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Refugees Living in Limbo After Fleeing War

Hundreds of thousands of Chechens have nowhere to call home. Russia is facing a humanitarian crisis.

February 10, 2001|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ZNAMENSKOYE, Russia — They would like to go home, and the Russian government says it wants them to head that way too. But so far, there has been no significant movement among the about 335,000 civilians displaced by war in Chechnya.

"Even if they drove us from here, we have no place to go back to," said Mosha Shakhgeriyeva, a mother of six. "I'm not taking my kids to Grozny [the Chechen capital] to be blown up or maybe shot by snipers."

Besides, she asks, who will rebuild their house lying destroyed barely 40 miles from Grozny?

Her words, spoken in a tent here at the Severny Refugee Camp, show how the plight of the refugees from the war-torn Russian republic is turning into a long-term humanitarian crisis.

It has been a year since Russian troops hoisted their flag in the center of Grozny, signaling that separatist rebels had been defeated and the republic's de facto independence from Moscow was finished.

Proclaiming Russia's determination to restore normalcy, despite ongoing guerrilla fighting, the republic's Moscow-appointed administrator, Akhmad Kadyrov, this week set a goal of bringing all refugees home by the end of this year.

But refugee officials and the president of the neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia, where about half the refugees have fled, think that Kadyrov is dreaming.

The refugees fear going home because of the fighting and lawlessness inside Chechnya. In addition, most of their homes are a shambles, and there is no money yet available for reconstruction. An estimated 75,000 houses and 74,000 apartments were destroyed in the fighting.

"We need to start preparing in advance for Chechen refugees to spend the next winter in tent camps again," Ingushetia President Ruslan S. Aushev told Russia's Interfax news agency.

According to the U.N. World Food Program, 160,000 Chechens displaced by the war are living in Ingushetia and 175,000 are displaced inside Chechnya. Most have found places to live in villages or with distant relatives, but about 30,000 are living in grim tent camps.

Severny Camp, which houses 2,500 people, is one of five refugee centers set up inside Chechnya by authorities to "temporarily" shelter those fleeing the war, which began with an aerial bombing campaign in September 1999.

With bitter memories of a 1994-96 war with Russia, Chechen civilians were on the move out of Grozny and other targeted cities as soon as the bombs began dropping.

"At first, it didn't matter what the conditions were" in the camps, said Shakhgeriyeva. "We were ready to accept anything not to be bombed. It was purely about survival."

Now, refugees at Severny complain about scant and poor-quality food, inadequate medical care, and an absence of soap and detergents, which contributes to a spread of lice. In addition, about 1 in 10 residents has contracted tuberculosis.

Perhaps worse is the boredom of life in a virtual prison, surrounded by fences and guards.

Heida Shaukhalova said she and other camp residents in mid-January got their first food allotment in 40 days. It consisted of tinned meat, sugar and foul-tasting rice from India that was past the expiration date on its packaging and made people sick, she said. The food was distributed just one day before an inspection by representatives of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly.

"Look, we are like birds in a cage," Shaukhalova said. "If you forget your documents and go out of the camp, they won't let you back in. . . . A son or a father cannot spend the night with his family if he is not registered here. We can leave if we write an application, but only for three days--not more."

"Sometimes I think they should have destroyed all of us in the beginning to spare us all this," said Tamara Khashbikarova, a 41-year-old refugee.

Zura Tutayeva, a 50-year-old doctor elected by fellow refugees to run the camp's administration, said she has appealed to Moscow for additional mattresses, beds and toys for the camp's 700 children.

"We are the part of the iceberg that you can see," she added. "Most of the refugees are living in villages, and no one is helping them."

*

Sergei L. Loiko of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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