By Erik Batuev in Nazran, Ingushetia (CRS no.12, 23-Dec-99)
On the eve of the new millennium, Ingushetia resembles a vast 'gulag'. Thousands of Chechen refugees huddle together for warmth in flimsy canvas tents or freezing railway carriages. The streets of Nazran seethe with Russian troops.
"Mummy, Mummy, is he a good Russian?" asks a four-year-old girl pointing at a passing Russian soldier.
Her mother, Madina, shrugs her shoulders. She is lost for a reply. Earlier this month, Russian troops stormed her village of Alkhan-Yurt, just outside Grozny, and razed it to the ground.
"We never thought they'd bomb us," she says. "You see, Malik Saidullaev [head of the pro-Russian State Council] comes from our village. We even collected 10 roubles from each house, slaughtered a cow and gave it all to the soldiers - so they would leave our village in peace.
"But that didn't help. They wiped Alkhan-Yurt from the face of the earth. True, they apologised afterwards and said they weren't the ones who bombed our homes."
Now a refugee eking out a hand-to-mouth existence in Ingushetia, Madina blames Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin for starting the war. I try to tell her that the Chechen warlord, Shamil Basaev, is the guilty party, that he mounted a bloody raid into Dagestan in October and... Madina interrupts me. "And who do you think paid him?" Boris Berezovsky, of course.
Many of the refugees agree with her. They say that this war, like the last one, is nothing more than a conflict of commercial interests. They say the Russians are fighting for the oil wells - in a bid to boost Putin's popularity rating. The other refugees rally around and nod energetically.
They are unwilling to listen to any other opinion. On one thing, however, we all agree: the war is a terrible thing.
"Look at my children," says a woman from Grozny with four youngsters in tow. "What sort of a childhood is this? They can't sleep at night, they tremble all the time. When the planes bombed us, my daughter ran off into a corner and wouldn't utter a word. I shook her. I just wanted her to say something. I thought she had lost her mind or gone deaf and dumb." This woman also blames Basaev.
The Ingushetian president, Ruslan Aushev, was right when, on the eve of the second Chechen campaign, he said, "The longer the war goes on, the quicker people will forget what it was all about in the first place."
As the Russian war machine drives deeper and deeper into Chechnya, the endless stream of refugees pouring into Ingushetia continues to swell. According to the latest estimates released by the government in Nazran, more than 240,000 Chechens have already crossed the border with another 200-500 arriving every day.
The journey to Nazran is fraught with danger: the road is regularly strafed by Russian planes and artillery (most recently outside Goity). Wounded refugees are immediately rushed to hospital in the nearby settlement of Sleptsovsk.
Although the hospital here has just 40 beds, it is crammed with over 60 patients, mostly women and children. New patients are treated in the corridors or even in the cellar: the overflow is passed on to other hospitals further along the road.
There is a chronic lack of bandages and painkillers. Head doctor Mazhit Albakov says that the total absence of penicillin has resulted in a high degree of amputations.
"She's our leader - no she is!" The wounded refugees point at an elderly woman with a bandaged arm and then at two-year-old Salambek who has a piece of shrapnel lodged in his hip. They laugh at their joke. The elderly woman - the rebel leader - also manages a smile but the boy looks mystified. He just stares at my camera.
The wounded in the hospital are fed three times a day but the refugees in their canvas shantytown can expect nothing but bread. Three loaves per 15 people, once every 24 hours. Occasionally, humanitarian aid comes to the refugee camp in the form of grain and noodles. There is never enough to go around.
It is a miracle that the refugees do not lose all sense of dignity. Even in these inhuman conditions, they try to count their blessings. "It's better to live in a tent than in a cellar, under endless bombardments," they reason. And they are glad to be alive. In the Sputnik camp, which houses around 8,200 refugees, I saw some of the younger inmates celebrating a wedding. Life goes on in spite of everything.
But there are people who have fallen victim to despair. They no longer have any desire to return to Chechnya. "This war will just go on and on," they say. They ask me to help them secure refugee status and emigrate abroad. But then they immediately dismiss the idea. "Who needs us over there? And how are we going to afford to get the right documents?"
Some day, the war is going to end. But the Russian authorities have yet to face their greatest challenge in Chechnya: convincing the Chechen people that the Kremlin, which launched its "anti-terrorist operation" three months ago, bears no ill will towards the civilian population of the embattled Caucasian republic.
Erik Batuev is a journalist with Svet newspaper in Nazran.