By Fred Weir, Special to The Christian Science Monitor
The sharp odor of unwashed bodies is strangely punctuated by the acrid smell of burning vegetable oil from the homemade lamp that provides the room's only light.
Twenty-four pairs of eyes stare out intently when the door opens and strangers arrive. They belong mostly to children, gaunt but smiling, who sleep side by side on planks laid across the floor of this cramped former collective-farm kitchen. More - hundreds more - are camped out in the next room, and in the farm's machine shop, cattle sheds, and administrative building.
"There is not enough food, not enough heat, and hardly any blankets," says Elita Abdulshayedeva, a Chechen schoolteacher who fled here with her family three months ago when Russian forces attacked her village of Nazha Yurt. "But the worst thing is there is no place to organize a classroom, and no supplies at all. These children may survive, but what future will they have if they are uneducated?"
As winter drags on, these refugees are the forgotten catastrophe of the savage war raging a few miles away. A third of Chechnya's population has fled the fighting to lodge with their ethnic cousins in the impoverished republic of Ingushetia - nearly doubling its population.
United Nations officials say nearly 10,000 people have crossed into Ingushetia in the past several days, as Rus-sian troops continue their effort to secure the Chechen capital, Grozny.
Russia's Federal Security Service, meanwhile, announced a heightened state of alert yesterday for several cities. The KGB-successor said the precautions were to guard against "possible terrorist acts."
Moscow blames unspecified Chechens for a series of apartment bombings over the summer that killed 300 people across Russia. The blasts were responsible in part for the decision to launch a military operation in October to retake control of the breakaway Caucasus republic.
Open almost any door in Ingushetia today and you are apt to find yourself looking at several tight-lipped, stoic Chechen women and a horde of bright-eyed, ragged kids. They live in sad, sprawling tent camps near the Chechen border, in hastily converted dormitories in farms, factories, schools, and bus stations, and in the streets.
About 258,000 refugees are officially registered in Ingushetia, although aid workers believe the actual number today is more like 175,000. Some have returned voluntarily to their homes, while others were forcibly removed in early January by federal forces to camps inside Russian-controlled Chechnya.
The Ingush have responded as best they can. A great part of the Russian republic's meager budget goes to feeding and housing the refugees, and many local people have opened their homes to Chechen relatives, friends, and even strangers. But there are some who exploit the tragedy.
Zura Visayiteva fled the Chechen capital in October with her two children. They moved into spare rooms in a private home in the Ingush city of Nazran, for which they pay 1,000 rubles (about $30) each per month. But the landlord keeps cramming in more people.
"There are 18 tenants now," she says. "You can't move without stepping on someone. You can't breathe." She doesn't know what will happen when the money runs out and all her possessions have been sold. "I have no hope anymore of going home. They say Grozny is a dead city. I guess we'll become permanent refugees."
For an unknown number of refugees who have been unable to find shelter of any kind, the outlook is even more grim.
"We are sleeping in a construction site with only a little fire to keep the children warm," says Zhanna Mutieva, who fled Grozny with 14 others, mostly children, in early January. "We have no money and no possessions other than the clothes on our backs."
Food is a huge problem. The Russian Ministry of Emergency Services and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) say they are providing at least one meal a day to all inhabitants of the official refugee camps, which comprise two large tent cities and two huge colonies of railway carriages. But that takes care of just 10 percent of the displaced Chechens.
"Everyone can agree that one meal a day is hardly enough, especially for children," says Tom Trier, project manager with the Danish Refugee Council, an interchurch organization hired recently by UNHCR to coordinate its food relief program in Ingushetia. "There are many places where refugees are receiving aid only sporadically, and in some places not at all."
Refugees say a typical monthly ration for one person is 300 grams of rice, 300 grams of pasta, 200 grams of sugar, a can of milk and a kilogram of millet. But amounts actually reaching people seem to vary wildly.
At one aid distribution point on the outskirts of Nazran, teenager Zelimkhan Khadayev displays the weekly ration for himself and 12 other people who share a single room. It comprises 400 grams (about a pound) of dirty rice and four loaves of bread. "Of course we can't live on this," he says. "We have to sell our things and beg for help from others."
Many refugees claim there is corruption in the food pipeline, which is mainly under the control of Russian and Ingush authorities. "They say they're spending 15 rubles [about 55 cents] per day on each of us, but we don't see that much," says Ms. Abdulshayedeva. The claims seem at least partially borne out by an internal UNHCR report, which in December found that much of a 5,000 ton food shipment sent to Ingushetia through the Russian Ministry of Emergency Services went astray.
The UNHCR responded by bringing in the Danish Refugee Council. "They realized that a significant amount of aid was not reaching the refugees," says Mr. Trier.