Prague, 14 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The Chechen government has ordered Chechen refugees sheltering in neighboring Ingushetia to leave their camps by March. Refugees say they cannot meet the deadline. They say there is no safety at home and they have nowhere to return because their homes were destroyed during the war.
Different sources report different data on the number of refugees living in the camps. The UN lists more than 7,000 refugees in three official camps, with many more staying in other temporary lodgings. Chechnya's migration service counts some 5,000 refugees in these camps. The refugees fled to Ingushetia after the Kremlin launched a military campaign in the republic in October 1999.
"They are afraid to go back because there is no security there. At any time, somebody might intrude into their homes. It doesn't matter who the intruder is. Nobody knows."
Adhan Daudov is a member of the Council of Refugees in Chechnya, a nongovernmental organization operating in the camps. He says a delegation from the Chechen administration recently came to the camps and bluntly said that the camps will close and refugees will get financial support from the authorities if they leave.
"The delegation came to our Sputnik and Satzita camps and told us the camps will be shut down after 1 March. They plan to close all the camps. Everyone has to return home, that is what they told us. They also said they would help relocate people and provide compensation. They said they would give us some aid too. They also told us that those who have an address registered in the countryside will have to return to their villages -- there were representatives of certain villages in this delegation," Daudov said.
The Russian news agency Interfax quoted a spokesman for the Chechen government, Said Dibiev, as saying, "The deadline is final." He said the refugees have two alternatives, either to return to their war-ravaged republic or to find housing in some other place. The government promises financial support in both cases. Dibiev said that a family returning to Chechnya will be paid the equivalent of about $10,000. Those choosing to live in any other Russian region will get half as much.
Russian authorities have tried to persuade the refuges to go home, insisting that Chechnya now is peaceful. This week, acting Chechen Prime Minister Eli Isaev reiterated the calls, saying there is no reason to remain in the camps where living conditions are "unbearable." But the refugees, communicating by staying put, show no desire to go back to Chechnya.
Vera Daudova is a Russian national living in the Sputnik refugee camp. She says nobody wants leave the camps while fighting in Chechnya continues. "They want to liquidate the camps. They don't ask the refugees what they want, whether they would like to go back," she said. "I know that the majority of people do not want to go back to Chechnya. They are afraid to go back because there is no security there. At any time, somebody might intrude into their homes. It doesn't matter who the intruder is. Nobody knows. All these people are in camouflage. People are disappearing in [Chechnya]."
Daudova says she does not trust the promises given by the authorities to pay compensations. "People who left one camp last year did not get any compensation," she said. "On the whole, it would be better to get money in Ingushetia because it is not safe at all to carry money in Chechnya."
Ruslan Badalov, chairman of the nongovernmental organization of Chechen refugees in Ingushetia, the Committee of National Salvation, told RFE/RL that NGOs will resist if they are made to leave the camps now. "If they start threatening people and putting pressure on the people here, if they start cutting off the food aid, gas and power supplies to the camps, if they start taking them away against their will, all the nongovernmental organizations will stand against that. We have a common agreement with all the human rights organizations," he said.
Dmitrii Aleksandrov, an RFE/RL North Caucasus correspondent, says he doubts that the authorities will take into account the opinion of NGOs. He says the refugees have been resisting for more than a year and this time they might be forced to leave. "[This time, the authorities] are exerting a different kind of pressure on these people," he said. "They are cutting electricity supplies, water, gas and so on. Moral pressure is exerted upon them. The personal documents of people living in the camps are frequently checked. If a person is absent in a tent and 'not present' in the place where he is registered, if he is not at his place during the time of a check, even if he is in the bathroom, his registration is revoked. And it happens frequently."
A refugee, deprived of registration, loses eligibility for humanitarian support from the governmental agencies. Aleksandrov says the authorities are likely to abstain from using physical force, however.
Adam Sayiev is a Chechen refugee living in Satzita refugee camp. He also says he thinks the refugees will be forced to go. "The government will probably do what it wants to do, but our priority now is to go though this painlessly," he said.
Aleksandrov says the camps pose a huge political problem both for the Chechen administration and Russian authorities. He says one of the camps is near Ingushetia's main highway. "All humanitarian organizations and delegations clearly see from the windows of their vehicles in what a miserable conditions the refugees are living,"he said. "The authorities want to get rid of these camps as soon as possible. They do not want their image to be continuously marred by these miserable tent camps."
(RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service contributed to this report.)