Forgotten Refugees Are Living 'Like Bugs'

Chechens Feel They Are Being Squeezed Out of Nearby


By Peter Baker

Washington Post Foreign Service

Sunday, October 19, 2003; Page A18

SLEPTSOVSKAYA, Russia -- Tiny Azamat chose a

particularly wretched corner of the world for his

arrival. His mother lives in dingy clothes in a dingy

tent that has only three narrow metal bunks for the

eight people who call it home. His father disappeared

weeks after his birth, dragged away by cursing Russian

troops in a predawn raid.

"We're little people," said Muslim Chabkhanov, the

3-month-old infant's grandfather. "We live like bugs."

Walk down any of the rutted dirt paths of the Satsita

refugee camp, stop at any of the tents flapping in the

wind and someone will recount a similar story. They

are the refugees the world has largely forgotten. They

fled war in Chechnya to neighboring Ingushetia. Now,

they are no longer at the top of the agenda of

international relief organizations, overwhelmed with

places such as Afghanistan and Iraq. The Russian

government would just as soon the refugees go back to

Chechnya, pressuring them to decamp by periodically

cutting off the power or closing a tent city.

Yet as bad as things are here, tens of thousands of

homeless Chechens still figure it is better and safer

than returning to their shelled and lawless homeland.

Among those who remain, few here believe that the war

is over, even after last week's Kremlin-orchestrated

election ratifying its appointee, Akhmad Kadyrov, as

president of the Chechen republic.

"We don't want to go back to Chechnya," said Vera

Chabkhanova, 46, who rocks her grandson in a handmade

wooden cradle tied by string to a metal bunk. "I'm

afraid for my sons. One is 15 years old, almost grown

up now. I don't know what would happen to him."

The Satsita camp sits in an open expanse of muddy land

in the Ingushetia region near the Chechnya border. It

is a hodgepodge of tents, some fairly sturdy ones

provided by the office of the U.N. High Commissioner

for Refugees, others cobbled together by inventive

Chechens from whatever raw materials they could find.

Life, dreary and dreadful, continues despite it all,

with the first refugees having fled the renewal of war

in their homeland in 1999. For four years, people have

made do, waiting for the day they could return. Young

boys have grown taller, young women have gotten

married and babies such as Azamat have been born.

Human rights groups estimate that as many as 100,000

refugees remain in Ingushetia -- the government counts

half that many -- with most staying with local

families or in garages, abandoned buildings or other

crude housing. The tent cities have become such a sore

spot for authorities that they recently set up

checkpoints to keep out human rights workers and

journalists without official permission to enter,

although it is not hard to sneak into the camps by

other routes.

The first Russian campaign to close the camps ended

abruptly last year after an international outcry at

the heavy-handed tactics. This year, authorities have

tried a more subtle approach -- promises of cash

accompanied by quiet threats -- and the outside world

has not complained much.

"It's like a soft form of squeezing them out," said

Eliza Moussayeva, head of the local branch of

Memorial, Russia's most prominent human rights

organization. "They come to the tents and say, 'Get

out first because you'll have to go anyway.' "

Authorities finally closed the Bella camp two weeks

ago, driving out the last of the 1,000 people there

after weeks in which electricity and gas were

sporadically cut off. Altogether, authorities boast

that 1,200 refugees have left tent cities in

Ingushetia in the past two weeks to head home, leaving

7,900 in the camps and 46,000 elsewhere in Ingushetia.

But those leaving one refugee center often wind up in

another; nearly 25,000 Chechens returning home are now

living in two dozen temporary settlement camps in

Chechnya instead of Ingushetia.

Many of those who remain see no reason to follow that

path. Most of those forced out of Bella simply moved

to Satsita, according to refugees, and some of those

who do return to Chechnya wind up back in Ingushetia


"We didn't want to move," said Zarema Alsultanova, 45,

who was among the last to leave Bella and now lives in

Satsita. "We were forced to."

At one point, several refugees said, officials came to

Bella to intimidate them. "I know how to break you and

I will," they quoted one official as telling them.

They said another warned, "If you don't go of your own

free will, we'll bring tanks here and open fire on


 None of the threats, however, sounded worse than

Chechnya, where middle-of-the-night zachistki, or

mop-up operations, round up civilians as well as

rebels. "When people talk about Chechnya, they feel

panicky, scared," said Lorhen Gunter, 43, a Chechen

refugee of German heritage. "No one thought of going


The Chabkhanov family was in Satsita when the

newcomers arrived from Bella, just as they have been

since fleeing Chechnya in March 2000 after their home

in the capital, Grozny, was bombed and burned with all

their possessions. Muslim Chabkhanov, 47, used to be a

Chechen police captain, but now he scavenges to

provide for his family.

Over the years in Satsita, he has tried to improve

their living conditions, using scrap canvas, bamboo

sticks and pieces of wood to expand their

U.N.-provided tent. They have accumulated a

television, several lights that burn bare bulbs, a hot

plate, some stuffed animals and toys for the children.

They get a care package once every six months from the

Saudi Red Crescent Society, an Islamic relief agency,

that includes a few bars of soap, toothbrushes and

some detergent. Most nights they eat potatoes or

porridge. Just once a year do they get meat, also from

the Saudis in celebration of the end of the Muslim

holy month of Ramadan.

"It's field conditions," Chabkhanov said. "When it's

hot here, it's really hot. When it's cold, it's really


"It's not just physically hard," added his wife, Vera.

"It's mentally hard."

Even rare moments of joy seem to turn sour, sometimes

tragically so. Their daughter, Bella, got married a

few years ago to a young Chechen, Ramzan Nakayev. In

keeping with Chechen custom, Bella was "stolen" one

day while visiting Grozny by Nakayev and his friends,

who whisked her away for the beginning of wedding


The marriage led to the birth of a son, Adam, last

year and then a second, Azamat, on June 28. The proud

new parents took Azamat to show Nakayev's parents in

Grozny. They stayed in an empty apartment, but somehow

the Russians found out they were there.

"They came at four in the morning, pulled open the

door, came in and threw him on the floor," Bella, 23,

recalled about what happened to her husband. "They

didn't allow him to get dressed. They just put his

hands behind his back. They had me at gunpoint and

wouldn't let me leave."

That was July 16. Nakayev, 22, hasn't been seen since.

"I don't even know if he's alive or not," said Bella.

The family has been to authorities repeatedly without

success. Muslim Chabkhanov called on his old friends

in the Chechen police to help, but they told him they

could not find Nakayev and did not know who took him.

So Muslim Chabkhanov has decided enough is enough.

After nearly four years in the tents, he plans to sell

everything he has -- the television, the hot plate,

the tent itself. He will pack up his family and try to

take them away -- not to Chechnya but to Poland, he

hopes, or maybe Belgium or Norway, if any country will

let them in.

"I want to take my kids abroad. I need to take her

out," said Vera Chabkhanova, turning to Bella and

starting to weep silently. "She saw the men who took

away her husband. There's no guarantee that they're

going to let her live."

And then there are her own boys, the 15-year-old and

his 12-year-old brother. "I don't want my children to

be interested in war." 


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