Russia Says 'Return,' but Chechen Refugees Stay Put ; Refugees Are Fleeing Chechnya's Civil War in Rising Numbers

By Weir, Fred | The Christian Science Monitor, February 5, 2002 | Go to article overview

Russia Says 'Return,' but Chechen Refugees Stay Put ; Refugees Are Fleeing Chechnya's Civil War in Rising Numbers


Weir, Fred, The Christian Science Monitor


Larissa Dakayeva is a recent statistic in a forgotten crisis. Two months ago she fled to this squalid refugee camp from her home in Serzhen Yurt, in central Chechnya, seeking escape from the constant stress and hazards of a war the Kremlin has repeatedly declared finished.

She has found temporary refuge at the sprawling, muddy Yandare camp, just inside the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, where she now lives with her infant son, husband, and six other people in a cramped and leaky tent. She has yet to receive any food rations from Russian authorities, who seem loath to register her family as "displaced persons," but still she considers herself very lucky to be here.

"It's become too dangerous to stay in Chechnya," she says. "One day can be quiet, the next day shooting and shelling break out all around. The Russians are constantly making security sweeps, and taking away men. We just couldn't bear it any more."

Although the world's gaze has shifted to Afghanistan and other zones of human catastrophe, the plight of Chechnya's uprooted people has not eased. With a population of 300,000, the tiny, impoverished republic of Ingushetia is host to some 180,000 Chechen refugees, and aid workers say the numbers fleeing Chechnya have increased in recent months.

Tens of thousands are enduring their third winter in overcrowded, ill-provisioned tent camps in open fields, just a couple hours' drive from their ruined homes and villages. Uncounted thousands more are crammed into barns, warehouses, and deserted factory buildings, where unsanitary conditions, malnutrition, and psychological stress are often critical problems.

After 28 months of war, Russia claims the Chechen separatist rebels are all but destroyed, and that the devastated republic is starting to return to normalcy. Official statements paint a picture of local Chechen authorities retaking control, schools opening, infrastructure being restored, and communities becoming livable again. In recent months Moscow and its Chechen proxies have stepped up pressure on the refugees to return to their homes.

"The refugees have already been returning to their homes in great numbers," says a Kremlin information officer, who insisted on anonymity. "Conditions in Chechnya are gradually normalizing, although much more work needs to be done. Some of those displaced people staying in Ingushetia aren't returning because they are being misinformed by [rebel] agents about the situation in Chechnya. Also, there are many who enjoy living from aid handouts and don't want to give it up."

But international aid workers and Chechen refugees tell a very different tale, of deepening mayhem and growing insecurity in many parts of the war-torn republic. …

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