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Caucasus: In Ingushetia And Chechnya Alike, Chechens Face Hardship

Chechen civilians can find no place safe to raise their families. Many of those who remained in the republic through the worst of the fighting have had enough of the scarce food, spreading disease, and continued Russian attacks and are crossing into Ingushetia. Those Chechens who have been living in Ingush camps for weeks, however, have faced similar hardships, and many of them are returning to Chechnya.

Moscow, 12 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Chechen-Ingush border is well traveled.

Despite Russian government announcements that the "military phase" of the operation in Chechnya is over, Chechen civilians continue flowing into Ingushetia, running from bombs, hunger, and illness. Yet others are crossing back into Chechnya, tired of the life in makeshift refugee tents and hoping to rebuild their homes. Whether in Ingushetia or Chechnya, Chechen civilians face similar hardships.

More people are still leaving Chechnya than returning. Almost 2,000 Chechens entered Ingushetia last weekend, according to Ingush authorities. That is as high a number as last December, when the fighting was raging.

One displaced woman, Zara, arrived in Ingushetia last week. She told our correspondent Yuri Bagrov that her neighbors have been fleeing Russian attacks. Zara says that in her village of Khalkiloy, 28 people were killed by Russian bombs in one attack last week.

While some are running for their lives, others are leaving Chechnya because they have nowhere to live. Most Chechens have not received any financial help from the new, Russian-run local administration to rebuild their homes. And what little undamaged property villagers have left often falls into the hands of Russian soldiers during the operations known as "cleansings," in which troops hunt for rebels who, they say, are hiding among civilians. In one of the rare incidents of looting now under official investigation, Russian Interior Ministry soldiers were caught with four cars apparently stolen from their Chechen owners.

Still other Chechens are leaving because health conditions have worsened and typhoid is spreading. Dozens of people have fallen ill from drinking stagnant water, because freshwater sources were destroyed by the Russian attack. Many canals were destroyed by bombs, and wells stopped working when Moscow cut off the power last fall.

Although officials refuse to call it an epidemic, typhoid in Chechnya has drawn enough attention for Russia's top public health official to comment. Gennady Onishenko says health officials are trying to keep the infection from spreading to Grozny.

"We will gather them and put them in the hospital. We'll put them on their feet again, feed them a little, and submit them to basic medical treatment. Then we will take them out of Grozny. We can't leave them in the cellars. As a rule, these are elderly people, who have no one."

RFE/RL correspondent Yuri Bagrov reports that there is another potential health risk: as the weather grows warmer, human and animal corpses are rotting more quickly. Ten days of fighting in Komsomolskoye, a mountain village near Urus-Martan, left the place strewn with 1,000 cow and goat carcasses and some 460 human bodies. Russian troops said the bodies were those of dead rebels. But local Chechens had refused to bury them in the Muslim cemetery, saying the bodies were not Chechens, but Russian soldiers. Finally, to end the risk of disease, soldiers dug a mass grave.

Despite these dire conditions in Chechnya, some Chechens are returning to the republic. More than 1,000 camp inmates have left Ingushetia in recent weeks to take their chances in Chechnya -- an indication that conditions in the refugee camps are not much better than conditions in Chechnya. In the camps, for several cold weeks after Ingush services ran out of money, the refugees received no hot meals. Only the approach of the presidential election at the end of March made the federal government hurriedly organize wheat mash and a little meat.

And in Ingushetia, as in Chechnya, the risk of epidemics is growing, as conditions are crowded and unsanitary. Local doctors say tuberculosis is on the rise. Yet medical supplies are late and inadequate.

RFE/RL correspondent Oleg Kusov reports that a federal investigation has uncovered embezzlement of humanitarian and financial aid to Ingushetia. Kusov:

"It turns out that medication, food, and money for building temporary homes is stolen even before it reaches the refugees. For example, representatives of the special presidential Control and Revision Commission say that embezzlement began already last October when the first refugees from Chechnya arrived. Of the 45 million rubles given to the Ingush Migration Service, 2.5 million was spent on so-called management costs, 1 million was given to a local bank to repay a loan. In addition to that, money disappears on the basis of false documents. "

Most civilians in Chechnya have come to realize that they cannot rely on aid and will have to provide their own food. But preparing crops for next fall's harvest is difficult, as 40 percent of Chechnya's farmland is poisoned by oil leaks, caused by poor local extraction methods and by Russian bombs.

And Kusov reports that Russian military authorities are placing limits on what crops can be planted. In some parts of Chechnya, civilians say they have been forbidden to grow corn and wheat because the tall plants could provide cover for the rebels.