As was recently underscored by Alla Vlazneva, official spokeswoman for the pro-Moscow prime minister of Chechnya, Stanislav Il’yasov, the pro-Moscow leadership now insists that all of the estimated 150,000-160,000 Chechen refugees currently living in neighboring Ingushetia must return to their home republic by the end of June at the latest. “Those who do not go back by the end of June will receive no compensation in July,” she warned (Kommersant, May 29). To date, Vlazneva reported, a mere 354 Chechens have moved from Ingushetia to newly opened refugee facilities in Chechnya. Refugee camps, she noted, have been opened in the following locations within Chechnya: Argun, Znamenskoe, Sernovodsk and Assinovskaya. By the end of June, five new refugee centers are to be opened in these locations plus an additional ten in the Chechen capital (Moscow Times, May 31).
In seeking to bring about a mass influx of refugees into Chechnya, Moscow and the Il’yasov government are employing a combination of carrots and sticks. As the refugees in Ingushetia informed journalist Natal’ya Konovalova of Novye Izvestia (May 25 issue), those who return to Chechnya are being promised 15 rubles a day plus compensation for their property and lost possessions. Unfortunately, in many cases, “Nothing is being paid them there, and they cannot return [to Ingushetia] because the Ingush branch of the [Russian] Nationalities and Migration Ministry refuses to register them in Nazran a second time” (Moscow Times, May 31). “On television,” one refugee, Aslan Berzhanov, told a Finnish journalist, “they said that the construction of houses destroyed in the war had begun in Grozny and there was a great shortage of labor. It was not true” (Helsingin Sanomat, May 29).
Besides employing a number of carrots–some of them apparently rooted in untruth–the Russian government has also been using a variety of sticks. A number of Chechen refugees had located a temporary place to live in the homes of the Ingush. Previously these Ingush homeowners had been offered subsidies for the housing of refugees; now such subsidies have been withdrawn, on direct orders from Moscow. One Ingush owner of a livestock farm in Karabulak, responding to government pressure, has demanded that 200 Chechens who had been living and working at his farm immediately quit the premises. As a result, “About 200 refugees will soon find themselves on the street and will be forced to return to Chechnya” (Novye Izvestia, May 25).
Another weapon the Russian authorities have wielded has been the curtailment or significant reduction of food made available to the refugees. At the Karabulak refugee camps in Ingushetia, “the distribution of hot meals ended three months ago.” Now only bread, “brought by the Russian Red Cross,” is offered. At the beginning of May, the Russian authorities announced that they would take over responsibility for distributing food in the refugee camps. Trucks of the Danish Refugee Council have since then not been permitted to enter the camps. The available evidence, however, suggests that the Russian government has generally not been feeding the 50,000 refugees living in tent camps in Ingushetia (Helsingin Sanomat, May 29).
Given the enormous pressure being exerted on them to return home, why are the Chechen refugees resisting doing so? Finnish journalist Mika Parkkonen and Russian journalist Natal’ya Konovalova recently interviewed a number of refugees concerning precisely this question. According to refugee Aslan Berzhanov, he and his wife, who is nine months pregnant, recently moved from a tent camp in Karabulak back to Djohar. Two weeks there proved enough, and they returned to Ingushetia on May 27. “Their home had been bombed and lay in ruins. Also, the Russian army was still conducting daily cleanup operations.” “Whenever there is an explosion or shooting,” Berzhanov noted, “the soldiers come and close down the whole area. They arrest all young men whose faces they do not like. Each time someone disappears.” One Chechen woman, Zerdat Muzaeva, traveled to Chechnya to have a look at her home town two weeks ago. The local Russian military commandant had been assassinated by rebels, and the soldiers had then come and arrested four young men who were washing a car. For the sake of safety, she decided to leave Chechnya (Helsingin Sanomat, May 29).
One woman who declined to give her name had arrived in Ingushetia two days previously with her two sons, aged 13 and 17. She had gone back to her hometown in Chechnya, Komsomol’skoe. Komsomol’skoe had been “wiped off the face of the earth in March 2000,” but the woman and some other residents had been attempting to construct living quarters on the rubble. “However, even that primitive existence is poisoned by the raids conducted by the [Russian] military. Several days ago, in the dead of night, men in uniforms with dogs barged into her home.” After this harrowing experience, the woman took her boys back to a tent camp in Karabulak, Ingushetia, where they squeezed in with relatives (Novye Izvestia, May 25).
What has happened to those refugees who accepted the government’s offer and moved into the much-touted new facilities in Argun? “The dwellers of the Argun center for temporary housing live today in a situation of permanent military clashes which repeatedly flare up in the city. Judging by everything, their experience does not inspire the remaining refugees in the Republic of Ingushetia” (Novye Izvestia, May 25).
One Chechen refugee, Zareta Sembieva, summed up the concerns of many. “I have three children,” she told Natal’ya Konovalova, “Do you think that we are being kept here [in Ingushetia] against our will? Or that we are living here for the humanitarian aid–moldy macaroni? I would be glad to live in my own home [in Chechnya]…. But I am responsible for my children and cannot subject them to danger. If the war ends, then we will immediately go home” (Novye Izvestia, May 25).
Rather than moving back to Chechnya, Chechen refugees are in fact once again, and in significant numbers, leaving that republic for Ingushetia. As Khasan Tumgoev, the commander of one of the tent cities in Ingushetia remarked: “People come here asking that we assign them a tent. In a given week, 500-600 people make such a request. But we can’t help them. First of all, it is prohibited. There is a rule that we must refuse a place to live to citizens of Chechnya who are not registered in Ingushetia (and that registration process ended long ago)” (Novye Izvestia, May 25). The deputy commandant of another refugee camp, Bersnak Gagiev, noted that “Officials stopped registering new refugees in March, and an unregistered refugee cannot even get bread” (Helsingin Sanomat, May 29).
International aid organizations that provide food and other assistance to the Chechen refugees have likewise begun to come under heavy pressure. On 26 May, a convoy of sixteen trucks from the Danish Refugee Council, loaded with seed potatoes for the populace, moved off a road in Chechnya and stopped, as is required, to let a Russian tank column pass by. The soldiers, who were reportedly drunk, “aimed and shot at the tires of the [aid convoy]. They hit the tires of three of the vehicles, and the tires exploded.” The Danish Refugee Council, the European Union and the UN have protested this incident (Ritzaus Bureau [Denmark], May 30). On May 29, an employee of the Danish Refugee Council was physically assaulted in a refugee camp in Ingushetia. Three masked men armed with Makarov pistols beat him up and stole his car (Gazeta.ru, May 31).
On May 29, a member of the local staff of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Arbi Israilov, riding with others in a vehicle was stopped at a checkpoint by Russian federal forces in Staropromyslovsku District, Djohar, at 4:30 p.m. His vehicle was clearly marked with a red cross emblem. Israilov was shot in the abdomen and had to be rushed to Hospital No. 9 in the capital for an operation. Following this incident, the International Red Cross suspended its activities in Chechnya (Press Release, International Red Cross, May 31).
According to Gazeta.ru, members of the pro-Moscow Chechen government “are frustrated by the humanitarian missions’ independence: The Westerners decide for themselves how and to whom to distribute foodstuffs, medicine and other aid. The [pro-Moscow] Chechen leadership has repeatedly stated that the actions of the UN, the Red Cross and the Danish Refugee Council in Chechnya do more harm than good” (Gazeta.ru, May 31).
To conclude, the Russian government and the pro-Moscow Chechen leadership are surely aware that forcing refugees into a zone of conflict is a very serious infringement of the Geneva Conventions. Yet they nonetheless seem intent on precisely such a course. Jean Tissot of the Danish Refugee Council appropriately warned on May 28: “We [the DRC] are deeply concerned about [the refugees’] safety. For instance, no one can consider Grozny a safe place to live…. The fields there [in Chechnya] are full of mines and the houses are in ruins. Nobody can give any safety guarantees” (Helsingin Sanomat, May 29).