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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

Ingush President Murat Zyazikov, a former KGB general, has had to deal with an influx of refugees that overnight nearly doubled the half-million population of the tiny republic. Ingushetia, whose biggest industry is farming, now has the highest unemployment rate in Russia and daunting problems with traffic, housing and medical care.

Yet Zyazikov said in an interview that he is determined no Chechens will leave except those ready and willing to go.

"The most important thing is, the return is purely voluntary," he said. "The government has not set any deadlines for the return of the refugees, no matter what is being said by anyone."

At the Bella and Bart camps in Nazran, at least 800 Chechens left for home during the last week of July out of more than 6,000. Many cited the availability of new housing in Grozny, the offer of compensation and a general sense that security in Chechnya has improved.

"We saw other people leaving and decided it was time for us to go as well. We're sick and tired of living on someone else's land," said Roza Tatrieva, 63, as she boarded a bus for Grozny.

But Tamusya Astamirova, 50, said people feel some pressure. "No one is telling you, 'You must leave.' But they behave in such a way that they make it clear: It is better to drop everything and leave now."

On June 12, 18-year-old Kharon Yasaev came home from school to the makeshift home he shares with his aunt and other Chechens in an abandoned furniture factory in Nazran. He asked his aunt to fix him some lunch and went out to fill the water buckets for the household.

"I was frying fish, and the next thing I heard were the shouts outside and noises of people in the street. I haven't seen him since," said his aunt, Anna Bataeva. "When I went outside, there were masked military men who shut the gates, and people were shouting and crying and some of them were lying down on the ground from fear."

Yasaev, she was told later, dropped his buckets and hurried away, but the men grabbed him, put him in their vehicle, and eventually took him and nine other men when they left.

The next day, Bataeva went to the police station, but no one knew anything of the incident. She got the same answer when she went to the Federal Security Service, the Russian equivalent of the FBI.

Finally, days later, Yasaev's name appeared on a list of men in custody in connection with a crime investigation. Bataeva assured officials that her nephew had no connection to any crime; that if he had dropped his bucket and walked away, it was because he was scared.

"He's just a schoolboy," she said. "I know he wouldn't have time for any bad things. He studies all the time. Of course I asked them why. But they don't answer questions like this. They say either, 'On the list,' or 'Not on the list.' And they take no further questions."

Yasaev was finally released after nine weeks in detention.

"What kind of safety can you talk about for any of us after what we have seen?" said a neighbor, Zalikha Gaysumova. "Safety is out of the question. We're scared to death. We're afraid this kind of thing could be repeated at any time. And what they tell us is, 'Go back home, it's safe to go back home.' "

Zarema Khamkhoeva and her 27-year-old Chechen husband, Buvaisar Khadisov, were renting a guest house in Nazran when masked military men broke down the courtyard gate and pounded their way into the house early on June 7.

They pushed Khamkhoeva to the floor, she said, and her 5-month-old daughter went flying, striking her head on a bed rail. Luckily, she was not seriously hurt. Khadisov they dragged out to the courtyard and began beating him in the kidneys. Then they took him away.

A day later, with the intervention of an influential friend, he was released in Grozny. "But he was in very bad shape," said his father, Vakhid Khadisov. "They had beaten him severely."

The village of Galashki, only about four miles from the Chechen border, was the scene of a skirmish between Chechen rebels and Russian troops last year, and army units are based nearby. That's why Tamara Zabieva, 65, wasn't surprised when Russian military helicopters swooped over the potato field where she and her sons were working June 10.

Zabieva, a native of Ingushetia, had no particular reason for concern. But as she and her sons got in the car and headed back to the village, a volley of gunfire hit it, shattering the windows. Umar, at the wheel, swerved and plowed into a tree.

When Zabieva regained consciousness, her sons were dragging her out of the car.

"I said, 'It hurts, my entire body hurts,' " she said. "I said, 'Put me down on the ground.' And Umar, who is dead now, he started crying. He said, 'Please bear it, please just bear it and hold on.' And then I lost consciousness."

Umar stayed with his mother while Ali went for help. But when he returned, Zabieva was lying on the ground and Umar was gone. His body was discovered the next day in a shallow grave in a nearby wood. It appeared he had been killed by a sniper rifle.

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