Authorities yesterday broke up a march designed to highlight the plight of Chechen refugees -- just minutes after participants started out on their planned route from Ingushetia to Moscow. It was meant to be a reminder of the predicament of the some 150,000 people who are still in Ingushetia months after fleeing across the border to escape the fighting, and comes as the Russian authorities are trying to persuade many to return.
Prague, 2 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The "March for Peace" was meant to take 70 days from the Ingush village of Ordzhonikidzevskaya, near the Dagestan border, to Moscow.
Instead, it lasted just a few minutes, as authorities moved in to disband and -- some reports say -- arrest the marchers, claiming they lacked the papers required for permission.
The march was designed to highlight the plight of a group of refugees on a hunger strike since June to protest conditions at the camps in Ingushetia. Tens of thousands of civilians fled across the border to escape the fighting in Chechnya and are now living in makeshift, often highly unsanitary, accommodations.
It also comes in a week of significant dates in the Chechen conflict.
It was two years ago today that Chechen rebels moved into neighboring Daghestan, beginning a chain of events that led to Russian troops storming back into Chechnya.
And Russian authorities are stepping up security in the region as they brace themselves for possible separatist attacks marking another anniversary on 6 August -- the start of the 1994-1996 Chechen war. The march incident also comes as the Russian authorities are trying to persuade many Chechen refugees that the war is all but over and that it is safe to return home.
Yesterday, Vladimir Yelagin, the minister coordinating federal authorities in Chechnya, said some 15,000 families could return home within the next two months.
Jan Pazderka coordinates the Chechen program for the Czech charity "People in Need" and has just returned from a year in the region. He is skeptical of such official statements.
"This estimate is not realistic. Official comments like this have been coming out for six months or a year. The Russian government is pushing for a lot of these people to come back, but the living conditions are not good enough for that, particularly as regards security. People are scared to go back; young people get arrested, there's torture, sweeps that often result in loss of property, looting, and crime is higher than in Ingushetia."
He says there is constant movement across the Ingush-Chechen border, but that he has noticed an increase recently in the number of people coming into Ingushetia, especially in the wake of violent raids by Russian forces on the villages of Sernovodsk, Assinovskaya, and Kurchaloi.
Many civilians disappeared following the raids, and Russian forces faced allegations of atrocities amid reports that troops beat and tortured villagers.
Daniil Mesherikov at the Moscow Helsinki Group, a human rights watchdog, says refugees will not return until they receive security guarantees.
"The refugees are in a desperate situation. There are no conditions for normal life in the camps. Deliveries of food are continually being held up. Sanitation is awful. Even though the refugees have been there a relatively long time, little has been done to improve their lives. None of the initiatives to return refugees have been accompanied by security guarantees. There have been more and more frequent sweep operations in the areas where refugees are meant to return to. So, as a consequence, they prefer to live in these very difficult conditions, in relative safety."
The conditions include poor hygiene, sparse medical care, and frequent outbreaks of tuberculosis and other diseases. Accommodation ranges from organized camps, to homes of relatives or friends, to so-called "wild camps," where people find what refuge they can in pens originally designed for animals.
The Russian authorities say they would be much better off back home as most of the dwelling houses in the republic received little or no damage from the fighting.
But Pazderka says the scale of destruction varies across the republic, and most of Grozny is flattened. And anyway, he says, this is to miss the point.
"The main question for these people is not where to live but the fear they have for their children, themselves, their relatives, and that's why a large number of these 150,000 or so people are still staying in Ingushetia."
Mesherikov says the Russian authorities' attempts to encourage people to return will fail until civilians feel sure they will not become victim to abuses by Russian forces.
"The authorities should demonstrate their peaceable mood by ruling out the use of force against unarmed people. Only after this, after an extended period of calm, will people voluntarily return to Chechnya."
He says that unless the authorities start peace talks with separatist Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov, the refugees will assume that the conflict will escalate and there will be a real threat to their safety.