One of two remaining camps in Ingushetia housing internally displaced persons from Chechnya was closed yesterday. The authorities are trying to encourage Chechens to return to their homeland, claiming the situation there is improving.
Prague, 2 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Russian authorities in Ingushetia yesterday closed one of the last remaining camps for displaced persons from Chechnya. In the end, about 140 people were living in the Sputnik border camp, which once housed more than 9,000 people.
Akhmed Barakhoev, an official with the Memorial human rights center in Ingushetia, said camp dwellers began leaving in earnest about a week ago. Camp residents told Memorial officials that they were leaving voluntarily but, Barakhoev said, the conversations took place in front of police officers and immigration officials.
Asu Dudurkaev, chief of the migration department of the Chechen Interior Ministry, is reported to have said the camp dwellers voluntarily decided to return to Chechnya.
Isa Gondarov is a member of the Memorial organization. He and his colleagues recently visited the Sputnik camp. Gondarov said only a dozen tents remained when they arrived and that people were loading their belongings onto trucks.
Gondarov said the authorities had offered camp dwellers the chance to move to a nearby temporary settlement in Ingushetia. But he said the majority of the 30 families remaining in Sputnik decided to repatriate to Chechnya.
More than 40,000 internally displaced people remain in Ingushetia outside the camps, living in settlements located in abandoned factories and Soviet-era collective farms.
"Many of Sputnik camp residents didn't want to move to that settlement. And they went [instead] to Chechnya to their relatives. They hoped for the housing promised by the authorities by 7 April. But they had real doubts about that and that they would be given that housing. Judging by their words, it was possible to say that they were moving to Chechnya at random. They do not have a place to live and hoped to stay with relatives or friends," Gondarov said.
RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Dmitri Alexandrov said the Sputnik camp residents felt pressured by the authorities to move back to Chechnya but were resigned to their fate.
"As opposed to other refugee camps closures, the Sputnik camp happened calmly. But there is an explanation for that. For about a month or two, both Ingush and Chechen officials have been visiting the camp almost daily. They were telling people pretty bluntly that the camp would be closed anyway. The refugees would have to leave and the authorities would not care about their existence anymore. That is why they encouraged people to volunteer. In that case, they promised transportation to move to Chechnya. So people submitted to that," Alexandrov said.
Fatima has lived in the Sputnik camp for four years. In an interview yesterday with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, she spoke about the degrading conditions in which her family has lived in the camp: "We can see that the war is not over. And we see that the situation is migrating to Ingushetia. In a while, we will have to flee from here as well. We cannot understand why they are calling on us to go home. We would return and nobody would have to ask us. We would run and not ask for any transportation from the authorities. If we were guaranteed security, we would return. Who would like to live in a room four-by-four meters without utilities? And we are a family of seven. We survive here without allowances. We are looking for jobs. Throughout four years, we have continued hunting for a job. I was pasting wallpaper and doing other things. We earn our bread and survive little by little. We do not count on humanitarian aid, not that we get any of it. We have never relied on it."
Timur Akiev, a member of Memorial, said those returning to Chechnya will face problems trying to find places to live. Akiev said that, to survive in Chechnya, returnees will only have themselves to depend on.
"There are practically no state aid allowances to such people [who decide to return to Chechnya]. And they have to look for jobs to earn their bread. If there are jobs available, they take them. If not, many try to work at markets and others survive as they can -- with the help of relatives and friends," Akiev said.
While the situation in the camps in Ingushetia was bleak, Akiev said conditions in Chechnya are even worse.
"It is impossible to say that the situation [in Chechnya] is stabilizing or improving. There are still people who disappear, killed people are still being found in Chechnya. So [neither] in Chechnya nor in Russia can the returning refugees be provided any security guarantees. So, people return because of despair. Can you imagine how it is to live in tents for three or four years, malnourished and not getting enough sleep? Kids are constantly falling ill. And nobody knows when the war in Chechnya ends and the situation returns to normal. And people do not have anything else left than to go back to their homeland. Here they are forgotten about," Akiev said.
Russian and Chechen authorities are offering some incentives for displaced persons -- including accommodation in Chechnya and compensation for destroyed homes of up to 350,000 rubles, or about $12,000.
Abdukabir Baibatyrov, who heads the committee in charge of the compensation, promised on local television that the owners of about two-thirds of the 30,000 houses that have been certified as destroyed will receive compensation. About 10,000 more homeowners are still waiting for inspections.
Meanwhile, the last tent camp in Ingushetia -- Satsita -- is due to be closed by early May.
Russian and Chechen authorities claim the situation in the breakaway republic is improving and point to a string of recent military successes.
Russian news agencies on 2 April reported that the head of Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov's personal guard had surrendered to Russian forces. Interfax and ITAR-TASS quoted Ilya Shabalkin, spokesman for Russian troops in the Northern Caucasus, as saying Shaa Turlaev had turned himself in.
However, reports of violence in Chechnya continue. Two policemen were killed and four injured in an explosion in the republic's second-largest city of Gudermes on 2 April.
(RFE/RL's Russian and North Caucasus services contributed to this report.)