Members of the Chechen community in Ukraine met this week with sympathizers throughout the country to observe the separatist republic's declared day of independence. RFE/RL's Lily Hyde attended one of the gatherings.
Cherkassy, Ukraine; 8 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The meeting around a table cluttered with lemonade bottles and food plates was rowdy.
A young Chechen warrior wanted to boast about his fighting exploits in Chechnya. A Ukrainian from Crimea pledged his undying respect for the Chechens, while a Ukrainian nationalist took issue with the Crimean's use of Russian. At the head of the table, an aged delegation of war veterans recalled the forced evacuation of Chechens from their republic in the Stalinist years. And from the next room, the plaintive sound of the Muslim call to prayer was heard.
This group of about 25 had been brought together under the auspices of the Muslim community in the town of Cherkassy, south of Kyiv. The group unites about 3,000 Muslims in the region, mostly Tatars, Azerbaijanis, or natives of Central Asian states. A network of such organizations across Ukraine represents 2 million Muslims. On Wednesday (Sept 6), they gathered at the behest of their newest members, Chechens, to mark the Chechen day of independence -- declared in 1991, but still far from being a political reality.
Estimates of the number of Chechens in Ukraine vary from 2,000 to 5,000. Official statistics don't exist, since only a small fraction of the Chechens are registered and have received formal refugee status. Refugees have had a hard time getting the Ukrainian government to recognize them.
Rakhman Khamtsuyev, a Chechen whose wife is Russian, arrived in Cherkassy with his family and his brother's all-Chechen family. The brother's family did not receive permission to stay and had to return to their home town just outside the capital Grozny. According to Mamed Khatayev, a Chechen who heads the Cherkassy Muslim community, this is the usual Ukrainian procedure with all-Chechen families, who are given no chance to live legally in Ukraine by the authorities.
"They come and go, but no one registers you. [The authorities] can, they say they will, but it's only on paper. They appear on TV and say we have a good attitude to these people, we accept them -- but its all on paper and on TV. In fact, there's an unofficial order that no Chechens are registered for any price, they are sent out of Ukraine."
The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Ukraine acknowledges that an "unwritten rule" does indeed prevent local immigration services from accepting many refugees from Russian republics like Chechnya. The official reason given is that such refugees are still Russian citizens and therefore from a country which respects human rights.
Nevertheless, Khamtsuyev is grateful to Ukraine, where he says the media offers a more balanced picture of events in Chechnya that their Russian counterparts. Ukrainian authorities have also allowed Chechen information centers to operate, despite the objections of the Russian government. Most important, Khamtsuyev has been able to escape the horrors of life just outside Grozny.
"We are familiar with the horrors of war. We've seen dozens of people torn to pieces before our eyes -- it's the worst anyone can live through. That was the first [Chechen] war. And in this [current] war they broke all the windows and doors with aircraft flying fast and low on purpose to terrify people and break all the windows and doors with the turbulence. When everything was broken, we fled last October 2. It's hard with small children to run to the cellar and hide from the bombs. They shut off the light, the gas, the water."
Chechens in the Ukraine are linked by unofficial or social organizations, like the Muslim communities, where they have found a welcome and some support. But the Cherkassy community can't do much for the seven Chechen families who have moved into the town. The community rents only two rooms in an apartment, one of which it uses as a mosque, the other a study room for Arabic and religion classes and social gatherings like Wednesday's independence celebration.
Khatayev insists the group is purely a spiritual and social movement.
"We aren't a political organization and we don't engage in politics. We've gathered today not because it's nine years since the proclamation of the [independent] Chechen republic, but because people are dying there and we, as a religious organization, are opposed to any war."
Still, because they oppose the war and believe that Chechnya has a right to independence, the Chechen participants in Wednesday's gathering couldn't avoid politics. The meeting was attended by leaders of the Chechen diaspora in Crimea, who cooperate with the Crimean Tatar political organization -- known as the Mejlis -- to find Chechen families accommodation and support, and also stay in touch with Chechen information centers around the country.
Not everyone at the gathering was from a Muslim background. Some ethnic Ukrainians also support the Chechen cause, from nationalists -- who see it as another opportunity to oppose what they consider Russian imperialism -- to women who have married Chechen men. Yuri Lepechin is from Crimea, but grew up in Grozny and is now actively helping the Crimean diaspora organize. He told RFE/RL:
"Our goal is to found a diaspora and, with its help, send the children and old people in Crimea for health treatment. Through the diaspora, we are also organizing the education of a cadre of Chechens. We're preparing Chechnya here for freedom -- I would say, free Ukraine is preparing Chechnya for freedom."
Lepechin says the Chechen cadre being prepared in Ukraine will be more "objective, not so beaten down, so aggrieved" as those that manage to leave the breakaway republic. Those who have escaped from Chechnya, he says, "are too angry and short-tempered."