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In Burned-Out Russian Villages, Promise Of New Homes Fails To Comfort Victims

WATCH: Residents of the Russian village of Mokhovoye, which was burned to the ground during a summer of devastating peat and forest fires, are concerned as winter approaches. They say that some of their most acute needs have gone unfulfilled despite a government effort to build new homes for fire victims and generous humanitarian aid.

By Claire Bigg and Anastasia Kirilenko

BELOOMUT, Russia -- Plastic bags brimming with clothes clutter the local community center in Beloomut, a small town some 130 kilometers south of Moscow.

Hundreds of used shoes are piled high in the central hall, whose walls are lined with cardboard boxes full of toys and hygiene products.

The goods are destined for families who lost their homes in the wildfires that ravaged Russia this summer, killing more than 50 people.

Residents from the nearby village of Mokhovoye come to the community center almost every day. They were relocated into army barracks in Beloomut after their village was burned to the ground. As many as 12 people perished in the flames.

Despite the gifts flowing to Beloomut and a rare government effort to build brand new homes for fire victims, the village's 360 survivors are grief-stricken. Many still shed tears as they recall how the blaze engulfed their village, trapping people in cellars and gutting the houses in which they had lived for decades. Those who survived lost everything in the fire.

"We fled with nothing more than the clothes we were wearing," recalls one elderly villager, Vyacheslav. "We hoped the fire would recede, but then in the space of 15 minutes it flared up with a loud noise."

Their sorrow is mixed with resentment at the government in Moscow, which they accuse of doing nothing to prevent the disaster. It's a feeling echoed in other burned-out villages.

Popular Anger

When in late July Vladimir Putin visited Verkhnyaya Vereya, another village completely destroyed by the flames, he was mobbed by a crowd of angry fire victims in a rare show of public hostility toward Russia's all-powerful prime minister.

"You wanted to burn us alive, to burn us alive!" one woman shouted to the visibly uncomfortable Putin. "We asked for help. It's too late to think now. If you had thought earlier, this wouldn't have happened."

WATCH: Prime Minister Putin faces uncomfortable questioning from residents of one of the burned-out villages:

Putin visited Verkhnyaya Vereya and other badly hit areas -- including Mokhovoye -- in the wake of the blaze, pledging to build new houses for all victims before the onset of winter.

His visit was part of a campaign to defend the government's response to the fires, which has been widely criticized as slow and chaotic.

The campaign has seen Putin co-pilot a firefighting plane, monitor the reconstruction effort via webcams, and telephone President Dmitry Medvedev from one of the worst-hit regions in carefully orchestrated televised appearances.

WATCH: YouTube video of the televised telephone exchange between Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev:

But his PR offensive has largely failed to appease those made homeless by the blazes. Even his promise to build new homes for all has met with criticism.

In Beloomut, construction teams are feverishly building as many as 152 houses for fire victims. But few believe the new houses will be ready by October 25 as promised, and local officials have said off the record that the deadline imposed by Putin is unrealistic.

Houses Of Cards?

Fire victims say the reconstruction effort, however laudable, has also failed to take their needs into account.

Many would have preferred rebuilding their burned homes in Mokhovoye, or even relocating to another town closer to their children, rather than moving to the impersonal rows of houses that are being built for them on the edge of Beloomut.

Under the government's proposal, fire victims are entitled to either a house in the new settlements or a cash handout to purchase property elsewhere. In practice, however, former Mokhovoye residents say they have had no choice.

New houses under construction in Beloomut
Irina Polferova, whose Mokhovoye flat was destroyed in the blaze, says her family is not suited for life in a detached house. "They are not offering me any compensation, only a house. But I won't be able to look after a house," she says. "I am a single mother with two young children. The plot of land needs to be plowed; the house needs to be finished. I physically won't be able to take care of all this."

Mokhovoye villagers also face hostility from a number of Beloomut residents whose unauthorized vegetable patches were confiscated to build the new houses.

'Quick And Dirty'

There is concern, too, that the houses are being built on land that is partly swamped. The furious construction pace has fueled concern about the houses' safety.

Yevgeny Asse, a renowned Moscow architect, says the constructions look solid and should not pose any risk of collapse. But the new owners, he says, should not expect anything fancy.

"Is it possible to build all this in two months? I think it's possible, but it will be a quick and dirty job," Asse says. "Knowing Russia's building practices, this is unlikely to be quality construction. What's important here is quantity, not quality. It's a common Russian scenario. They are probably building these houses not because they want to give people new homes, but because they want to please the prime minister."

Once settled into their new neighborhood, former Mokhovoye residents will no doubt miss their old village homes, with their wooden verandas, chicken sheds, and colorful vegetable patches.

They can nonetheless count themselves lucky to be given brand new homes, regardless of the political motives behind the decision to relocate them at such breakneck speed.

"There is also a humanitarian element here," Asse says. "When you're given a horse, you don't look at its teeth."

Claire Bigg wrote this story in Prague with additional reporting by Anastasia Kirilenko from Beloomut; RFE/RL's Russian Service also contributed to this report

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