Russian and Ingush authorities have become increasingly brazen this month in using utilities cut-offs to pressure refugees in Ingushetia to return to Chechnya. On February 20 the UN High Commissioner for Refugees issued a statement protesting the elimination of gas supplies for ten refugee settlements. A spokesman for the UN body said that “whatever the pretext, it is unacceptable to cut utilities, particularly heating gas, in mid-winter.” He added that the cut-offs “bring into question the voluntary nature of the return.”
An article by Igor Naidenov in last week’s Moskovskie novosti further undermined claims by Federal and Ingush authorities that the refugees are allowed to choose freely whether to return. Residents of the Satsita refugee camp in Ingushetia told Naidenov how soldiers had entered the camp a few days earlier. The soldiers repeated the already familiar warning that the camp’s water, gas and lights are to be cut off on the first of March. At the same time, authorities have continued to promise that refugees will receive compensation for their destroyed homes if only they return to Chechnya.
The refugees know full well, they told Naidenov, that there is no chance of receiving full compensation: From one-third to one-half must be kicked back as a bribe. But that is not the worst of it: Accepting a compensation payment can mean forfeiting one’s life. One refugee told the reporter of an acquaintance who had allowed himself to be persuaded by the authorities, and who returned to Chechnya with his family to receive his compensation. He was killed on the day after his arrival in the war-torn republic and all his compensation money was stolen. Though the Putin administration claims that normal conditions are returning to Chechnya, refugees know from the experiences of their friends and relatives that the republic is still far from safe for them.
(According even to official estimates, the number of families who have actually received compensation payments is low. A February 21 Associated Press article cited a Grozny bank official who put the total number so far at only 1,600. According to a February 20 article in the Moscow Times, a reporter who visited a Grozny dormitory housing some 500 newly returned refugees–one that the Kadyrov administration displays as a model–found that only five of the buildings had even managed to assemble the documents needed to apply for compensation. None of those five applications had been granted.)
Naidenov of Moskovskie novosti asked one of the Satsita camp’s residents if they planned to observe the anniversary of the 1944 deportation to Kazakhstan. “Yes, if they don’t deport us now to Chechnya,” was the reply.
The February 20 statement from the UN refugee agency noted that many of the recent gas cut-offs, which “have left more than 2,000 displaced Chechens in the bitter winter cold,” were to rooms restored not long before by private international charitable organizations “as alternative shelter for Chechens living in tented camps threatened with closure.”