THE REFUGEES: “A PATTERN OF INTIMIDATION”
A major report by a New York-based international human rights organization provides the most detailed, authoritative study yet of how the Russian authorities are forcing Chechen refugees to return to a war zone where they face pervasive violence, persecution, hunger and lack of basic housing and social services. “Into Harm’s Way: Forced Return of Displaced People to Chechnya,” published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) at the end of January and available on the group’s website at www.hrw.org, is based on eleven days of field research in Ingushetia from December 10 to 21 of 2002 by members of its Moscow staff. The HRW team conducted interviews with sixty-two people–many of whom asked for anonymity for fear of reprisals. These interviews, in the words of the report, “documented a pattern of threats and intimidation by migration authorities to compel the approximately 20,000 displaced people living in the six remaining tent camps [in Ingushetia] to return to Chechnya.”
Contrary to official Russian claims that refugees are returning to Chechnya only because they have “chosen” to do so, the residents of the refugee camps interviewed by HRW said “without exception” that they did not want to return, but that pressure on them from the Russian authorities was “unrelenting.” HRW’s researchers were unable to find any refugees who had even been told, as the Russian authorities had claimed, that they have the option to remain in Ingushetia.
HRW’s investigators found that the pressure from the authorities included threats of arrest on false charges, withdrawal of food allowances, making tents unlivable by cutting off heating and electricity, and at times even direct, forced removal of people from their tents. HRW pointed out that such forcible return to an “active war zone” clearly violates the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which state that internally displaced persons have “the right to be protected against forcible return to or resettlement in any place where their life safety, liberty and/or health would be at risk.”
Some of the interviewed refugees had recently returned from to Ingushetia from Chechnya and were able to provide information on Russian atrocities such as “extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture, rape, and looting.” The HRW report documented nine recent cases of extrajudicial execution and twelve of “disappearances.” It concluded that “[s]imply being a male of fighting age appears sufficient grounds for detention, and those detained are invariably beaten and abused.”
As described by HRW, every day Russian officials–including representatives of the FSB, the renamed KGB secret police–make the rounds at each of the major tent camps in Ingushetia, going “from tent to tent explaining the advantages of moving to Chechnya…. They continuously pressure families to sign the ‘voluntary return’ forms… and promise those who sign five months of humanitarian supplies. They also promise returnees space in new temporary accommodation centers (TACs) that are allegedly being built in Chechnya, offer RU20 per person per day to those who plan to rent housing in Chechnya…”
How reliable are these promises? HRW cited a study of the temporary accommodation centers by Vesta, an Ingush nongovernmental organization commissioned by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Vesta’s visit to nine of these TACs in Chechnya “found only two of the buildings near completion, although one still did not have gas, electricity, toilets or a sewage system (The use of this building was also problematic because the workers who repaired the building had not been paid in months and refused to let it be occupied before they were paid). A third building was ‘seriously damaged,’ with the fourth and fifth stories destroyed: ‘Its builders warn it is still dangerous to go into the building.’ A fourth building, designated to house 2,500 persons was ‘a framework of a building only?’ A fifth, designated to house more than 800 people, had no heating, gas, electricity, and was completely uninhabitable: ‘At the moment of monitoring, construction work had been suspended…. The precise number of rooms is unknown due to the danger of entering the building.’ A sixth was being restored, but had no water or electricity. The seventh had no water supply, had not yet been repaired and was already in use as a teacher’s training institute. An eighth, slated for more than 1,000 people had not yet begun to be renovated, and had no water, electricity or gas. The ninth could not be located by the NGO or the Chechen state committee on refugee affairs.”
HRW’s own interviews found that other promises of help to returnees were also broken. Two refugees who visited Chechnya specifically to investigate the prospects for returning said that ” they had met people in Grozny who previously lived in the tent camps and had not received food rations or other assistance for the past three months. According to the witness, the former displaced persons asked them to pass the following message to those who remain in camps: ‘You’ll regret it if you believe [migration officials] and come here–you’ll cry like we do.'”
Another returnee from the tent camps found the conditions in Chechnya so appalling that she returned to Ingushetia solely to persuade her former neighbors not to follow her own example. “No matter that I am in a tent here, at least I’ll be calm…. They are always shooting and take people away. [In Chechnya, they] shoot all night, every night. I came here to let people know that they deceive us,” she told the HRW researchers. “When we agreed to return, we were promised ‘golden mountains.’ All their promises are lies.”
The Russian authorities claim that no one is forced to move out of tent camps into Chechnya; they are free if they choose to live in temporary accommodation centers in Ingushetia. HRW’s researchers tested these claims by visiting twelve of the eighteen TACs in Ingushetia listed for them by a Russian official. What they found: “Of those twelve, ten were nonexistent, uninhabitable or occupied. Some consisted of concrete walls without windows, roof, electricity or gas. Another facility had a roof, but no walls. Even two of the better facilities appeared inferior to the tents in which displaced people are currently residing, and these two facilities were filled to capacity.”
The HRW researchers found from that conversations with the refugees in Ingushetia tent cities that the Russian authorities “commonly warn residents that vital gas and electricity supplies will be cut off to the camps. They have emphasized to displaced people that the camps would soon be closed, and that tent dwellers would be better off leaving immediately rather than awaiting a forced closure of the camps. In several cases, officials have threatened those reluctant to leave with arrest on false drug and weapons possession charges.”
Another form of pressure has been for officials to remove refugee families from lists of those eligible for food rations. One resident told HRW that after she refused to sign a “voluntary” return form, her family lost its eligibility for rations and a note was added to her file at the migration service falsely stating that the family had “left for Tver,” northwest of Moscow.
But the consequences of signing a return form can be equally dire. HRW found that once a family has done that “there is no way back, even if the family is unable to find alternative accommodation in Chechnya. When returnees come back to Ingushetia they cannot register as internally displaced persons or get reinstated in tent camps, and they are ineligible for government humanitarian assistance. ‘Petimat P.’ who lives in the Bella camp with her husband and three children–one of whom is an infant–signed a voluntary return application in December 2002 but then was unable to find shelter in Chechnya (her house had been destroyed). She told Human Rights Watch what happened when she came back to Ingushetia and attempted to retract her application: ‘They refused. They also threatened me that our tent would be dismantled…. I asked [the Chechen Refugee Committee] to leave me here until May. But they refused. They said: “If you have submitted an application already you are excluded from the list and will not receive any aid here.'”
After the October hostage crisis in Moscow, pressure on the refugees intensified. HRW recounted from its interviews how gas and electricity were cut to the Imam camp: “In the midst of winter, living in uninsulated tents in subzero temperatures, the withdrawal of gas and electricity meant that the remaining displaced people were quickly forced to abandon their now-unheated tents…. A few desperate families decided to stay on, but were soon forced out of their tents by riot police. One of the camp dwellers told Human Rights Watch how soldiers came to cut down his tent on December 3…. Another tent was hooked to a Russian military vehicle that pulled the tent down.” The Imam camp has now been forcibly dismantled–and yet HRW found that most of the refugees who used to live there have still found ways to avoid returning to their homeland. According to UN figures only 558 of its former residents have registered for assistance in Chechnya. HRW said that “the majority are believed to be staying with host families and in informal settlements in Ingushetia.”
Not surprisingly, the main reason for the refugees’ reluctance to return to Chechnya was fear for their physical safety. HRW’s interviewees provided “detailed, sometimes firsthand, accounts of numerous abusive sweep operations, large-scale looting, and other abuses committed by Russian soldiers that they had witnessed during the [end of Ramadan] holiday period and before. One displaced woman said that after she applied for relocation, her brother was killed in the village of Chechen-Aul, after being detained during a sweep operation. Another described four apparent ‘disappearances’ that resulted from a sweep operation that took place on December 5-6 in a village close to Grozny, where she went to visit her family on holidays.” HRW also noted that Chechen separatist forces “are believed to be responsible for seven assassinations, several assassination attempts and nine abductions of [pro-Moscow] civil servants since November 15.”
The HRW report challenged recent claims by Russian officials that they are trying to bring troops guilty of atrocities to justice. Although prosecutors of the Moscow-appointed Chechen administration have opened hundreds of criminal investigations into allegations of abuse, routine practice is apparently to make only token efforts to pursue those cases. “A November 2002 letter from the Chechnya procuracy to the OSCE Assistance Group listing the status of dozens of investigations into enforced disappearances and other abuses shows that officials routinely suspend investigations into serious abuses after only two months (the minimum time period for a criminal investigation required by law)…. Official Russian figures confirm just how small the odds are that Russian soldiers who commit abuses against Chechen civilians will face punishment for their crimes. According to government figures released in January 2003, only forty-six military servicemen had been convicted for abuses in Chechnya since the start of the armed conflict… the length of their sentences was not specified. These figures contrast sharply with the thousands of serious human rights violations documented by human rights groups, including hundreds of extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances.”
The HRW report also reminded its readers that Moscow’s recent decision to close the OSCE human rights mission in Chechnya is only part of a larger pattern. Russia has blocked or delayed visits of human rights representatives from various bodies of the United Nations, including the UN’s special rapporteurs on torture, on extrajudicial and arbitrary executions, and on violence against women, as well as the UN secretary general’s special representative on displaced persons.
Detailing her and her colleagues’ findings in a February 4 article for the Moscow Times, Anna Neistat of Human Rights Watch wrote that Russia’s strategy for Chechnya could be summed up as follows: “Shut the doors, draw the curtains, tell the neighbors everything is fine. If things aren’t fine, that’s none of their business. And bark at anyone who tries to snoop around.”