In The Borderlands Of Hell

Chechen refugees are trapped in limbo, unable to return to Grozny or leave the country while Russia and Ingushetia prevaricate on reopening the border.

In The Borderlands Of Hell

Chechen refugees are trapped in limbo, unable to return to Grozny or leave the country while Russia and Ingushetia prevaricate on reopening the border.

Friday, 29 October, 1999
The bonfires have been burning on the border between Chechnya and Ingushetia for days. Soldiers and refugees from the fighting on the road to Grozny stand around them warming their hands, waiting, waiting, then they are forced to sleep without cover in the open air.

Despite an earlier Russian promise to reopen checkpoints on October 29 and allow refugees to use four escape corridors to Dagestan, Ingushetia, North Ossetia and Stavropol, neither refugees nor border guards are going anywhere. Ingush officials blame the delay on problems they have had setting up computer facilities to check passports.

The new date refugees must now pin their hopes on is October 31. For the time being, however, the commander of Russian forces in the North Caucasus region, Vladimir Shamanov, has allowed a small number of refugees - elderly people and pregnant women - to cross into Ingushetia.

The soldiers try to sympathise with the inconsolable women who have been prevented from leaving Chechnya, but bar them from crossing the border. They also bar them from going back to their homes in the path of the Russian army's advance. The soldiers share their rations but that's all they can do. They have strict orders to stop the refugees where they are. All the people can do is wait.

Russian forces closed the Caucasian federal highway connecting Nazran and Grozny on October 23, sealing off the only route out. Tanks and armoured personnel carriers close the way, roads are blocked with logs and knots of troops.

On the other side of the line crowds of people and trucks have gathered. They can be seen but not reached and are assumed to be Chechens working abroad when the borders were shut. They are not going anywhere either. Just as no one from Chechnya has been allowed to cross northward, not one person has been allowed south from the Ingush side either.

It's widely assumed that a full-scale assault on Grozny will be underway soon. The view here seems to be that anyone - civilian or rebel - who is still in the city by then, can be discreetly assumed to be doomed.

This does not deter some. "The Boeviks (Chechen militants) killed my whole family, my son, sister and nephew," wept an elderly lady called Sonia. "I'm wounded. I would like to end my life where my family is buried," she wailed when asked why she now wants to go back to Grozny.

Another middle-aged Chechen woman tried to commit suicide by throwing herself under the wheels of an armoured car. "My daughter is still there," she sobs. "She's 12 and she's all alone. I won't live if something happens to her."

The helicopters thud overhead and explosions echo from over the hills in the direction of Bamut and Sernovodsk, 45 kilometres south west and west of Grozny respectively, in the direct line of the Russian forces.

"Why are we here, when they kill our children there?" cries the woman. Meanwhile the jam of traffic, of people desperate to leave Chechnya, keeps growing. "We never get any kind of aid," says young Malika from Urus-Martan.

She holds her 12-month-old baby son, Mansur, named for the famous Sheik Mansur, an eighteenth-century nationalist hero. He smiles readily, occasionally racking up a bronchial cough. "Blame it on dampness," says Malika. "We've been to the Red Cross and they prescribed something for him, but we can't afford it."

An older Chechen woman from Vedeno breaks in. "They gave us four pills, just four pills. Do you really think four pills make any difference?"

The refugees say they haven't received any humanitarian aid or shelter for two weeks. There is talk of putting them in disused railway carriages, but no mention of when that might be.

"Moscow and Grozny have the same goals, while we suffer," say the refugees. The detail of the conflict between President Boris Yeltsin's Russian government and the breakaway Chechen regime led by Aslan Mashkadhov's mixed brigades of Chechen irregulars is irrelevant. "I'm fed up with both Maskhadov and Yeltsin," says 34-year-old Heda from Akhchoy-Martan. "I'm fed up with everybody."

"I don't want my sons to fight," says a neighbour of Heda. "I don't want them to be captured by Russians or Wahabis [Islamic radicals]. Believe me, I know how they treat captives."

Many are shocked but not surprised by the Russian military's willingness to wage total war on the separatist forces without regard for the safety of civilians.

"Even the Germans used to allow women and children out," says Tamara, a survivor of the Nazi-Soviet battles in the Caucasus in 1941-45. "Even Fascist bastards used to let people out, can you imagine that? Our commanders are much worse, I'm sure". She too is trying and failing to get back to a daughter in Grozny.

"We don't support the Wahabis," says her friend, but the troops fight us, not them." She turned on one of the listening Russian soldiers around her. "You make enemies out of ordinary people. If something happens to my son, I'll pick up a machine gun myself!"

Maria Eismont is a Reuters correspondent covering the Caucasus.

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