When a Russian charity sent 200 Chechen children on holiday to Crimea, it found they were greeted with anti-Russian activism. RFE/RL correspondent Lily Hyde reports.
Yevpatoria, Ukraine; 26 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- "My name is Tamurlan, my native home is in Grozny. Now I live in Ingushetia because there's a war now in Grozny. It's great here, and beautiful, there's clear air. We walk, run, jump and enjoy ourselves. We go to discos and swim in the swimming pool. But most important, there's no war here, there are no bullets flying over our heads, and there are no shells exploding. I'd like to thank those people who helped us to come here, thank you."
The people Tamurlan was thanking were not Chechen allies -- they were Russians. Tamurlan is one of some 200 Chechen children who have escaped the dreary life in Ingush refugee camps to enjoy three weeks of holiday in the Crimean resort of Yevpatoria. The sponsor of the trip is the Moscow-Crimea fund, set up by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.
The Moscow government fund has been sending Russian children to Crimea for holidays and medical treatment since 1998. When it was approached by a Russian humanitarian organization that helps refugees in the Caucasus (the Foundation for Repressed Peoples), the Moscow fund decided to extend the program to Chechen children from refugee camps in Ingushetia.
But the first group to arrive in Crimea has attracted some unwelcome attention. The Moscow fund may not have expected its charitable act to stir up so much pro-Chechen sympathy.
When the children arrived in Crimea, they were met by the anti-Russian speeches of the League of Crimean Tatar Women. The Tatar women had also planned a cultural program that they wanted the children to participate in.
But the Moscow-Crimea fund rejected the program, saying the Tatars were exploiting the children for political ends.
Safinar Djemileva is the head of the Tatar women's league. She told RFE/RL that the league's actions were intended only to show friendship.
"We just decided to show our solidarity. It never occurred to us we wouldn't meet them, that they could come to us to Crimea and we wouldn't attend to them. Whatever we've done is seen as political. We come, we stay with the children and the authorities read that as political solidarity. What they're doing now, giving them a holiday, I don't personally accept it. All the same the children have to go back to those tents, to hunger and illness."
Many Crimean Tatars have offered to collect food and presents for the children, but they are unlikely to be allowed to show their goodwill.
The Moscow-Crimea foundation says the children are there for a holiday, and not for cultural exchange or political activism. Vasily Tkach, director of the spa (Prometheus) where the children are staying, says there was no such outpouring of gifts for other underprivileged Russian children who have been brought to his spa for vacation.
"It was not entirely a healthy interest, because for some reason no one came when we had children and grandchildren of [Soviet] repressed [people], which the fund also helps, or when we had children of police and armed forces victims. So we didn't take up any organization which approached us with proposals."
The 15 Chechen helpers who accompanied the children have tried to keep themselves and their charges aloof from the political currency being made out of their stay. Many of the 6- to 13-year-olds have lost one or both parents in the fighting. Most have no memory of a peaceful life that includes riding on trams and playing in parks.
Chechen helpers Elizaveta Akhilgova and Isira Gunashera said the children's parents felt no reluctance to accept Russian charity. (Akhilgova) "People are tired of having nothing to feed their children with. Tired of these conditions."
(Gunashera) "Many didn't even know where their children were going. They just put them in the train. It was just somewhere."
(Akhilgova) "Chechens don't occupy themselves with politics, just with survival. A non-political organization sent us here and we aren't politicians."
Further Moscow-Crimea fund trips for Chechen children may take place. Alexei Melnikov, the director of the fund's Crimea representation, said he expected no opposition from Moscow to further trips, despite the political maneuvering among the Crimean Tatars. And a Crimean government spokesman (Valery Putinev) told our correspondent that his government supports the program, pointing out that the Moscow mayor's generosity was paying to fill up the children's spa in the off-season.