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Caucasus: Chechen Refugees Afraid To Return Home As Russia Steps Up Security Measures

  • Valentinas Mite

Chechen refugees in camps in neighboring Ingushetia say they are increasingly fearful of returning home. They say conditions have deteriorated in Chechnya in the wake of last month's hostage crisis in Moscow and renewed Russian military operations in the breakaway republic. This week, residents of some of the camps sent a letter to the Kazakh president asking him if they could settle in Kazakhstan, the same place where Josef Stalin deported them during World War II.

Prague, 15 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- This week, about 300 Chechen refugees appealed in a letter to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev asking to be allowed to live in Kazakhstan, the same place that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin deported the Chechens in the 1940s.

In the letter, the refugees said their situation, being forced to return to war-torn Chechnya, was "worse than during the [1940s] deportation."

The refugees say the security situation in Chechnya has deteriorated as Russian authorities have stepped up measures against Chechen separatists after last month's hostage crisis in Moscow.

Yelena Bonner, the human rights activist and widow of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov, told RFE/RL she is shocked by the plight of the refugees. "I am shocked by the recent events when refugees living in the camps in Ingushetia appealed to President Nazarbaev. What despair, what extreme pain pushed them to the point when they asked to be allowed to go to the places of former deportation?" Bonner said.

Jean-Paul Cavalieri, a senior official in the Moscow office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said the refugees find themselves in a dire state. He said most are concentrated in Ingushetia and other regions of North Caucasus, while there are approximately 140,000 displaced persons in Chechnya itself.

Cavalieri said the recent trend of refugees to return home has slowed in the wake of renewed Russian military operations in Chechnya. Now, the number leaving the republic is once again larger than those going back. "At the same time, we see returns to Chechnya that are still ongoing. However, for the last two weeks, the number of returnees to Chechnya, as we could monitor, was lower than the number of new arrivals to Ingushetia," Cavalieri said.

Akhmed Barahov represents the Russian Human Rights organization Memorial in Ingushetia. He told RFE/RL the appeal by the Chechen refugees to the Kazakh president is a result of security measures imposed on the camps and in Chechnya itself. The Russian military has stationed troops around the perimeter of four camps in Ingushetia.

He said refugees are frightened by the troop deployments, and they no longer feel safe. They say soldiers fire weapons into the air at night and do other things to cause unease. "In the wake of the [October hostage crisis] in Moscow, many people [living in the camps] feel the pressure themselves. Today, the inhabitants of those four camps where the military is deployed anticipate nothing good in the future. They wait only for bad things to happen," Barahov said.

Cavalieri said the Russian authorities have a legal right to deploy troops in any place on its territory, including the Russian republic of Ingushetia.

Ruslan Badalov, the chairman of the nongovernmental organization of Chechen refugees in Ingushetia, the Committee of National Salvation, agreed that the refugees do not feel secure in the camps. He said, "It would not surprise us if tomorrow the Russians announce they have found groups of terrorists functioning in the camps," Badalov said.

He said there are few alternatives for the refugees. Most remain reluctant to return home in spite of Russian calls that they do so. "'Would you [Russian authorities] build houses for us?' People say that they do not want to go back now. We came here without any help, and we will leave when the war will be over, when there will be security guarantees. Now, mopping-up operations are under way day and night [in Chechnya], death squads are operating, people are being abducted, being killed. No one is responsible for anything. It is a zone of lawlessness, something that resembles a concentration camp," Badalov said.

RFE/RL spoke by telephone with two Chechen refugees from the Alina camp on the Ingushetia-Chechnya border.

Mizana Jachnaeva told RFE/RL that three years ago her family left Chechnya. Jachnaeva complained that Russian authorities are pressing the refugees to go back to Chechnya. She said she will not go because it is unsafe. And she said her two children, aged 9 and 13, live in fear. "They are afraid of the [Russian] soldiers very much. We hardly managed to come here; we were bombed on our way. It was terrible. And what now -- go back? I think it is better to be killed here," Jachnaeva said.

Jachnaeva said she has no place to go. The house she lived in the center of Grozny has been demolished.

Roza Dudagova, a 45-year-old woman from a village of Miskeryurt, 25 kilometers from Grozny, told RFE/RL that her son went to Miskeryurt last spring and disappeared during a Russian military operation. "He didn't fight anywhere; he did nothing wrong. My son was very obedient, civilized. I brought him up without a husband. I have only two [sons]," Dudagova said.

Dudagova said she will never return to Chechnya because she does not want to lose her last son.

(RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service contributed to this report.)