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Azerbaijan: Chechen Refugees Fear A Backlash

Across the former Soviet Union, Chechens say they fear a backlash after Chechen fighters took some 800 people hostage in a Moscow theater from 23 to 26 October. Authorities in Azerbaijan, where as many as 10,000 refugees from Chechnya are living, have already closed down the separatist Chechen government's mission and a school.

Baku, 5 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In a dusty, dimly lit basement on the outskirts of Baku, around 70 children are singing songs, drawing pictures, and learning the alphabet.

It could be any other primary school in Azerbaijan, except that these children are Chechen refugees. Taus Taramova set up the school three years ago when she fled to Baku from the bombed-out Chechen capital, Grozny. "These children aren't allowed to go to Azerbaijani schools. When they arrived, some of them couldn't walk properly or speak properly. But little by little they have learned to walk, to talk. They've begun to understand that there are decent places in the world, that you can draw pictures using bright colors. When they first arrived, they would only draw with black crayons," Taramova said.

The hostage crisis in a Moscow theater -- which ended with some 120 hostages losing their lives after the building was stormed by Russian special forces, and has since prompted Russian forces to step up their three-year-old military campaign in Chechnya -- has left an already marginalized Chechen community in Azerbaijan fearing for the future.

The Azerbaijani authorities have shut down the separatist Chechen government's office in Baku, as well as a school for Chechen children.

The government has refused to comment on the closures, but Mairbek Taramov, the director of the Chechen Human Rights Center in Baku, said authorities were simply acting to accommodate the Russians. "The reason Azerbaijani authorities closed down our representative office was to [please] Russia. Azerbaijan has been under great pressure from Russia to close down Chechen organizations and force refugees back into Chechnya. I don't think it's acceptable that the president of Azerbaijan is getting involved in this situation," Taramov said.

There has been some speculation in the media here that authorities have come down hard on the Chechen community to cover their embarrassment at the role that Ali Asaev, Chechnya's separatist-government envoy to Baku, played in the hostage crisis.

Asaev spent many hours on the telephone negotiating with the hostage takers, persuading them to release four Azerbaijani nationals held captive in the theater. It's believed he was one of the last people to speak to the chief hostage taker, Movsar Baraev, before Russian special forces stormed the building.

Arzu Abdullaeva, the director of the Helsinki Citizens' Assembly, a human rights group, said she is extremely concerned about the safety of Chechens living in Azerbaijan. "What happened in Moscow has had a serious effect on Chechens, particularly in former Soviet republics like this, where Russian influence is still very strong. But the people here are not warlords. They are ordinary people who left Chechnya because they feared for the lives of their children," Abdullaeva said.

At Baku's Hospital No. 8, Chechen refugees are lining up to get free consultations and medicine. In October alone, about 2,500 adults and 1,500 children passed through its doors.

Malik Dadaev left Chechnya a year ago. He's been coming to the clinic every week to treat a shrapnel wound on his leg. He said he is angry about the recent theater siege in Moscow. "If it had been me, I would never have done that. Because now my life has got much worse. Everyone looks at me differently. You, them, everyone. Around the world Chechens are being subjected to this. It's going to be very bad for everyone," Dadaev said.

But Zara Chagaeva, who is here with her sick mother, said the hostage takers in Moscow were brave to do what they did. "They were trying to defend their homeland, trying to get the Russian troops to leave. There's genocide going on in Chechnya. They kill women and children. They round up innocent people. Those Chechens might have done the right thing, they might not have -- I just don't know. They were only asking for freedom," Chagaeva said.

In this spirit, children sing: "We shall all be free/We shall all be free/We shall all be free some day."

Back at the nursery, the children have learned a new song in English: "We Shall Overcome," the 19th-century spiritual commonly associated with U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King.

Taramova said she was shocked to learn that the Azerbaijani government had closed down the Chechen envoy's office and a refugee school. "Yes, it's hurtful that our representative here asked the hostage takers to release the Azerbaijanis in the theater because he respects the Azerbaijani people, and then they go and close down our mission here. But I remain hopeful that we can find a peaceful solution to the conflict. For the sake of these children, please let this terrible war be over soon," Taramova said.

Across Azerbaijan, most Chechens are hoping the same. But as Russian troops broaden their operations across the breakaway republic, a resolution to the conflict does not appear likely any time soon.