Russia

Weak and hungry Chechens forced to flee Grozny

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Written by Stephanie Kriner, Staff Writer, DisasterRelief.org
Scores of Chechen refugees began a terrifying exodus down a narrow road from Grozny after the Russian military warned them to abandon the city or die. The ultimatum was issued on Monday, ordering all Chechens to leave the capital within five days. It came just as human rights monitors warned that civilians trapped in Grozny since the Sept. 5 Russian raid could starve to death.

"You are surrounded, all roads to Grozny are blocked. You have no chances of winning," leaflets dropped throughout the capital read. "Until December 11, there will be a safety corridor through the village of Pervomaiskoye.

"Those who remain will be viewed as terrorists and bandits. They will be destroyed by artillery and aviation. There will be no more talks. All those who do not leave the city will be destroyed," the leaflets stated.

Russian Gen. Viktor Kazantsev told reporters that the leaflets were a humanitarian warning meant to protect civilians, not an ultimatum. He said the military decided to distribute the leaflets after Russian forces learned of a planned offensive this weekend by the Chechen rebels. "I gave a warning. On the contrary, I am being humane. I repeat that armed resistance is useless," Kazantsev said.

Thousands have begun the perilous journey out of Grozny. Photo courtesy of the BBC After reading the disturbing news, families who had hidden from the ongoing fighting for weeks emerged onto the highway leading west from the capital. Traveling by foot or car, they told reporters stories of a city in terror and panic.

Many people, especially the poor and elderly, remained trapped, they said. After struggling for weeks without adequate food or water, they were too weak to make the long journey away from danger.

One woman told Reuters of her neighbor, an elderly Russian woman whom she tried to help. "She said she would stay behind because she was too tired to flee. 'If God wills it, we will live,' she told me. I left her the food and water we had."

Too afraid to risk their lives to Russia's constant shelling and bombing of surrounding villages and roads, an unknown number of refugees have been trapped in the Chechen capital since the fighting began. Russia's migration service said it expected 20,000 to 30,000 people to flee Grozny in the next five days, and Chechen officials report that nearly 50,000 civilians are still trapped in the city.

And an Interfax report in Grozny stated that most civilians there had no means to leave the city because heavy bombing by Russian artillery had cut off all transportation. Many others, too afraid to leave their bomb shelters, have not seen the leaflets or are to scared or physically unable to flee.

Those who are left behind will likely die of starvation if they aren't slaughtered by Russian troops. Human Rights Watch said food had almost run out, and some people are forced to walk three miles to get water.

Russia's military has threatened to kill those who don't leave Grozny.

"The situation has become very critical -- they could starve in the next few days, in the next few weeks," spokeswoman Marie Struthers told BBC. "The food and humanitarian situation appears to be almost catastrophic. There appears to be next to no food in Grozny, almost no bread."

Many of Chechnya's refugees are children. Russia's military promised that a safety corridor would be available for refugees to leave the city. But throughout the conflict, those trying to flee have come under constant fire, and many have died, according to Human Rights Watch.

On Tuesday, Russian planes continued bombing Grozny, making it impossible to confirm if a corridor out of Grozny existed.

Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov has said that more than 4,500 civilians have been killed by bombs and artillery fire since Russia first launched an air assault on the republic in September. Russia generals meanwhile reported that more than 4,000 Chechen "terrorists" have been destroyed since then.

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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.