Tens of thousands of Chechen civilians fled Russian bomb attacks over the last few weeks, and are now living in makeshift tent camps in or near the neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia. RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Vladimir Dolin recently visited one of the camps and spoke with refugees and Russian authorities about their situation.
Sunzha, Chechnya; 22 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The smell of a refugee camp is the smell of misery. The stench of unwashed bodies mixes with the scent of wet tarpaulin.
In the Sunzha camp in western Chechnya, right on the Ingush border, some 90 tents are set up along the road that runs from Baku to Moscow. In front of the tents are a few drab toilets -- the only sanitary installations.
Several cows graze behind the tents. Some of the fleeing Chechens managed to take along their cattle, and a few families can get milk. But that probably will not last. There is not much grass for the cows.
In front of the tents, a few teenagers are kicking a ball around. The younger children press into their mothers' skirts. All of them have colds.
The camp numbers about 2,000 displaced persons, mostly women, children and elderly people.
Russian military authorities insist that they are only bombing strategic targets in Chechnya and are not aiming at civilian homes. But the people in the camps say they fled air raids on their towns and villages, as well as on residential areas of Grozny.
Zural Murzayeva used to work for a chemical plant in Grozny. She explains why she left the city.
"I ran away to save my kids and grandparents. During the first war in '95, [the Russians] killed my husband and bombed my home. For one year, I lived in someone else's house because I could not build up mine again. Then I barely managed to build up two rooms again. I did not even have time to live there three years and I was chased out again. Here [in the camp] there are only the poor. All of those who had money left for Russia a long time ago. The only ones that stayed here [in Chechnya] are the poor who were left with nothing."
The victims are not only Chechens, explains one woman.
I am from Samashki [village, in Chechnya]. I survived three assaults [by the Russian army] on my village. I swear it is true. Then I became a refugee in Serpovolie but then I had to run [again]. How much can we run? How long can they go on destroying us? I am Kazakh, but I consider Chechnya my second home. I have lived here for 25 years. I'm married to a Chechen."
There are not many young men in the camp. But the women say that does not mean all the men are fighting. Many men are not able to get valid internal passports from Chechen authorities enabling them to travel.
A group of refugees has a heated discussion about it. They accuse Chechen authorities of issuing documents only in exchange for bribes.
(First woman): "I have nephews, but I cannot get them out of here because [they lack] passports. Only people who can pay [bribe] money have passports."
(Second woman): "[A passport costs] $100. What you say is true. I have [sons] who are 16 and 18. Even a 26-year-old. But I cannot get even new photos for [their] passports. Even to stick in a new photo they want money. And I do not have any money. I do not have a single kopeck to my soul. We get a miserable pension, and only received one month. That's just enough for some flour. I have 10 people to feed."
Even for those who have the valuable passport, however, a safe haven is not guaranteed. The Russian soldiers guarding the internal borders along Ingushetia, North Ossetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria do not let the refugees from Chechnya leave the republic.
One woman says that once she got out of Chechnya, she could not leave Ingushetia. After waiting for her authorization, she ended up where she started out from the Sunzha camp.
"I wanted to get my kids out [of Chechnya] but they would not let me. I spent two nights outside in the streets in Nazran [in Ingushetia] with them. I even handed in all my papers for checking. They said, 'Come tomorrow.' Every day, they said, 'Come back tomorrow.' So in the end I could not leave, I spent all my money on food and now we are [back] here [in Chechnya]. When we try to go to the border, they send us back."
People who have been turned back from internal borders say the Russian authorities refer to an order from the head of the 58th army, General Vladimir Shamanov. General Vladimir Kulakov, a Russian commander in the region, says there is no such order.
"I cannot confirm or deny such an order because something like that simply cannot exist."
But the Russian human rights organization Memorial says it is in possession of a telegram, addressed to North Ossetian officials, confirming the order. The group says General Shamanov ordered passage out of Chechnya to be closed to all civilians.
Some of those fleeing the fighting can slip through anyway by paying a bribe to the Russian soldiers. According to the camp residents, the amounts seem to vary from 100 rubles for a person on foot to $100 for a car.
Mussan Adzhid is a former Soviet soldier and a supporter of the Chechen opposition. Stuck in the Sunzha camp, he explains that no one has enough money to get across the Chechen border.
"The Ingush let us through, but when we got to Nalchik [in Kabardino-Balkaria], they said, 'pay.' To cross, you [must] pay a certain sum for the car, a certain sum per person. No one has that kind of money. We're on the run from a war! And we have not had any jobs for nine years."
The 105 railway wagons set up in Ingushetia are not enough for the 150,000 displaced Chechens. Supplies and food are also scarce. One man gives an example of the tiny ration he received.
"The Red Cross gave tea with sandwiches twice. 200 grams of butter. 200 grams of tea, in a cup. That happened twice in the whole time we were here."
But others say living conditions at home in Chechnya were not any better. Often there was no bread. One woman said that although the supplies in the camps were not enough for everyone, the food situation is still better than in Chechnya.
Even as some Russian generals are bombing Chechnya, others are helping Chechen civilians survive in the refugee camps. General Valery Vostrotin, the deputy minister of emergency situations, is in charge of organizing aid for the camps.
Most estimates put the number of displaced persons in the Ingush camps at 150,000. But only around 85,000 are registered with the migration service, because the service does not have the means to register them all. Vostrotin says some are afraid to register.
"The number of [registered people] is still growing, but more slowly. Among the 150,000, many do not want to register for different reasons. Among other things, they are afraid of the rumors. They are scared of being put into train cars and sent off to Magadan or Sakhalin [where prisoners were kept in the days of the Soviet Gulag].
Vostrotin says that there are not enough beds for all the inmates. In his view, keeping the displaced persons in Ingushetia is not the best solution. He thinks they should be sent back to the Russian-occupied parts of Chechnya as soon as possible.