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Chechnya: Reconstructing Cities Poses Problems

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Russian authorities say that their military operation in Chechnya is now virtually over and that a postwar reconstruction stage is beginning. But rebuilding the utterly destroyed cities will be highly expensive. And Moscow-based human-right activists say that Chechen civilians are afraid to return to their homes -- and many have no homes to return to. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports.

Moscow, 17 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russian government spokesmen are trying to draw a bright picture of Chechnya's near future. They say that reconstruction, not warfare, is their main preoccupation from now on.

Official military reports are still claiming heavy casualties among Chechen separatist fighters -- most of them now in the southern mountains -- but other reports boast that a growing number of villages are being reconnected to electricity and gas services. Moscow cut off energy sources to Chechnya at the start of the war six months ago. Later, many electric lines and gas pipelines were destroyed by bombs.

Acting President Vladimir Putin says the government will spend some $80 million over the next two years to rebuild Chechnya. During a recent trip to Krasnodar, a region bordering the Caucasus, Putin spoke of his concern for "Chechnya's economic, social and cultural revival." Moscow is even planning to organize elections in the region, with balloting at some 300 polling stations.

But activists from the Russian human-rights organization Memorial say that what they call "official lies" could permanently compromise peace in Chechnya. At a Moscow press conference Tuesday, Memorial's Aleksandr Cherkasov said he sees the same pattern of disinformation in this war as in the last war:

"Our main plea [to the Russian authorities] is to not create another 'virtual reality' to which we will all become hostages -- both the people and the country. The previous war [from 1994 to 1996] was lost because the military believed its own lie -- that the war was won. Now they're telling us again that we won, that the peaceful reconstruction of Chechnya is under way. Let's not become prisoners of that lie again."

Cherkasov said that Moscow's optimism had already cost many lives. He pointed out that some Chechen villages, such as Katyr-Yurt and Shali, had been declared safe by Russian officials two months ago and that many refugees had returned there -- only to face more Russian bombs.

"Since December, the village of Katyr-Yurt has been one of the security zones declared by the federal command on Chechen territory. People started going back there from refugee camps in Ingushetia. What did they get? The same as in Shali a month earlier, which was also declared a "safe zone." After Chechen fighters went through the village, the Russians started heavy bombings. And so just because they believed that they were in a safe zone, [Chechen civilians] risked their lives."

In addition, several human-rights organizations have recorded accounts of civilians executed by Russian troops in both Katyr-Yurt and Shali. Memorial's Tatiana Kasatkina said that during numerous trips to camps in Ingushetia -- the most recent one last week -- she noted that the hatred felt by refugees for Russians in general is growing dangerously.

Cherkasov also said an unknown number of displaced civilians are moving around inside Chechnya, completely out of the reach of aid organizations.

Many of the 210,000 refugees now in Ingushetia feel that going back home to Chechnya is much too dangerous to risk. Kasatkina says that two months ago inhabitants of Chechnya were often eager to give up their humiliating refugee status and squalid tent or train-car camps to go back to a "security zone" in Chechnya.

Now, she says, people are afraid to go back. And for many, the weeks of Russian carpet-bombings destroyed their homes and livestock.

RFE/RL correspondent Oleg Kusov reports that the Russian Migration Service is offering Chechens the opportunity a move to other parts of Russia. But in practice, such transfers are difficult to implement. According to Kusov, places as far away as the Altai region in Siberia said that they couldn't afford to take in any more displaced persons. Elderly women told Kusov that they were afraid they might die on the long voyage to Siberia.

Memorial's Kasatkina interprets these difficulties as a calculated determination by Russian authorities to send the civilians back to Chechnya as quickly as possible. She says that recent arrivals in Ingushetia are being denied refugee status:

"[The migration service] stopped registering people and stopped giving the refugees form number seven. That form gives them the right to migrate for free to any place in Russia and the right to humanitarian aid. The reason for this is that these people are from the so-called freed Chechen territories." According to Kasatkina, authorities may see the worsening conditions in refugee camps in and outside Chechnya as a means of pressuring people to go back to what remains -- if anything -- of their homes. She says that on top of what they have already experienced, refugees are now being threatened by -- in effect -- forced transfers back to Chechnya. She adds that she was told that Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry has enough food for the camps for only three more days.

But Memorial's Cherkasov is not as categorical. He says that a difference of opinion is emerging between the Russian government authorities and the Russian military about what to do with civilians in Chechnya.

As Cherkasov sees it, it is in the military's interest to be able to pursue guerrilla warfare in civilian-free territory. Russian commanders have expressed satisfaction that the fight has shifted from the towns to the sparsely populated mountains. Cherkasov points out that when Russia's top civilian official in Chechnya, Nikolai Koshman, said there were 40,000 civilians trapped in Grozny, military officials estimated the number at only 10,000.

Cherkasov says Koshman and other civilian authorities want to demonstrate that peaceful life is possible in the region. That is why, he says, Koshman supports transferring Chechnya's capital from the razed Grozny, which would take years to rebuild, to Gudermes, the republic's second-largest city.