The situation of Chechen refugees in Ingushetia

An article by Lecha Ilyasov, Professor of Linguistics and a photographer. He is a member of LAM, a Chechen NGO which advocates and works to bring into being in Chechnya an open democratic society compatible with national traditions and Islam.
October 20, 1999 - Securing adequate shelter is the most urgent problem for Chechen refugees in Ingushetia. It is becoming critical with the onset of cold weather. Refugees can be divided into four groups according to the type of shelter they have found:

  • living with relatives;
  • renting lodging;
  • living in tents supplied by the Ministry for Emergency Situations;
  • homeless.

The first two groups are living in almost identical conditions with respect to comfort and sanitation. Ten to 29 persons live in 1-2 room apartments, and up to 40 persons in 3-room apartments. The great difference is that the first group is reasonably assured of shelter until the emergency is over, while the situation of the second group is insecure. The price of housing in Ingushetia has increased approximately 5 to 10 times since the commencement of armed conflict in Chechnya. Before the war, it was possible to rent a one-room apartment in Nazran (Ingushetia's main town) for 200-500 rubles a month; the same apartment today costs 100-200 US dollars (2,500-5,000 rubles). Moreover, as demand for shelter increases, rents will almost certainly be raised. Since salaries have not been paid for the past three years in Chechnya and the possibility of a refugee finding employment in Ingushetia is virtually nil, it is quite likely that most persons in the second group will become homeless if the war continues for any length of time.

The main problem for refugees living in the tent cities of the Ministry for Emergency Situations is the approach of winter weather. Even those tents that are equipped with heaters are not really satis-factory for housing small children. A cold snap in October has already caused a flare-up of respiratory diseases among children and the elderly. For this reason, some refugees were thinking of returning to Chechnya, but fear of the war proved stronger, and very few families have actually left the tent cities.

The fourth group of refugees are, of course, the most badly off. People are living in hastily-built shacks, in earthen dug-outs, in lean-tos, in buses and cars converted to living quarters. Some live in the open air, trying to keep warm with te help of bonfires.

These last two categories of refugees are lacking all sanitary facilities, any possibility of bathing or of changing their clothes, not to mention any kind of comfort or amenities. A humanitarian catastrophe is inescapable this winter unless heated shelters of some sort (perhaps trailers [vagonchiki] or railroad cars) are provided for them.

A second problem, as important as shelter, is food. Most Chechen refugees have no money, and the price of food is rising because of the sharp increase in demand. The food rations distributed by the Ministry for Emergency Situations are skimpy and in short supply. The rations mainly consist of bread, flour and sugar. But delivery is poorly organized. In the tent cities, people more or less regularly receive bread and sugar, but in Nazran and other towns and villages, only 10-20% of the refugees receive rations. This is due to the insufficient number of distribution points and the failure to provide refugees with the necessary directions. The Ministry for Emergency Situations should make available special leaflets and other sources of information for refugees, including a five minute daily television program for refugees.

In the meantime, people have to stand in line for 3-4 days to receive flour and sugar, and 5-6 hours to receive bread. Because of these difficulties, the refugees live primarily on bread and tea.

The assistance of other regions of Russia and of international organizations experienced in helping refugees is needed in order to solve the problem of feeding the Chechen refugees in Ingushetia. Unfortunately, the Ministry for Emergency Situations of Ingushetia, for all its goodwill, is simply unable to provide everyone in need with the assistance they require.

The terrible overcrowding, the lack of elementary sanitary facilities, the frigid weather, the insufficient food rations, the stressful conditions, all contribute to the appearance and rapid spread of respiratory and infectious diseases. The tent cities and other places where the refugees are concentrated can become breeding grounds of dangerous epidemics. Although, in theory, medical care, including prescription drugs, for refugees is free, in fact, refugees, like everyone else, have to pay for it. And prices for medical services and drugs have risen with the increased flow of refugees. Here, too, the assistance of international humanitarian organizations, and of the Red Cross in particular, is needed to organize additional field hospitals and pharmacies that will provide care for refugees without cost.

Of equal importance is the provision of psychological rehabilitation services for both adults and children. Many refugees have had to face the terror of death more than once. They have been bombed from the air and shelled by artillery. They have seen friends and relatives killed.

It is also necessary somehow to offset the interruption of schooling for Chechen children. In towns and villages, classes for refugee children should be added to existing schools, and in the tent cities, some kind of make-up classes should be devised, enlisting the help of teacher-refugees and providing them with at least the minimum necessities in return for their work.

The refugees in Ingushetia have at least escaped the horrors of war, but many civilians remain in Grozny, mostly from among the poorest and most vulnerable members of the population. They include Chechens and Russians, but also Armenians and Jews. For the most part, these are solitary individuals, including many pensioners, but quite a few families who lack the means to get out of the city have also remained. They have no money, no change of clothes, no reserves of food. And nowhere to go. Nevertheless, they are ready to leave Grozny if Russian troops try to take the city by storm, or if the city is subjected to heavy bombing or artillery fire.

Therefore, the many civilians who remain in Grozny, not because of any patriotic feelings but out of necessity, must be warned if and when major military action against Grozny is going to begin. The transfer should be organized of the poorest and least functional members of the population to safer locations in Chechnya and, if possible, to neighboring regions. Some kind of shelter should be prepared in advance to receive them. This problem has to be solved promptly, before wide-scale battles break out in Grozny and its environs. The program for evacuation of the city should be agreed in advance with the Russian command, with the Maskhadov government, and with the government of Ingushetia. A Chechen humanitarian NGO could take responsibility for this task if it received the necessary financial support and legal advice.