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Opportunity, Deprivation Coexist at Tent Cities

February 09, 2003|Jim Heintz | Associated Press Writer

SLEPTSOVSKAYA, Russia — For an hour or so in the afternoon, 16-year-old Vakhid Goitamirov can lose himself in his intricate Chechen folk dance steps and memories of the applause when he and his troupe toured the Czech Republic during the winter school break.

Then practice ends and he steps out into thick mud, slogging past reeking outhouses and slinking dogs to a musty tent.

"It's two different worlds. Coming back from the Czech Republic was a horror," he said.

For Vakhid and thousands of other Chechens who fled their war-ravaged republic for camps in neighboring Ingushetia, daily life is a whipsaw between the worlds of deprivation and opportunity. They get diligent attention from aid workers and brusque treatment from local authorities, who the refugees suspect want to drive them out.

In the 3 1/2 years since refugees began inundating Ingushetia, millions of dollars in aid has streamed in. The United Nations sets its aid budget for Chechen refugees at $33 million for 2003.

The money has brought the refugees much that others don't have in impoverished Ingushetia. Some camps have schools that still smell of fresh-cut lumber and shelves full of textbooks. Tiny camp clinics are spotless and have new equipment.

The luckiest refugees even get to travel. The dance troupe that went to the Czech Republic is working toward an American tour. UNICEF arranges Black Sea vacations for youngsters to ease potentially dangerous boredom and resentment.

Of about 103,000 Chechen refugees in Ingushetia, about 20,000 live in camps like this one -- called Sputnik, which means traveling companion -- where such services are available. Another 20,000 or so live in so-called "spontaneous settlements" -- derelict industrial buildings and collective farms -- that put their resourcefulness to the test.

In one case, a building at a disused quarry has been turned into a gym that its director boasts is one of the best in Ingushetia.

The remaining 60,000 found shelter with local families. Although that increases crowding and adds to tensions, Russian and Ingush authorities appear content with the arrangements. But Russia has declared that the tent camps must go. Some aid workers suggest that is because they are a visible embarrassment to a Kremlin that wants to be seen as a superpower.

Bhim Udas of the World Food Program noted that although Russia has enough grain to send some to other countries, it resisted proposals to give some of it to Chechen refugees.

"I think they found the idea politically difficult," he said.

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