebtsova said, her bleach-blond fringes peeping out from a pink and turquoise head scarf framing her round cheeks.

"This book doesn't scold anyone, but it tells the truth," she said. "I think it's important for people to understand what kind of country they live in, to wake up from their stupor."

Tens of thousands were killed in the first Chechen conflict from 1994 to 1996, but Vladimir Putin sent troops back into the mainly Muslim region on Russia's southern fringe as prime minister in 1999 -- a move that helped boost his popularity and won him two terms as president from 2000-2008.

Under Putin's continued rule -- once again Russian prime minister but seeking to return to the Kremlin as president after elections in March -- lingering social taboos remain on writing about the war and its aftermath.

Zherebstova herself is shy of politics. A new fear has replaced the flashbacks that still haunt her -- that her drive to tell her story will bring harm to her or her husband.

"I don't know anything about politics, but this country is finished," she told the small crowd at a book reading.

She was wounded in the first days of heavy bombardment that preceded the return of Russian forces to the region, when bombs hit the outdoor market where she worked in the Chechen capital.

Doodles filling some of the journal's pages show plumes of smoke sketched like bunches of flowers. In others, she confesses her schoolgirl crushes alongside clear-eyed descriptions of Grozny under siege.

Chechen war memoirs by veteran soldiers and journalists feature in Russian bookstores, but civilian accounts are rare.

Zherebstova's harrowing tale has already won her comparisons to Anne Frank's World War II diary and Zlata Filipovic's Bosnian War journal.

Publishers praised but one after the other refused to print the diary -- dedicated to the "rulers of today's Russia."

"They all said they really liked it but that it was dangerous to publish," Zherebstova said in a girlish voice, described by one rights worker as a telltale sign of trauma.

Last autumn, she finally found Detektiv Press, a boutique publisher of biographies and history books, that printed a small run of 2,000 books on sale in Moscow this month.

It was a bitter victory: Her phone rang with death threats almost daily.

Out of fear, the young couple moves roughly every six months. They tell no one where they live, and Zherebstova has stashed her journals with friends scattered across the country.

But she was pushed on by recurrent nightmares: "I still dream of all these people who were killed and I feel like I have a duty to them," she said.

Her account is especially controversial in today's Russia because it tells of a flare-up of ethnic tensions. Moscow has become a flashpoint for such tensions in recent months fueled by a resurgent post-Soviet nationalism, economic migration and populist campaigning ahead of this year's parliamentary polls.

The websites of publications featuring extracts of Zherebstova's diary quickly filled with bilious commentary.

Desperate to not take sides, Zherebstova is at great pains to portray herself as ethnically mixed, though she inherits a Slavic-sounding last name from her mother's side of the family.

Keeping a diary is tradition for women in her family. She began when she was nine, prompted by her grandfather's death -- a famous journalist who was killed in the first Chechen war.

"During the war, it saved me from going crazy," she said.

Despite glowing reviews and extracts published in prominent magazines, Zherebstova earned only enough to pay a month's rent.

She has received no war compensation and works odd jobs from tutoring to babysitting to make ends meet. It is hardly enough to cover the costs of frequent bouts in hospital, she says.

The shards of shrapnel in her right leg still pain her, and after going hungry for weeks during the war, Zherebstova's stomach is weak and her teeth have nearly all fallen out.

"I used to dream of eating a piece of bread before dying," she said. "For 26 days, I ate only snow... it was black from the fires and we mixed in a spoonful of rotten flour."

While the Kremlin has funded an opulent facelift to erase the physical scars of war in Grozny, Zherebstova has not been back since she fled in 2005 and says she never will.

"What is happening there now, it's all foreign to me. Those pretty buildings are built on blood," she said. "My dream is to leave this country and go where there is peace."