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Chechen Refugees Settle into Life in Ingushetia - 2002-06-14


For almost three years, Russian troops have been fighting separatists in the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya. Thousands of people have been killed - soldiers as well as civilians - and many areas of Chechnya have been reduced to rubble. In addition, hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes. About 150,000 of them are in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia.

Only a few kilometers from the border separating Chechnya and Ingushetia a group of refugees has settled into some abandoned farm buildings.

The farm is home to almost 250 refugees, including 75 children, some of whom were born in the camp. Chickens and geese squawk outside and the place smells of manure. When school is in session, children study in a tent that has been set up on nearby grass.

One refugee, Zulaya, says she came to Ingushetia because life was impossible in Chechnya.

"I came here after the streets where I live in Chechnya were totally destroyed by bombing," she said. "Everybody came because of the same reason. Some people even came barefoot; they couldn't bring anything with them."

During the past decade, Russia has fought two wars with Chechen separatists. The first war, from 1994 until 1996, ended with a humiliating withdrawal by Russian forces from Chechnya.

But the Russian army came back to Chechnya in the fall of 1999. The invasion was sparked by a series of apartment bombings in Russia that killed hundreds of people. Russian officials blamed the blasts on Chechen separatists and said Chechnya had become a refuge for terrorists.

The latest round of fighting sparked a mass exodus of refugees who fled to neighboring areas like Ingushetia.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that there are about 150,000 refugees now living in Ingushetia. The majority of them live with Ingush families or in abandoned buildings.

Most of the refugees live in conditions that are, at best, very basic. Every day, they fill buckets of water from a tap to use for cooking and washing clothes. Some people have electricity. Others do not. Most use a wood-burning stove to heat their rooms and cook.

In the abandoned farm that Zulaya has called home for three years, the refugees use cardboard boxes and pieces of scrap wood to repair leaks in the roof or holes in the walls.

While conditions are tough, few of the refugees plan to go back to Chechnya. Most of them say they have nothing left there. Their homes were destroyed in the fighting.

But they also cite another reason. Almost all the refugees say they are afraid to return home while there are Russian soldiers in Chechnya. They say Russian soldiers often harass or kill Chechen civilians.

"Very often you hear in the settlements when you talk to families there that yes they are grateful that there is support available and that people are working to try to assist them but for them the big issue is to solve the problem that they cannot go to their homes and that they do not feel safe to go home," said Jon Hoisaeter, a protection officer at the UNHCR's North Caucasus office.

Russian authorities think otherwise. They have announced that they would like all the refugees to return to Chechnya by the end of this year. They say while some fighting continues, the war is basically over. Russian authorities say the military has made Chechnya safer.

But Chechen refugees here say it is the Russian military that scares them. No one here will give their last name for fear of retribution for criticizing the military.

Human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch say the Russian military tortures and sometimes kills civilians during its operations to find Chechen fighters. The Russian government has repeatedly denied these charges.

Zulaya does not want to go back home because she is afraid her 12-year-old son may be taken by Russian soldiers.

"In the middle of the night people come into the house and you don't know who it is," she said. "And they take away your sons and you don't know where they are taking them."

Zulaya says until Chechnya is safe, she is staying in Ingushetia. But staying here isn't easy either.

The Russian government has assured aid organizations such as the UNHCR that refugees will not be forced to return. But some aid workers say they fear Moscow may use more subtle pressure to make the refugees return to Chechnya to make it appear life is returning to normal. As evidence, they say many refugees who were living in private homes or abandoned buildings have recently been evicted and bread deliveries have been cut.

Many local Ingush residents also appear to be getting tired of the refugees. They complain the refugees don't obey local laws. Some of the men, they say, fight in Chechnya and then come back to Ingushetia to rest or avoid capture.

Aslan Gandarov is the head police officer at the Satsita Camp in Ingushetia, where almost 5,000 refugees live. He describes an incident in the camp where the police tried to arrest a Chechen man who was accused of theft. He says the refugees surrounded the man and wouldn't let the police take him.

"When the local police come to take someone, they simply won't let them take him," he said. "Even if he did something, killed someone, they won't let him take him."

Refugees at the camp tell a different story.

Asset has lived at the Satsita Camp for the last year. She says the men who came weren't police. They were simply local residents who came to the camp to beat up refugees. She points to her son who is missing his front teeth and has a bloodied lip.

"I came to Ingushetia not for my own sake; I came for my children," she said. "I chose this place because the Ingush and Chechens are of the same ethnic group. I never believed such things would happen here."

Residents in the camp say these types of attacks are becoming more and more common. They believe it is an attempt to make them leave the camps and go back to Chechnya.

Looking around the farm where she has spent the last three years of her life, Zulaya says she'd rather stay here than return to Chechnya. In Chechnya, she says, life is even worse.

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