"The Aluminium Queen" - an extraordinary collection of accounts by women who survived war


Welcome to another edition of Czech Books - our bi-weekly look at Czech writing today. In this programme we're going to be looking at one of the most moving books that I've read in recent months, written by the Czech Republic's best-known war reporter, Petra Prochazkova. "The Aluminum Queen", brought out by the Lidove Noviny publishing house in both a Czech and an English edition, is a collection of in-depth interviews that Prochazkova made with Chechen women she met in refugee camps or in the ruins of the Chechen capital Grozny. Here's one woman, Elza, recalling her previous life as a baker, before the first Chechen war broke out, in a passage typical for the book both in the tragedy of the situation and in the poetry of the dreams and hopes of the women who speak.

"I didn't train to be a confectioner for want of something better to do. I adore sweet things, though you wouldn't know to look at my figure after two wars. I just love the unique soft touch of flour on your fingers. I close my eyes and breathe in the smell of cakes and pastries when they are already baking in the oven. I thought up new recipes and improvised. I was happy when I heard people smacking their lips. Even now, when my children spend their time wandering the streets and my husband sits in the corner silently fuming over the fact he's got no job, I still close my eyes and try to recall the feel of the flour and the smell of the cakes."

Still only 40 Petra Prochazkova already has an extraordinary career behind her. After covering the wars in Yugoslavia and Abkhazia, she then spent several years in Chechnya. At one time, at the height of the Russian bombardment during the first Chechen war, she was the only foreign journalist left in Grozny. But when she saw the human consequences of the shelling and air bombardment, Prochazkova interrupted her career as a journalist and set up a home in Grozny for children orphaned by the war. In the years that followed she has returned to writing but at the same time she has continued to work untiringly to draw attention to the plight of civilians in war. "Truth," Prochazkova says, "lies in the common people, not in the field commanders or Russian generals."

I recently visited Petra Prochazkova at her flat in Prague. It had a temporary look about it, full of boxes. You had the impression that she'd be getting up and leaving for another war-zone at any minute - something that is not at all unlikely. She told me about her extraordinary collection of Chechen interviews:

"The book came about when I was still working as a correspondent in Chechnya. Several of my friends told me they'd like to know more than just what they read in newspaper articles. It took me several years to put the book together. In fact I was never able to complete it. There were originally meant to be six further interviews with Russian women, wives of Russian soldiers who had fallen in the war. We wanted to show the war through the eyes of women who had been affected, no matter whether they were in Grozny or Moscow. But because I was expelled from Russia in 1999, I never had the chance to finish it."

At the time when Prochazkova met her in the ruins of a Grozny street, Elza - the woman who had once been a baker - was scraping a living by digging through the rubble of buildings flattened by the war, and scratching out any fragments of aluminium that she could find in the twisted wreckage. She would then sell it on, for just about enough money to buy flour to feed her family. Elza is the "Aluminum Queen" in the tragically ironic title of the collection:

"At eight o'clock we set out. All day long we rummage in trash heaps and ruins and crawl through bombed houses. We have already combed the immediate neighbourhood so it means a long walk. Around four o'clock we are already making our way home so as to get through the Russian roadblocks. When the light is starting to fade it's dangerous: they can shoot without warning. I expect they're just as frightened as I am, so they'd sooner shoot me than take the risk that I might be a kamikaze partisan. I spend the whole day plodding through ruins and even though I no longer resemble a human being I crawl back happy at the thought I've brought home a couple of pans and a cooking pot with a hole."

One of the striking things about all the women that Prochazkova interviews is their amazing will to survive and the lengths they go to in order to feed their children, despite living in the bleakest conditions imaginable. Their resilience is in sharp contrast with the image of Chechen men that emerges from the interviews. Having lost the war, Prochazkova points out, most have also lost their will to live:

"I've seen it again and again. You get a situation where the men are no longer in a position to sort out their lives in the way traditional for them - that is with gun in hand. What becomes important is just the daily grind to survive, with constant humiliation and self-sacrifice just to keep the family fed. In this situation the women step in. The men fade into the background and drift into a state of depression, while the women battle to make sure that the children survive. I think that this hidden energy in women is enormous and is shared by women all over the world."

"He finds it terribly degrading and he's more and more desperate. No one in your country can appreciate what a Chechen feels like having a woman feed him. There is no greater humiliation. It has never happened here before. My husband and I have lived together for 13 years and for the first time we scarcely exchange a word. He lies there for days on end with eyes open and says nothing. He was never one to lie down during the day, even for a moment. He made sure the family had everything we needed and he took pride in doing so."

The very last of the six interviews in the book is rather different from the others. Tamara is a Chechen who managed to escape from Grozny and came to the Czech Republic in search of asylum. At the time when Prochazkova interviewed her she was living with her husband and children in a refugee camp, but since then the family have all been granted asylum and now have their own flat. In this extract Tamara remembers arriving at one of the camps:

"They inspected all our things, even our underwear. It was very degrading, although I realized they were only doing their duty. Except that in Chechnya you can't even hang underwear out on the washing line. Only the Russian women dried their brassieres in public, whereas we would dry them secretly at night in places where not even our own husbands went. And just imagine, they put on rubber gloves to carry out their inspection. I realized that they were a bit squeamish about us and they were right. They couldn't know what sort of riffraff might turn up on their doorstep from all ends of the earth. The moment that they started rummaging among my panties I felt like turning around and setting off back to our bombed home in Chechnya."

Although the family are now in safety, and compared with Elza in Grozny are well-off beyond their wildest dreams, Prochazkova points to the sad truth that Tamara and her husband will probably spend the rest of their lives longing for the world they lost:

"I'm afraid that for Tamara and her husband, the Czech Republic will probably never be home. They will be sad all their lives, longing for their home in Chechnya. But the children are fantastic. They've got completely used to it here and are thriving at school. They have the opposite problem - that they're forgetting the language and traditions of their parents. Tamara will always be sad, but she will have the joy of seeing her children succeed."