Russia

Chechen Refugees: "Between a Rock and a Hard Place"

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Written by Cynthia Long, Managing Editor, DisasterRelief.org
Just as ice, snow and mud are bogging down the Russian offensive in Chechnya, the bitter winter weather is creating brutal living conditions for Chechen civilians. Many are shivering in teeming refugee camps, anxious to return home whatever the risks. Others, hiding out in dank basements in bombed-out Grozny and other war-ravaged towns, are waiting for an opportunity to escape the fighting. At revolving-door border crossings, frightened refugees fleeing the war pass by a steady stream of people returning home from freezing, squalid tent cities.

About 70,000 refugees returned last Friday to Russia-controlled areas in northern Chechnya to escape crowded refugee camps where the mud is ankle deep, temperatures are well below freezing, and tents and food are in short supply. Although there have been recent reports of Russian officials pressuring refugees to return home to ease food and shelter demands in the camps, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said there is no evidence that the refugees had been forced to return home.

Of the 250,000 people who fled Chechnya for Ingushetia, more than 80,000 have returned home, said Nikolai Koshman, Russia's chief emissary to Chechnya. Russian officials insist the returns are voluntary.

Many refugees have returned to Chechnya to escape squalid tent cities. Photo courtesy of the BBC "Never, under no circumstances, will we support the idea of forced repatriation of people," Vladimir Kolomanov, an official with the federal migration service, told the Associated Press. However, he refused to comment on whether Chechnya was safe to return to.

"We are not saying it is, and we are not saying it is not. It's up to the people to decide," Kolomanov stated. Many, after suffering for months in tent cities, are deciding to go back.

"The conditions in the camps in Ingushetia are extremely harsh. They are also harsh conditions if they go back to Chechnya, but at least they are closer to home," said UNHCR spokesperson Kris Janowski. "The people are between a rock and a hard place and it is easier to find accommodation in northern Chechnya than in Ingushetia, where they are staying in railway carriages and tents."

There are few medical supplies in the camps and tuberculosis and other illnesses are a growing threat in the cramped conditions. "Our homes, our country have been destroyed. Now we are here, where the soup is worse than in prison," one refugee told AFP. "We are Muslims, and they give us tinned ham. Humanitarian aid does not get here. Two days ago an old man froze to death."

About 250,000 Chechen civilians have fled to Ingushetia, 25,000 of which are in eight tent cities, according to the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

Under heavy snowfall, refugees crowd around a food distribution truck. Photo courtesy of the BBC
Another 30,000, however, are struggling to survive the harsh Russian winter in makeshift shelters that IFRC has deemed "unfit for human habitation." These people depend on the assistance provided to them by IFRC, and the organization has recently increased their food rations and is trying to help the refugees find adequate shelter.

From October to mid-December IFRC has distributed food and hygiene parcels, blankets, flour, kitchen utensils and jerrycans to more than 100,000 displaced people. Also, in cooperation with the Ingush committee of the Russian Red Cross, 10,000 loaves of bread are being distributed by IFRC every day to the refugees.

Over two thirds of the displaced in Ingushetia have found shelter with local residents, but the added population is an enormous burden to an already strained economy. The same is true of the neighboring republic of Georgia, where another 5,000 to 8,000 refugees have fled.

A doctor tends to a young patient in the Jokolo outpatient clinic in Georgia. The streets of Duisi and Jokolo in the Akhmeta region of eastern Georgia are so crowded with Chechen refugees that even cars have trouble passing. Most of the newcomers are women, children, or elderly Chechens, and many of them are sick after fleeing the war on foot over snow covered mountain passages.

"Daily I have to take care of between 60 and 70 patients," said Makvala Kavtarashvili, a Georgian Red Cross doctor in a Duisi outpatient clinic. "There are no office hours any more, we work 24 hours a day."

While the people of Georgia have welcomed the refugees, the influx is making life in their tiny villages difficult, according to Valery Vashakidze, Georgian Minister for Refugees. "All the inhabitants are unemployed and food is scarce. Georgia is undergoing severe economic troubles, and the villages have had no electricity or gas. Most of the refugees say they are grateful for the shelter, but see no future in Georgia. Nor do they dare return to Chechnya," Vashakidze said.

Some have dared return to Chechnya - mostly after assurances that peace also had returned to their Russian-controlled towns and villages. Some, like Milana Aliyev, gladly left a packed tent city to go back to the comfort of home. But Aliyev had been home in Alkhan-Kala just one day when Chechen separtists launched a counterattack, The Washington Post reported.

IFRC passes out hygiene parcles, which contain items like shampoo, soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes, to refugees in Georgia.

On the morning of January 3 she saw the advancing Chechen troops. By the afternoon, Russian artillery shells were again raining down on the village. Aliyev, two sisters-in-law and eight children fled the next day.

Also after assurances by Russian authorities that it was safe to return to Chechnya, 4-year-old Liana Shamsudinova and her family were settling back into their home when a tank shell ripped into the bedroom. The exploding shell ripped the house apart, killing Liana's mother, her 3-year-old brother and an 8-year-old sister, said the girl's only surviving relative, her aunt Raisa Davlitmirzayeva. Liana was hospitalized with a fractured skull and shell fragments in her legs. "They called it a liberated town. They said it was safe," the girl's aunt told the Associated Press, tears running down her face.

Like the Aliyev and Shamsudinova families, dozens of other refugees fled renewed fighting in Alkhan-Kala, Alkhan-Yurt and Yermolovsky last week after Chechen rebels broke through Russian lines. With the recent Chechen advances, Russian troops are growing increasingly suspicious of civilians. Once they reach checkpoints, young men are detained, often forced to lie face down as Russian officials search for rebel soldiers.

Young men are being detained at checkpoints, causing delays and bottlenecks. Photo courtesy of the BBC There are also tens of thousands of civilians still trapped in the Chechen capital Grozny. Cowering in basements without food, water or electricity for weeks or months, many are too weak or afraid to leave the besieged city. Despite the safe passage corridors set up by Russian authorities, there has been little more than "a trickle of people sneaking out," said UNHCR's Janowski. "The fighting makes major movement impossible."

Any civilian movement in Chechnya will become challenging as a top Russian general warned on Tuesday that his forces would be more thorough in searching territory they control for Chechen rebels. Col. Gen. Viktor Kasantsev told ITAR-Tass news agency that "our tender-heartedness and frequently absolutely groundless trust" had left Russian forces open to the surprise militant attacks that overran another two Chechen towns, Argun and Shali, over the weekend.

Kazantsev said the Russians had imposed a curfew on all areas of Chechnya they controlled, and warned that all Chechen males between the ages of 10 and 60 would be checked for ties to the rebels.

In the meantime, as the fighting intensifies, neighboring republics and overcrowded tent cities will struggle to accommodate another flood of war-weary refugees pouring out of Chechnya.

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All American Red Cross disaster assistance is free, made possible by voluntary donations of time and money from the American people. To help the victims of disaster, you may make a secure online credit card donation or call 1-800-HELP NOW (1-800-435-7669) or 1-800-257-7575 (Spanish). Or you may send your donation to your local Red Cross or to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, D.C. 20013.

The American Red Cross is dedicated to helping make families and communities safer at home and around the world. The Red Cross is a volunteer-led humanitarian organization that annually provides almost half the nation's blood supply, trains nearly 12 million people in vital life-saving skills, mobilizes relief to victims in more than 60,000 disasters nationwide, provides direct health services to 2.5 million people, assists international disaster and conflict victims in more than 20 countries, and transmits more than 1.4 million emergency messages to members of the Armed Forces and their families. If you would like information on Red Cross services and programs please contact your local Red Cross.

=A9 Copyright 1999, The American National Red Cross. All Rights Reserved.

DisasterRelief
DisasterRelief.org is a unique partnership between the American Red Cross, IBM and CNN dedicated to providing information about disasters and their relief operations worldwide. The three-year-old website is a leading disaster news source and also serves as a conduit for those wishing to donate to disaster relief operations around the globe through the international Red Cross movement. American Red Cross disaster assistance is free, made possible by voluntary donations of time and money from the American people. To help the victims of disaster, you may make a secure online credit card donation or call 1-800-HELP NOW (1-800-435-7669) or 1-800-257-7575 (Spanish). Or you may send your donation to your local Red Cross or to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, D.C. 20013. The American Red Cross is dedicated to helping make families and communities safer at home and around the world. The Red Cross is a volunteer-led humanitarian organization that annually provides almost half the nation's blood supply, trains nearly 12 million people in vital life-saving skills, mobilizes relief to victims in more than 60,000 disasters nationwide, provides direct health services to 2.5 million people, assists international disaster and conflict victims in more than 20 countries, and transmits more than 1.4 million emergency messages to members of the Armed Forces and their families. If you would like information on Red Cross services and programs please contact your local Red Cross. © Copyright, The American National Red Cross. All Rights Reserved.