The Memorial human rights group is confirming reports that authorities in the southern region of Ingushetia are coercing thousands of refugees who fled the war in neighboring Chechnya to return. As temperatures drop below freezing, humanitarian supplies of food, water, and heat are being cut off to refugee camps to force their occupants to return to the ruined and lawless region. RFE/RL reports that one Memorial member recently returned from Ingushetia and said the government is forcing refugees to face a desperate situation the international community must immediately address.
Moscow, 3 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Around 2,000 Chechen refugees living in the southern region of Ingushetia near the border with Chechnya are being loaded into trucks and forced to return to their homes in the lawless breakaway region, the Memorial human rights organization says.
Russian officials announced today that they had fully closed the Iman tent camp near the town of Aki Yurt, about 3 kilometers from the Chechen border. The camp housed more than 1,500 refugees.
The refugees represent part of the roughly 350,000 people forced to flee their homes when Russian forces launched their second campaign in the Caucasus region in 1999.
As temperatures in the area hit minus 10 degrees Celsius, the estimated 18,000 refugees still living in five refugee camps in Ingushetia have been told they must return to Chechnya by 20 December.
Another 110,000 Chechen refugees live in Ingushetia, many in cramped conditions with relatives and friends.
Svetlana Gannushkina, who is on the presidential Human Rights Committee and a member of the Memorial human rights group, returned on 29 November from Ingushetia after witnessing the conditions in camps from which journalists and human rights workers are banned.
She said refugees are given little choice but to return even as authorities deny they are using force. "The violence is on such a level and [the refugees] are so well-accustomed to such violence that they would rather do what is required of them -- even to die," Gannushkina said.
The government wants refugees to return to Chechnya to boost their claims that military operations in the war-destroyed region are drawing to a close. Refugee tent camps are a stark reminder that the conflict is dragging inexorably on.
Moscow is insisting it is not forcing refugees to return against their will, which would constitute a breach of United Nations and other international human rights regulations.
Gannushkina said she saw the beginning of an operation to shut down the Iman refugee camp. She said that as of last night 18 tents remained standing.
Gas supplies to another 22 mud-walled houses in the camp were also expected to be shut off today. Last night, residents were also warned that their homes would be bulldozed despite earlier promises that the structures would be allowed to stand.
"This constitutes the use of direct force," Gannushkina said.
The government last May said it would seek to return refugees to Chechnya.
Detachments of soldiers began collecting outside the camps in force following Moscow's hostage crisis in October, when President Vladimir Putin vowed to step up his crackdown on rebels in Chechnya.
But the United States said on 29 November that the Russian government had assured it refugees would not be forcibly returned to Chechnya.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees asked Moscow on 29 November to hold off shutting down the Aki Yurt camp until acceptable housing for its refugees is found. In a statement, the agency said it had offered to set up replacement housing but has received no reply from Moscow. A spokesman for the office voiced its concern again today.
Meanwhile, Russian officials say the refugees are returning voluntarily. The ITAR-TASS news agency headlined a recent story, "Forced Migrants Returning to Chechnya Are Glad To Be Back at Home."
Gannushkina said: "What's going on is not based on logic but lies. We have been witness to these lies for a long time. We were told for a long time and repeatedly that the camps wouldn't be destroyed and that people wouldn't be forcibly returned to Chechnya. That's not true, in spite of the fact that these untruths are being repeated even today."
Gannushkina said shutting down camps begins with orders to camp authorities to strike names off the lists of those living there. Lists for the Bart camp, home to 4,000 refugees, for example, were whittled down to 2,500.
Officials say they only take off names of people who have already left the camps themselves.
Once their names are taken off official lists, refugees are no longer allowed food, water, and gas for heating and cooking. With no work in the area, refugees have no option but to leave the camps.
In Aki Yurt, authorities began the whittling-down process by striking the names of teachers working in the camp school off the list of authorized residents.
Gannushkina said: "They were working in the school. I saw them all myself -- all of them. I spoke to all of them, shook the hands of each one. How could it be possible that none of them happened to be on the lists? They all turned into 'dead souls.'"
Later, strangers dressed in civilian clothes visited the camps, telling families they would be given several months' supplies of humanitarian aid and trips back to Chechnya but that they would receive nothing if they refused.
Gannushkina said hundreds of such people circulate within Ingushetia's camps, helping create panic among refugees. "In Aki Yurt, people were literally driven to the point of hysteria," she said.
Refugees are also pressured to sign agreements to rent housing from a list of authorized people in Chechnya with a promise of reimbursement of 20 rubles a day ($0.63) from the government. Gannushkina said the amount is "colossal" for refugees and a significant incentive to return.
But she added that the documents actually contain no written guarantees of payment.
Authorities say refugees can remain in Ingushetia if they want but only if they crowd together in so-called "kompakty," nonresidential buildings such as factory and farm warehouses.
But space is limited to a few because most refugees are expected to return to Chechnya.
The government has also set up temporary camps inside Chechnya to house refugees. Gannushkina said she visited three of these outside the capital Grozny last week. "They are overfilled," she said.
The government said it wants Chechens to return to help rebuild their homeland. But promised reconstruction in Grozny and other regions of Chechnya is barely in evidence.
Gannushkina asked: "When [are they supposed to return]? In November and December in the cold and the frost? Rebuilding houses hit by three shells? Because it was exactly for such houses people are leaving. Rebuilding houses that have no windows or doors? Where there's no gas or supply of electricity? How can these people rebuild their houses right now?"
But the chief reason refugees have not returned to Chechnya, Gannushkina said, is that government guarantees of security have gone unfulfilled and human rights violations by Russian forces in the region continue unchecked.
Meanwhile, Gannushkina said, officials are no longer willing to engage in dialogue. "Once again, we live in a country in which authorities lie to us while looking us in the eye."