Newspaper Describes Deplorable Conditions Awaiting Refugees; Human Rights Report Reaches Similar Conclusions

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 5 Issue: 7

What awaits the refugees now living in Ingushetia if the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin succeeds in its stated goal of getting all of them to return to Chechnya by March? Anna Politkovskaya reported in the February 16 issue of Novaya gazeta on her visit to the hamlet of Okruzhnaya on the outskirts of Grozny–which construction workers hired by the Kadyrov administration are supposedly making livable.

With the March 1 deadline nearing, Politkovskaya found the neighborhood to be lacking in gas, water, and sanitary facilities; it did not even have outhouses. The construction workers told her that the government regularly fails to pay them as agreed.

The neighborhood lies along the Sunzha River, which overflowed its banks last year. People who were already living nearby, and whose homes were flooded, were offered the chance to move to Okruzhnaya; the conditions are so primitive that nobody accepted. So the Kadyrov administration has now assigned the area to returning refugees, and has officially reported to the Kremlin that “all is ready.”

Politkovskaya asked the construction supervisor, Supyan Sambaev, “Would you yourself agree to live here full-time?” He answered, “What do you mean, full-time? It’s just temporary, until the houses are restored.” “But you know yourself,” she said, “how they are in fact being restored! Has even one person moved into his restored home?” He was unable to name even one. He was also

unable to say when water would finally begin running in these “restored” buildings, or when there would be any floors other than concrete or even bare earth. He lamely predicted that the returning refugees “will come and do everything themselves; our people are hard workers.”

On a neighboring street, the reporter visited the shacks of last year’s flood victims. They too were promised government compensation in the form of cash payments for the loss of their homes. According to the official documents, these “payments into their personal bank accounts” have now taken place. In actual fact, however, the payments took a special form, as illustrated by the case of one family whom Politkovskaya interviewed. Construction workers arrived and told the family that they were supposed to do repair work worth 771,000 rubles (about US$27,000), but that they had to share that money with Kadyrov’s and Moscow’s bureaucrats. The workers were receiving only 30 percent of the total sum, and for that all they could do was to repair the house’s roof. They proceeded to do this, and the family was recorded as having received the full 771,000 rubles.

Ella Pamfilova’s expressions of protest against the way the Putin administration is treating the refugees in Ingushetia may seem mild when compared with the burning passion of Politkovskaya’s articles. But considering that Pamfilova is a member of the administration (head of its commission on human rights), her words are as damning as the journalist’s. On February 10 she issued a joint report with Svetlana Gannushkina of the independent human rights center Memorial about their recent inspection trip to the Caucasus. That trip essentially confirmed Politkovskaya’s findings: By any reasonable standard of human decency, conditions in Chechnya are not even close to being suitable for the closing of the refugee camps and the return of all their residents.

The joint report agreed with estimates of non-governmental organizations that the real number of Chechen refugees living in Ingushetia is about 150 percent greater than the official figure of 48,500. The report also found that only seventy-five rooms are vacant in Chechnya’s resettlement points; to that number it added about 120 more rooms in houses recently flooded in Grozny’s Oktyabrsky district. (Note that Politkovskaya denies that these latter rooms are fit for human habitation.) That huge disparity makes it “obvious,” according to the report, “that at present it is pointless to count on the return of all displaced persons to the Chechen republic–even if their security could be guaranteed, which is not yet the case.”

Like others before them, Pamfilova and her fellow observers noted that the process of organizing financial compensation for those who have lost their homes is going “very slowly.” As of the beginning of 2004, some 37,000 houses have been formally listed as having been destroyed by war. And this list fails to take into full account the towns and villages so totally annihilated that it is

impossible to number even the ruins of individual houses. But only 1,500 families have received compensation payments, and as soon as they receive them, “they lose the right to live in resettlement points and must try to put roofs over their heads through their own efforts while their houses are being rebuilt.”

According to the report, “people are now losing faith in the authorities of the Chechen Republic who are promising compensation immediately after they return. They are afraid that they will turn out to be without money or shelter…At the same time they know that many are not included in the lists for compensation payments because their homes have been omitted.”

Like Politkovskaya, Pamfilova and her colleagues found that even when compensation payments are received they are often not enough to build an entire house anew. “A major factor,” they wrote, “is the refugees’ conviction that they will have to pay bribes to bureaucrats which will absorb from 30 to 50 percent of the money which they are to receive. They also fear being robbed and murdered once they get the money…Residents of Chechnya were told not only to kick back

half their compensation payments, but to pay around 5,000 rubles (about US$172) in advance in order to get their residences included in the list of those that could not be restored.”

Even if all the bureaucrats were honest people of good will, they would have to contend with the fact that Chechnya’s public records are in a state of chaos, often making it impossible to prove rights of ownership or occupancy. Many properties are now controlled by fictional owners–and the judicial system is unreliable. “One can conclude,” wrote Pamfilova and her colleagues, “that the

invitation for the refugees to return to Chechnya does not yet have enough of a real economic, social or legal basis.”

Nevertheless, the Russian and Ingush authorities continue to find ways to squeeze refugees out of the Ingushetia camps. “Typical,” according to the report, “is the case of Maliki Isaeva, who from 1999 to 2001 lived with her husband and four children in the ‘Bart’ camp. Maliki’s fifth pregnancy proved to be very difficult; she was hospitalized in Vladikavkaz and the family temporarily left the camp. When they returned, they found that their tent had been taken down. This family of seven is now living in the ‘Sputnik’ camp with acquaintances who have admitted them into their own tent. They have not been included in any official list of refugees for the last three years.”

As if that were not enough, Pamfilova found that as a matter of standard practice children born more than ten months after their parents became refugees are not considered to be refugees themselves. “It remains unclear,” she and her colleagues observed, “why the state migration organs refuse to take responsibility for these young citizens of Russia.”

According to a February 16 article by Andrei Riskin in Nezavisimaya gazeta, the Bart refugee camp in Ingushetia is to be dismantled in the near future: “Major General Igor Yunash says that he is preparing to sign that order in the coming days.” Yunash justified this step by arguing that a tent camp with fewer than 1,000 residents is uneconomical. But as he himself was forced to admit after

Pamfilova’s recent visit, the true number of Bart residents is more than 1,700.