Guardian: Chechen villagers flee new bloodshed (N.P.Walsh)
- Chechen villagers flee new bloodshed
500 refugees cross the border in a month as Russia's repatriation
Nick Paton Walsh in Alina refugee camp, near Troitskaya
Saturday August 31, 2002
Hundreds of Chechens are fleeing an upsurge in violence in the republic
despite the deadline set by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, for
the repatriation of all refugees to Chechnya which expires tomorrow.
Aid groups estimate that 500 new refugees have crossed the Chechen
border since renewed fighting broke out in the region earlier this
month. The migration is a blow to the Kremlin, which is anxious to
declare the Chechen conflict over after facing international
condemnation for alleged atrocities committed by Russian troops.
It also comes amid intensified international efforts to force a
settlement. On Tuesday high-ranking officials from the United Nations
and European Union will meet to discuss how Russia can be persuaded to
reach a political solution, perhaps through offers of aid.
"The thinking is that if Russia wants a seat at the G8 and a greater
role internationally, then it will have to start treating the Chechens
properly," a senior source said.
Yet this would mean Mr Putin accepting that the Chechen rebels are a
political entity, and not just "terrorists", which would outrage
Instead, the Kremlin has adopted a cosmetic solution. Mr Putin declared
the military phase of operations in Chechnya over in April. By June, the
situation in the republic was considered safe enough for Russian
officials to formulate a 20-point plan for repatriation.
The return was supposed to be voluntary and, paradoxically, universal.
Yet in the fortnight prior to tomorrow's deadline, clashes between
rebels and Russian troops have led to the bombing of villages and a new
influx of refugees.
"Some of these people have stuck it out for years, but are leaving now,"
one aid worker says. "That's how bad it is".
Zelemkhan Bisultana, 19, lived with his mother in Geki Chu, a village in
the foothills near Grozny, until Chechen rebels drove in and declared
the village their new base. He knew Russian bombs could not be far
He and his mother cannot be officially registered as refugees because,
according to the Kremlin, there is no reason for them to flee. He now
lives in a tent at the Alina refugee camp near the Ingushetian town of
Troitskaya, less than a mile from the Chechen border. "It was an easy
decision to come here," he says. "Life in Geki Chu had never been more
While the Bisultana family left on August 16, immediately after the
rebels arrived, Toma Khanistanova, 42, was more optimistic. Then Russian
helicopters bombed the woods nearby and the village itself, killing at
least one person.
Three days later, she and her family fled their home, which by then was
an empty frame with its doors, windows and roof torn off. "My uncle had
a small, old car, a Moskvich, into which we packed my ill mother and the
kids; nine people in total", she says. "The rest hitchhiked and or
walked seven kilometres on foot".
Geki Chu has seen horrors before. Ms Khanistanova describes how up to
four times a month men in masks would come to collect young men from the
village. They were Russian soldiers hunting for "potential terrorists".
On one sweep they took her brother. On another, a young man was taken
away because he had a scar on his chest from an operation. The masked
men said the "war wound" was proof he was a fighter.
"They just disappear. We ask where they are, but hear nothing," she
says. As both sides are equally brutal, there is little to distinguish
between them. "Russians and the Chechens - they are the same."
Meanwhile, life for refugees worsens. Sources say that, officially, the
Russian authorities stick by tomorrow's deadline for repatriation, but
unofficially they accept it is impractical. Only one of the refugee
camps - Znamenskoe in the north-west of Chechnya - has closed, amid
accusations of coercion by Russian forces.
Their hope now is to move refugees from the tent camps, which are highly
visible signs that the war is not over, into rundown buildings nearby.
The tent camps are formed by rows of rotting canvas. Yet many believe
that the buildings proposed as the new destination for the refugees are
even more dilapidated and unsuitable.
But at least they are a sanctuary from the nightmare of life in
Chechnya. Memorial, the human rights group, has collected various
compelling testimonies about Russian atrocities, which they believe
amount to genocide. In the past three years, 650 families have turned to
the group to find relatives after months of searching. The group thinks
that this may represent only a tenth of the total number of people who
Emilia Kusaeva, 43, left Grozny in 1998 for a refugee camp in Nazran but
her husband continued to work for Grozny's main energy company. On
August 13, he was on a bus which hit a mine between two Russian
checkpoints in Grozny. The bus came under fire as it burned. Her husband
"If Putin says it is all calm in Chechnya," she says, "then let him be
the first to go and live there."