By Sultan Jumagulov in Bishkek (RCA No. 50)
Chechens fleeing their homeland to escape the onslaught of Russian forces have met a cool, sometimes hostile, reception in Kyrgyzstan.
Russian television news programmes broadcast here demonise Chechens, inflaming local feeligs. "Russian authorities have launched an unheard of anti-Chechen propaganda in the countries of the CIS," said Suleiman Viskhanov, who arrived in Bishkek from Grozny quite recently.
"Television shows Chechens only as cut-throats and monsters who kidnap people and trade them as slaves. This explains why lately the attitude towards our persecuted people has deteriorated even among people who used to sympathise with us.
"The crimes of Russian forces on Chechen soil are widely known in the West. But if the pictures showing these crimes were seen by the peoples of the CIS, they would have had a totally different opinion about Chechens. Unfortunately, news channels in Central Asia p are still dominated by the Russian mass media."
Chechens arriving in Kyrgyzstan are accorded the temporary resident status. They get no financial assistance and are expected to keep themselves in a country where unemployment is already chronically high.
Saida Janbulaeva, president of the Chechen National Cultural Centre, Bart, knows the problems of the refugees all too well. In addition to her own six children, she now has to support two more families who fled from the ravages of Chechnya.
Sympathy for the wide-eyed mountain people who can be seen staring from the windows of the centre is sometimes dampened by the line of Mercedes and BMW cars parked outside.
Mairambek Kenjeev, head of the District Department of Internal Affairs, denies there is prejudice towards Chechens but says, "Few Chechens are working. What do they live on? Sometimes ordinary citizens ask 'where do the Chechens get such "cool" cars? For sure, they do not bend their backs and don't get corns on their hands.' Statistics show that newly arrived Chechens are often linked to crime."
Janbulaeva defended the right of Chechens to own expensive cars, "People have a jaundiced view here against those who live well. In Chechnya, we didn't sit doing nothing, we had good businesses there. Why shouldn't we buy a good car here? These cars were checked many times and they are all legitimate."
Currently, there are about three thousand Chechens in Kyrgyzstan. About One tenth of them fled the current war but the majority are those who were born in Kyrgyzstan or in neighbouring Kazakstan. Many of them settled here after Stalin ordered mass deportation of Chechens to Central Asia in 1944.
In conversation over tea at the Chechen centre, I began to understand the bitterness of these proud people over what they believe is undeserved persecution.
Chechens ceaselessly curse the Russian politicians who sent them wandering around the world. They believe the first military campaign of 1995 had a purely commercial motive, while the second in 1998 was for solely political purposes, namely to advance the electoral chances President Vladimir Putin.
Suleiman Vishkanov told me about life under the 'Russians. "Every day they came searching our homes," he said. "My house was then totally destroyed by shell fire. We found shelter with my parents but even there we were hounded. I am a mature man so I was luckier than some others. Young people were just taken away."
After the war many deported Chechens returned to their homeland. Others preferred to stay in Kyrgyzstan. Yunus Yusupov would have gone back to Chechnya, but his children and grandchildren took a different view.
The old man pats his head on the place where a bullet shattered part of his skull when he fought with the Red Army in World War Two.
According to Yunus, Kyrgyz people still treat local Chechens well, only the policemen are oppressive. "They are extremely hostile to our young men," he said. "When anything happens they straight to us and clap our youngsters behind bars."
Some militiamen claim that long-established Chechen residents have joined Kyrgyz people in taking an unfavourable view of the newcomers, complaining that "they act as if they own the place". The head of the Human Rights Movement of Kyrgyzstan, Tursunbek Akunov, begs to differ, insisting the Chechen refugees are innocent victims of Russian persecution who simply want to live peacefully alongside their Kyrgyz hosts.
Sultan Jumagulov is a regular IWPR contributor
Copyright (c) IWPR 2001