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Chechen Refugees Fear Eviction

People displaced by Chechnya’s conflicts face being moved on yet again as officials hurry to close refugee centres.
By Laila Baisultanova
For the last three years, 72-year-old Khava Bumbarova has lived in one room in a temporary accommodation centre in the Chechen capital Grozny.

“I live in a room three metres by four,” said the old woman, smiling faintly. “You can only fit two beds in, as you can see, and a bowl for washing.”

Bumbarova’s room has only the barest furnishings - two iron beds with identical Red Cross blankets, a small table and some makeshift shelves - and lacks basic washing and toilet facilities.

Now, Bumbarova faces losing this temporary refuge in Grozny’s Koltsov Street. The internally displaced persons, IDPs, who live there have been told to move out by July 1 because the building is being returned to its original owner, a children’s clinic. As a result, many will be left with nowhere to live.

Chechnya’s pro-Moscow government has embarked on a determined drive to close down the temporary centres that house 37,000 out of about 60,000 people displaced by years of conflict. Of about 50 centres across Chechnya, five have been closed in the towns of Argun and Gudermes in the last three months, and the authorities plan to shut three more in Grozny before July.

Bumbarova’s story illustrates the hardships the displaced people have faced even to get where they are now.

Her house was destroyed in the second Chechen war that began in 1999, and she fled to neighbouring Ingushetia, where she was housed in a refugee camp. She recalls that time vividly, “I constantly think about the life I led in that camp. There were four families to one tent. The walls were just partitions made out of grey blankets from the Red Cross. It was hot in summer and cold in winter.”

In 2003, when displaced Chechens were urged to return home, Bumbarova was one of the first to agree to leave, and was given accommodation with 11 other family members at the Koltsov Street centre.

She wrote to the then Chechen president, Akhmat Khadji Kadyrov, asking for a wooden prefab home, but her appeal came to nothing. When she went to see government officials, they said a hut would cost her 30,000 US dollars.

Now the authorities are offering Bumbarova, at least a place in another IDP centre. But she says she is too tired to move yet again, and just wants her “own small corner” where she can live out her days.

“The state isn’t doing its duty,” she complained. “No one has received a single piece of land for the last three years. They should have given a plot to everyone who needed one. Then people would have left of their own accord – no one’s living here because they want to.

“I don’t have anywhere to live today. I’m old and I can’t keep moving from place to place.”

There are 807 people registered as IDPs at the Koltsova Street centre, which the Russian government rented from the Chechen health ministry.

“No one lives here of their own free will, particularly in these conditions with no drains or washing facilities,” said the centre’s manager Roza Gazieva. “The only assistance we get is from the [Russian] Federal Migration Service, and from UNICEF, which brings us free water.”

She said the health ministry to review its demand for the building to be returned to it, saying, “You can’t look on other people’s misfortunes with such cold detachment…. They should realise that the people living here have nowhere to go. They should wait until everyone has been housed.”

The centre’s registrar Sanata Tsikhesashvili is a recent returnee herself, who came from Georgia after hearing promises of help with resettlement.

“They should stop playing around with people like this,” she said. “When we were called home to Chechnya, we were promised help. They said no one would drive us out until we got a flat.

“In a month from now, I could be left with no roof over my head. And I can’t live in a temporary centre any longer.”

The planned closure seems to have less to do with the clinic’s desire to get its building back than with a wider campaign sparked by remarks by Chechen prime minister Ramzan Kadyrov, the late president’s son.

In April, he described IDP centres as “dens of crime, drugs and prostitution” which needed to be shut down as quickly as possible.

Local officials then started acting on Kadyrov’s comments. Khoj-Baudi Estamirov, the local government chief for Grozny’s Staropromyslovsky district which includes Koltsov Street, announced that all IDP centres in the area must be returned to their original owners.

A police raid on the Koltsov Street centre later in April resulted in two women being arrested on suspicion of possessing marijuana.

Shirvani Gunayev, a Chechen government official working on refugee affairs, gave an assurance that IDPs in the Staropromyslovsky district would be re-housed in hostels or other refugee centres.

However, the ultimate goal, he said, was to get local government officials all across Chechnya to make it possible for IDPs to return to their place of origin. Gunayev did not elaborate on what concrete actions local government must take to “create the conditions” under which people could go home.

Shamil Tangiev, who heads the Grozny office of Memorial, a major Russian human rights group, said the IDP centre closures were a public relations exercise by which the Chechen administration hoped to tell the world that everything was back to normal – regardless of the real and continuing needs of refugees.

“Apparently the authorities have decided there shouldn’t be any IDPs in Chechnya any more,” he said.

Tangiev believes the authorities would also be happy to see the back of international aid agencies which assist the refugees, and “abolishing” the IDPS would achieve just that.

Alaudin Khisimikov, who is deputy head of the Russian interior ministry’s Federal Migration Service, and responsible for Chechnya, warned that the Chechen authorities must obey Russian legislation covering IDP rights. “Under the law on forced migrants, such people cannot be moved out of temporary accommodation without being given a roof over their head,” he said.

Bumbarova is now placing her hopes in Prime Minister Kadyrov, who she believes will find out what is going on and then “help the poor, while the rich go and live in their own houses”.

Laila Baisultanova is a correspondent with Chechenskoe Obshchestvo newspaper in Chechnya.

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