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Russia: Rights Groups Ask U.S. To Urge Moscow Not to Close Chechen Refugee Camps

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Earlier this month, Russia started closing Chechen refugee camps in Ingushetia in what the U.S. State Department called an "essentially forced eviction." Moscow is threatening to close further camps with 20,000 refugees. Human rights advocates are urging the U.S. to speak up and stop what they say will be a humanitarian disaster.

Washington, 19 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Human rights activists are lobbying the U.S. government this week to urge Russia to halt any plans to close refugee camps in Ingushetia, which could become a humanitarian disaster for thousands of Chechens.

Earlier this month, Russia closed a camp housing some 2,700 refugees near the Ingush town of Aki Yurt. Rights groups say the refugees -- contrary to international law -- were given no choice about leaving and that residents of other camps were also put on trucks for Chechnya, where security is woefully lacking.

Russia argues the camps are no longer needed since the situation in Chechnya is stable. Moscow says it will close another five refugee sites by the end of the year.

Western humanitarian organizations are hoping U.S. pressure on Moscow could dissuade it from carrying out the closings -- or at least delay them until spring. But they are not confident that Washington, distracted by Iraq and the war on terror, will come through, even as the fate of some 20,000 camp dwellers hangs in the balance.

One refugee at the Aki Yurt camp, Yelena Ilicheva, spoke to Reuters about her plight. "After these two wars, we do not have a place to return. There is no electricity and gas. We survive with wooden logs, which children gather, and the neighbors are helping us as well."

Greg Brown is a program officer for a leading rights group that works in Ingushetia and was in the Russian republic last week. This week, he and colleagues are meeting with U.S. State Department and White House officials. "If enough [U.S.] pressure can be brought -- and this is one of the things that we're telling people when we're meeting people in the government this week -- is to at least keep it through the winter. It's our understanding that even if they close no more [camps] now, they'll try to close them all in the spring. That will still be a miss, but right now people are going out into the cold with absolutely nothing."

Brown asked that his group not be identified in order not to compromise its work in Russia. He says his meetings with U.S. officials have been positive but that he has no idea what, if anything, the U.S. will do about the issue.

Peter Burkhardt is a representative for the nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch, who visited the Aki Yurt camp yesterday. In comments to Reuters, he criticized Russian authorities for forcing most of the residents to leave. "More than 3,000 people use to live in this camp in Aki Yurt in Ingushetia -- refugees from Chechnya -- and in the last month all of them have been forced out by the Russian administration. They were visited on a daily basis by the Russian forces, who told them that they have to go back to Chechnya. And in the end, the Russian administration cut off the gas and electricity to the people living in the tents all around us and forced them to return home."

The U.S. State Department protested the Aki Yurt shutdown, calling it "essentially a forced eviction," and has asked Moscow for an explanation. But Washington, distracted by the crisis over Iraq, is unlikely to step further into the refugee fray, at least right now. That's according to Glen Howard, executive director of the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya. "Strategically, the United States is so concerned about Iraq that whatever they're doing [on Chechnya] has been low-key, but even at a low-key level hasn't been enough to stop what's going on. It's going to require some type of public condemnation of what's occurring."

No one at the U.S. State Department was immediately available to comment on the issue yesterday, when there was no media briefing. Howard, for his part, doesn't expect any public U.S. statements soon.

Chris Swift is slightly more optimistic. Swift, who is also with the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya, said the U.S. should recognize it has a direct interest in countering the argument that its war on terrorism is a war against Muslims.

Swift said the Bush administration could disprove that argument in two ways -- by making progress on solving either the Chechen conflict or the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. "I think that without some action on either of those fronts ahead of an offensive war or defensive war -- or whatever you want to call it -- in Iraq, it's going to be very hard for them to make that argument in that region."

However, Howard said the U.S. has its hands tied at the moment -- a reference to its need for Russian support on the UN Security Council for any military action against Iraq. If anything, he says, a stronger U.S. voice on Chechnya will have to wait until "after Iraq."

Humanitarian activist Brown said it's unclear where the Aki Yurt refugees have gone. He says Russia has set up six of 10 planned temporary refugee centers inside Chechnya. Brown said they have heat and makeshift latrines, but the key issue remains security. "The big concern that people had that even were there -- had gone and come back -- was security. They said they're not secure. There are [Russian] soldiers around. They just don't feel safe there."

In addition to the camp dwellers, a further 110,000 Chechens reside in Ingushetia, often in cramped, squalid quarters with friends or relatives.

Brown said it's still unclear whether Russia will follow through on closing the camps by the end of the month. He said recent statements by Russian President Vladimir Putin have been interpreted to mean Russia may wait until spring to close them.

But even in spring, Brown said, the camps being set up in Chechnya will not suffice to accommodate the refugees and their security will still be in jeopardy. "It would still be a humanitarian disaster," he said, "but just in warmer weather."