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Russia: Chechen Refugees In Ingushetia Survive In Makeshift Camps

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Many of Chechnya's 200,000 refugees now living in neighboring Ingushetia are preparing themselves for a second winter of war that, they fear, will be worse than the first. In part one of a two-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports from Ingushetia on the refugees' grim lives inside makeshift camps.

Sleptsovsk, Ingushetia; 23 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- At the Soglasye camp in Ingushetia, Chechen refugees are getting ready for another winter. Adam and Yakha are building what looks like a pen for livestock out of tree branches only 10 meters away from their big green tent. Adam is very proud of his construction -- the thin branches woven around four pillars don't need a single nail -- hardly affordable after eight months away from home.

But this coop is not for the two calves munching at a clump of sun-burnt grass nearby. It's for Adam's family. Covered with clay, with a tiny "window" inside, it will make a home for his nephew, his wife and their new-born baby.

Facing a second winter away from their homes, Chechen refugee women in army tents in the camps, or on abandoned farms elsewhere in Ingushetia, say it will undoubtedly be worse than last year. They say: "We've already spent a winter here, that's why we're afraid. The tents are rotting away. Rain is coming through the roof, everything is wet and the children are small. You can see we don't have any floorboards, no comfort at all."

The tents were set up as makeshift homes for the thousands who fled across the border last autumn, when Russian bombs leveled many villages in Chechnya. By now, they are full of holes, their wooden ground planks rotting away. The refugees have exchanged for food what few valuable possessions they were able to bring with them -- a television set, a gold chain, or a diamond earring. Their quilts and clothes have withered away.

But despite the growing difficulties, many Chechens still prefer the relative safety of the camps to the haphazard violence in their home republic. Yakha is convinced that few are going back because they trust neither the Russian authorities nor the separatist fighters. She says:

"The people don't believe [in peace] because so far Russia has not managed to do anything. Russia thinks that it has won, but it is very wrong. Any minute the [Chechen fighters] can take back a village. So, at any moment, the bombings can begin again -- do we really need that? To have lived like gypsies for eight months and then die? If you go home [to Chechnya] you go to war, not home. If you have the strength to fight you should go right away. Take up arms and go. Because you can't live there [in any other way] "

Zara is from Gekhi-Chu, a Chechen mountain village south of Achkhoi-Martan. She arrived at the Soglasye camp with her two sons only in March, after the worst of the fighting was over. Zara feared that her sons would be taken away by the Russian military and tortured in a so-called "filtration" camp until the family could find enough money to bail them out. Survival, she says, is possible only outside of Chechnya:

"There's no work there, we have to eat. There's nothing to eat [in Chechnya]. If you don't earn any money, you can't do anything there."

As part of her preparations for the coming winter, Zeinab recently went to her Grozny home to get what she could.

"I went home to clean up. It was such a mess. There was nothing left in the room . I brought back one teapot, three spoons and a fork -- and two chairs that I had left at the market."

There are other signs in the camps of longer stays to come. A sign outside one shop reads "shoe repair." And the Austrian humanitarian aid organization Hilfswerk is setting up sewing factories in the camps. In Soglasye, the factory has been working for almost two months, employing 15 women.

The women refugees at the sewing machines signed a six-month contract with Hilfswerk. The Austrians supply the cloth, needles and thread. They financed the construction of the small wooden building and pay some $35 (1,000 rubles) as a monthly salary. The products -- children's dresses, trousers and smocks -- are picked up each month and distributed to the handicapped and to orphanages.

Other humanitarian aid organizations are also continuing their efforts in the camps. A new shower block financed by the International Red Cross is functioning in Soglasye, supplied daily with fresh water. The camp's field kitchen is again working on a regular basis, thanks to the combined efforts of the Red Cross and the Russian Ministry for Emergency Situations.

Khedda Omarkhadzhiyeva, a psychologist working for the French organization Medecins du Monde finds another sign of prolonged exile in the continuing in-flow of new refugees Her job is to monitor and treat post-traumatic syndromes in children -- and often in their parents as well. By working with them, she has an overview of the coming and going of some 5,000 to 6,000 refugees.

Omarkhadzhiyeva says that the number of new refugees is growing. According to her, some of them are coming back after several months spent trying to sit out the war at home. The children she sees now are often even more traumatized than before.

"The condition of the children is a lot worse. Most often, that's linked to the unexpected bombing and shelling by the air force and the artillery -- the army took even more severe measures. This is reflected in the children because they are the most sensitive part of the population. The symptoms of psychological trauma change from one person to the other -- fears, fits, fainting, insomnia, aggression, moodiness. Recently, we had some difficult cases -- girls mainly -- who even in the camps lost consciousness simply because they heard helicopters flying overhead."

But children living with their parents in camps do have access to schooling. That means that camp life even under leaking tents has its advantages -- particularly, the ready help of humanitarian organizations. For that reason, places in the camps are now hard to obtain. "Getting a place in a tent," as it is called, needs the authorization of Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry -- and can cost $140 (3,500 rubles) in bribe money.

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