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Chechens Find Conflict They Fled Has Followed

Those who have sought refuge in neighboring Ingushetia say the war has begun to spill across the border, prompting more to return home.

September 02, 2003|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

NESTEROVSKAYA, Russia — It was a quiet June afternoon when the military trucks roared into the abandoned dairy farm, slamming to a halt in a cloud of dust. Twenty men in black masks fanned out into the yard, firing assault rifles in the air and quickly grabbing 19-year-old Adam Tambiev, a refugee from the warring republic of Chechnya, who was repairing his shoes outside.

Then Rustam Lichaev, a 25-year-old Chechen, had the misfortune to drive up. He had barely shut off the car engine when several of the men pulled him from behind the wheel and stuffed him into the truck too.

"If you had returned home to Chechnya earlier, this thing wouldn't be happening to you now," one of the men yelled to the assembled refugees before driving away. "You think you can sit it out here. Do you think we will not reach you here? You're making a big mistake."

Both men were eventually released. Ruslan Lichaev picked up his brother, unharmed, three days later in Grozny, the Chechen capital, and drove him back the 25 miles to what he had always thought was safety in Ingushetia, which had been a single republic with Chechnya during the Soviet era.

Now, he realizes, the masked man who took his brother was right.

"For the first time, we have a lot of people disappearing without a trace, even here in Ingushetia," he said. "Obviously, they just want us to go back home, and it looks like we will have to."

A year ago, the Russian government heeded an international outcry and abandoned its plans to close the half a dozen refugee camps that have sheltered up to 308,000 Chechens who fled the latest fighting, which broke out in 1999. Two wars over the Muslim-dominated republic of Chechnya's attempts to separate from Russia have claimed at least 100,000 lives over the past decade.

Now, a much more subtle campaign -- three parts incentive, one part intimidation -- is pushing thousands of Chechens back home, a crucial component in the Kremlin's attempt to establish an aura of normality before state-sponsored elections scheduled for the fall.

Nearly every day recently, busloads of refugees -- technically, "displaced persons," since both Chechnya and Ingushetia are within the Russian Federation -- pulled out of camps and headed toward Grozny. Some trailed the buses in trucks carrying their household goods.

Since the conflict began, an average of 1,000 Chechens a month have returned home, both from the camps and from other accommodations in Ingushetia, according to U.N. officials. But in July the rate more than doubled, with more than 2,300 heading back across the border. Russian officials' estimate is much higher.

Most appear to be lured by the Russian government's recent promise of temporary housing and more than $11,600 compensation for their destroyed houses and household goods if they return home now, while the money is available.

But increasingly, Chechens who have sought refuge in this quiet region of cow pastures and potato fields, closer to Iraq than to Moscow, say the war has begun to spill across the border -- prompting a growing number of Chechens to question the point of staying.

During June, about a dozen Chechen men in Ingushetia were seized by masked, uniformed men in military vehicles in incidents strikingly similar to the one at the Nesterovskaya dairy farm. Refugees have reported beatings by masked intruders in military gear.

On June 10, an Ingush woman and her two sons were fired on by what they believed to be the Russian military while weeding their potato field about four miles from the Chechen border. One of the sons was killed, and the woman was partially paralyzed with bullet wounds to the head and spine.

Nor has the violence been all one-sided. At least 11 Russian soldiers have been killed in ambushes in Ingushetia since the beginning of August.

"People are starting to say the situation is the same. People get kidnapped, people get killed -- what is the difference?" said Usam Baysaev, an activist with the Russian human rights organization Memorial. "And the answer is, there isn't any. So people say, 'We might as well go back to our homeland.' "

Humanitarian organizations such as Memorial say the government is no longer trying to force refugees to leave but is exercising other means of persuasion: announcing that refugee camps will close in October and warning there might not be alternative housing before winter, and arbitrarily removing the names of families from the lists of those approved for food and medical supplies.

"The return of the refugees to Chechnya is an important component of this entire image of a political settlement in Chechnya that the Russians are trying to create," Baysaev said. "There's only one thing that spoils this rosy picture of a political settlement: the fact that there are tens of thousands of refugees who are still afraid to go home."

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