Russia

Chechen Refugees Pressured to Return

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Camp Authorities Cut Rations for Some
(Nazran, December 17, 1999) -- Camp authorities in Ingushetia are pressuring some Chechen displaced persons to return to their homes by depriving them of food rations, Human Rights Watch said today.

Beginning last week, thousands of people from the towns of Sernovodsk, Assinovskaya, and Achkoi Martan -- in the flatlands of Russian-controlled northern Chechnya -- were told to prepare to return, and were removed from government ration lists. Yet many people told Human Rights Watch that they fear bombardment and undisciplined conduct by Russian soldiers in their towns. They also lack the materials to repair homes damaged by war. In some cases, their homes have also been thoroughly looted.

"To forcibly repatriate people back to a war zone is a serious violation of their rights," said Holly Cartner, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division. "The displaced people in Ingushetia must be allowed to make their own decisions about going home."

Russia's Northern Caucasus military command has compiled a list of twenty-four towns and villages that are under Russian control and "safe" areas for the return of displaced persons. The list, undated, was signed by General V. Kazantsev, commander of the United Group of Forces for the Northern Caucasus and by four other top commanders. Human Rights Watch researchers working in Ingushetia have seen a copy of the document.

Sharvani Khuchbarov, the head of the Sputnik camp for displaced person in Ingushetia, explained to Human Rights Watch that Russian generals were guaranteeing the security of these towns. "We're proposing to [the refugees] that they go back to their homes. It's not a matter of whether they want or don't want to go back -- why wouldn't you want to go back to your very own home?"

Asked why camp administrators were discontinuing the food rations of some displaced persons, Khuchbarov, whose camp currently houses about 9,000 people, told Human Rights Watch, "Why should we continue to feed them? If we continue to feed them, they'll never leave. And they could have left a long time ago. . .because they have nothing to fear."

Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed more than a dozen internally displaced persons whose rations had either been discontinued or would be discontinued imminently. On December 15, the Sputnik displaced persons camp administration told "Lipkhan" (not her real name), a thirty-nine-year-old mother of eleven, that her family would no longer receive food rations. Lipkhan told Human Rights Watch that one of the camp administrators came to her tent to show her a written order that she and three other families from Sernovodsk would no longer receive rations. "I am being pushed to go," Lipkhan said. "If I were given a choice, I would stay here even though the conditions are bad." Lipkhan has an eight-month-old baby who is ill with a respiratory infection.

"Musa" (not his real name), a former dairy farm administrator from Sernovodsk, also stopped receiving food on December 15.The head of a family of seven, Musa told Human Rights Watch that he would "eat in his dreams" after having his rations cut. Musa said his house had been was damaged by shelling in Sernovodsk and looted of its household goods and livestock, including two cows and a calf. He has no money for repairs or to replenish his winter food supply. He told Human Rights Watch, "What am I going to eat when I get home in Sernovodsk?. Nothing is left to eat [due to looting]-- flour, oil, all the potatoes I prepared for winter. And a family of seven people and there's nothing there!"

"Maret" (not her real name), a fifty-six-year-old woman suffering from liver and gall bladder problems, said she had been promised that she could remain at Sputnik and receive food because of her condition. However, on December 16 a camp administrator at a food distribution point refused to give her fourteen-year-old daughter bread for the day, and told her that their provisions had been discontinued. "[The administrator] knows that my mother is ill," the daughter told Human Rights Watch. "[The administrator] said, 'I'm ashamed to tell you this, but they discontinued you.' She felt sorry for me and gave me a can of meat."

In interviews, many families were clearly still traumatized from the war, and feared the conduct of Russian soldiers. "Musa" told Human Rights Watch, "I want a guarantee: no more bombing, no one will come around at night knocking on the window saying, "Got any bread or water? Come out! Who's in charge here? Get out of here, hands up!"

Some displaced persons expressed fears that Russian forces would detain their husbands and sons. The husband of "Fatima" (not her real name) had been detained and beaten by Russian soldiers in the 1994-96 war, and she feared that if the family returns to Assinovskaya, her husband would be mistreated again.

"Rozet" (not her real name), a mother of three from Samashki, was told she had two days to return home. She said her house was ruined in the bombing of Samashki, and she feared for the safety of her children: "I'm afraid for my son, that the soldiers will arrest him," she told Human Rights Watch. "Of course, we are afraid for our daughters, too, and [that] is the reason we left our village and are staying here."

Human Rights Watch called on all authorities to cease using the denial of food as a means to pressure displaced persons to return. It urged Russian authorities, together with the international community, to provide comprehensive information to displaced persons regarding the true state of their home and security of their village, so that they can make informed decisions about returning.

Domestic and international humanitarian agencies should provide reconstruction materials to those whose homes have been damaged, and deploy protection teams to monitor the rights of displaced persons in camps. International agencies should provide assistance to the camps in Ingushetia to help relieve the burden on the Russian authorities. The Russian government should allow international agencies full and unimpeded access to all internally displaced persons.

The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which are the internationally-accepted standards for treatment of internally displaced persons, explicitly prohibit the forced return of refugees and displaced persons, and guarantee them rights to humanitarian assistance. The Principles also provide that national governments must accept international offers of help in the event that they are unable to provide adequate assistance to internally displaced persons.

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