This week we examine the predicament of Chechen refugees living in Ingushetiya, a tiny autonomous republic of the Russian Federation, with an indigenous population of slightly over 300,000, which shares a border with war-ravaged Chechnya. (A future report will focus upon the fate of Chechen refugees and other civilians dwelling within Chechnya itself.) Estimates of the number of Chechen refugees currently living within Ingushetia vary greatly. Mufti Akhmad Kadyrov, the Moscow-appointed chief of administration in Chechnya, has cited a low figure of 115,000, while President Ruslan Aushev of Ingushetiya has reported that the total number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from Chechnya located in his republic amount to 170,000, plus an additional 23,000 from the earlier 1994-96 Russo-Chechen war, for a total of 193,000 refugees.
Referring to Chechen refugees in Ingushetia, the outgoing UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, stated during a recent visit to Moscow that she believed that approximately “160,000 Chechens” were taking refuge in Ingushetia. Her estimate was thus considerably closer to President Aushev’s than to Mufti Kadyrov’s.
It should be noted that Mufti Kadyrov had wanted to transfer all Chechen refugees from Ingushetia to Chechnya before 1 October of this year. General Valery Kuksa, a representative of the Russian Ministry for Emergency Situations, who has been serving in Ingushetiya for the past five years, and who appears to be an honest official, has sharply criticized Kadyrov’s position: “Where the refugees from Chechnya go,” he commented acidly to Obshchaya gazeta (no. 41), “there will be both budget money and humanitarian aid. But the refugees will not pass the winter in Chechnya. People from multi-story buildings [in Chechnya] have nowhere to return to. Kadyrov should come to Ingushetiya and look into the situation and speak with the refugees. If the people don’t want to return, then there is no reason to force money into Chechnya.”
What should the Russian government and military authorities be doing about the large number of Chechen refugees getting ready for the winter in Ingushetia? Colonel General Gennadii Troshev, commander of the North Caucasus Military District, recently offered his views on the subject to journalists from the Russian ultra-nationalist weekly, Zavtra. “We have already,” he noted, “raised the issue of a transfer of all camps from the territory of Ingushetiya back to Chechnya. The war has ended, and military actions are not being conducted, so the Chechens should return to their own homes. It’s high time! But no, they don’t want to go.” The reason for this problem, Troshev explained, lay in what kind of people the refugees were. “Have a look,” he counselled, “there are almost no men among them. Only women, children and old men. Our sources have been saying for a long time that a majority of the families in those camps-persons whom Russia is feeding, supporting and caring for medically, but who then criticize Russia–belong to implacable [Chechen] fighters.”
In his interview with Zavtra, Troshev also assailed President Aushev of Ingushetiya: “I consider him to be simply a coward who is trying to earn dividends from the turbid waters of this war… Aushev needs the refugees. On the pretext of their presence, how many [Russian state] funds have been received, how many humanitarian convoys appropriated?”
For General Troshev, an influential Russian military leader, “a majority” of the Chechen refugees in Ingushetiya represent implacable enemies of Russia. One must therefore ask what plans Troshev and his colleagues have for these refugees once they are forcibly returned to Chechnya.
In his already mentioned interview with Radio Russia on 20 October, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the chief Kremlin spokesman on the war, made similar, if less overtly belligerent, remarks. “Indeed,” Yastrzhembsky was prepared to admit, “many [Chechen refugees] do not want to return to Chechnya, inasmuch as they have no certainty that everything there is more or less normal, and they fear a new flare-up of military actions…” But Yastrzhembsky then noted that “this category is not very large.” “There is another category [of refugees],” he continued, “and not a small one, who are not returning to the Chechen Republic because, finding themselves in the refugee camps, they receive daily subsidies-true it’s only a small amount of money–but they do receive this money. Returning to Chechnya, to a home which has not been destroyed, they would lose the chance to receive this minimal sum of money.” Yastrzhembsky’s intimation was that all such refugees should be induced to go back to Chechnya.
What truth is there in the statements by General Troshev and presidential aide Yastrezhembsky concerning the refugee problem? One fruitful approach would be to consult the results of a survey, entitled “Chechens Displaced in Ingushetiya,” which was recently conducted by the Nobel Prize-winning organization, Doctors Without Borders (Medecins sans Frontieres-MSF). Representatives of MSF polled 400 heads of families of Chechen refugees, ten percent of the total number of families living in Malgobek District, located in northwestern Ingushetiya. (That district is home to one-quarter of the total number of Chechen IDPs in the republic.)
According to the MSF survey, 30 percent of the refugees consisted of adult women and 22 percent, of adult men, while 48 percent were children under age eighteen. The percentage of men would have been higher, MSF reported, were it not for “restrictions of movement that have been imposed by the Russian military on men residing in Chechnya.” The figures collected by MSF contradict the claims of General Troshev concerning a low percentage of men among the refugees.
On the issue of housing, 31 percent of the refugees contacted reported that their homes in Chechnya had been “totally destroyed,” while an additional 31 percent described them as “more than half destroyed.” Twenty-four percent said their homes had been “lightly destroyed,” while 12 percent said they had been “burnt.” Only two percent responded that their homes were “intact.” Ninety-four percent of the refugees said that they had been able to obtain some knowledge of the state of their homes from relatives and other sources. Obviously, if the results of the MSF survey reflect reality, then many refugees do not have homes to return to, a condition which contradicts the assertions of General Troshev and presidential spokesman Yastrzhembskii.
Virtually all of the refugees (98 percent) said that wanted to return to Chechnya, but 70 percent of them cited fears concerning the “security situation” in the republic as the principal reason for their not returning. Lack of housing was, predictably, another significant concern.
Asked how they were managing to cope, 96 percent of respondents cited humanitarian assistance received from international NGOs, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Danish Refugee Council, and MSF. Only 11 percent reported that they had been helped by an agency of the Russian government.
The aforementioned General Kuksa of the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations has paid tribute to the work of the NGOs: “If it were not for the twenty-six humanitarian organizations,” he remarked in his interview with Obshchaya gazeta, “the refugees in Ingushetiya would have died from hunger. Our Russian state has allotted only fifteen rubles [slightly more than half a U.S. dollar] a day per person in support. That’s a half a loaf of bread, a little soup and some tea. When the money runs out, the hot food also runs out. The Nazran’ Bakery is owed eight million rubles….The humanitarian aid has saved us.” As can be seen, General Troshev’s complaint that the Russian state has been squandering its money on Chechen refugees has little basis in reality.
A majority (53 percent) of the Chechen IDPs contacted by the MSF survey reported that they had found refuge in homes without paying rent, while an additional 24 percent were paying some rent for a place to live. The remainder (23 percent) were housed either in collective centers (16 percent)-that is, in abandoned factories, farms and schools-or in a tent camp (7 percent). It is these last two categories, comprising nearly a quarter of the IDP populace, who should, of course, be considered those refugees most at risk.
The fate of the large Chechen refugee population in Ingushetiya will deserve close scrutiny over the coming months.