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Chechnya: Civilians Continue To Live In Fear

Claiming control over much of Chechnya, Russian authorities now say their immediate concern is to rebuild the republic to make it safe for the more than 200,000 civilians who fled during the height of Moscow's military campaign. But RFE/RL's Russian Service has interviewed some of those who fled, and they tell another story. Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports.

Moscow, 14 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- With the rebels fighting in the mountains, it may seem that the war is over for the civilians of Chechnya. But that is far from true. Chechen refugees will have no access to the capital Grozny -- cordoned off for the past several weeks -- at least until May.

And Chechens who have fled to Ingushetia say that little has changed in Grozny since Russians took control of the destroyed capital at the end of January. One such displaced person, Tatiana Abubakarova, says Russian soldiers continue to carry out "cleansing" operations in the city at least twice a week.

Abubakarova fled to Ingushetia from her village on the outskirts of Grozny last weekend. She described to RFE/RL correspondent Yuri Bagrov how Russian soldiers behaved in her village a few weeks ago:

"They come into the house and beat [people] up, take them away. They beat women, pull children out of the beds. On the 27th [of February], 14 people from our village were taken away. They were innocent, they sat out the whole war in their homes. The mothers were standing there to defend their sons. They were thrown into a puddle, beaten and taken away. They take whatever there is. They demanded food, they demanded dollars, they demanded everything. Everything. The video, the loud-speakers, TV set, carpets. They took everything they could from us."

Another Chechen woman refugee (unnamed) said that the war's effects on Chechen civilians will make real stabilization of the republic impossible. She says that the Chechens have become a warrior people, and now can only accept a general to lead them:

"It is preferable of course that a general commands in Chechnya. We are used to the war by now. It will be very difficult for us to get used to peace. Russia has made the Chechens accustomed to fighting. We have a child who can distinguish the sound of an automatic rifle from that of another gun. And the difference between the flight of a passenger plane and that of a fighter plane."

The doubts voiced by displaced Chechens were echoed by members of a Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly delegation that visited Ingushetia and Chechnya over the weekend. Polish parliamentarian Tadeusz Iwinski -- rapporteur for the assembly's Committee on Migration and Refugees -- said that the only way to break out of a vicious circle of Chechen violence was for the refugees to feel safe enough to go back to their homes.

For now, this does not seem to be the case. Fandas Safeulin, a member of a Russian State Duma (lower house) mission to Chechnya, said the delegation spent a day in Gudermes last week.

Gudermes, Chechnya's second-largest town, is being considered by Russian authorities as the republic's new capital, as the old capital of Grozny has been devastated. But according to Safeulin, Gudermes is hardly a safe haven:

"In Gudermes -- in effect, Chechnya's capital -- the night before we arrived, the local Russian garrison came during our lunch-break, there was an exchange of fire near where we were. We were told that it was a lone sniper. There were five or six isolated shots, and [he] wasn't overpowered while we were there. The Russian representatives sit in offices covered up to the ceiling in sand-bags that also cover the windows. That, too, is a sign of the times."

Safeulin was especially shaken by the pro-Russian local authorities' attitude. He reported this comment made by the head of the pro-Russian Gudermes administration, Malik Gezimiyev.

"To my question about the fate of the refugees [now in Ingushetia] from Gudermes and nearby, this is the answer I got. I'm giving it to you without comment: 'All those refugees and camps in Ingushetia and elsewhere should be obliterated from the face of the earth, destroyed and burned together with all the women there.' When I asked him to explain why, [he said,] 'They gave birth to the bandits and will continue giving birth to bandits.' That's how the [pro-Russian] authorities express themselves!"

Safeulin concluded that with "friends" like that, the Chechens hardly needed enemies for the war to continue. He also said that if local pro-Russian authorities continue to express such opinions, then separatist warlord Shamil Basayev can simply retire -- there will be plenty of Chechens willing to take his place.

(Yuri Bagrov and other Russian Service correspondents contributed to this report.)