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Chechen Refugees Fear Forced Return

Hundreds of thousands of Chechen refugees in Ingushetia are afraid that Russia may force them to return to their war-shattered republic.
By Timur Aliev

Ruman Shakhbulatova lives in miserable conditions in a former dairy farm just over the Chechen border. In a refugee camp in the village of Nasyur-Kort outside Nazran, the major town of Ingushetia, she shares a room with her four children and four of her husband’s relatives. The basic accommodation here for the refugees is converted cattle-pens and sheds.

But despite her living conditions, Ruman together with many other displaced Chechens are likely to rebuff attempts by the pro-Moscow authorities in both Ingushetia and Chechnya to persuade the refugees it is time return home.

Ruman said that her home, in the village of Alkham-Kala, and those of her relatives were destroyed in the fighting in Chechnya. The only place she can go to, if she is forced to leave the camp in Ingushetia, is a new “temporary settlement point” set up in the Chechen capital, Grozny.

“I have four children,” she said. “And I don’t want to see them going back to that chaos, shuddering at the slightest noise every night. I’m staying here until there’s real order in Chechnya and not just the order they talk about on television.”

The Russian government, assisted by the new Ingush leader Murat Zyazikov, adopted a plan for the return of refugees to Chechnya last month, which it insists will be on a voluntary basis.

The plan envisages that refugee camps in Ingushetia will be dismantled and the refugees themselves, after being registered and checked, will return to Chechnya and live in the temporary settlement points. This should take place before October this year.

The plan was approved at the end of May by top government officials dealing with Chechnya, Zyazikov and the pro-Moscow leader of Chechnya, Akhmad Kadyrov.

Ingushetia, a republic with close ethnic ties to Chechnya, has been home to hundreds of thousands of Chechen refugees, since the second Chechen war began at the end of 1999. They were welcomed by President Ruslan Aushev, who pursued an independent line from Moscow.

Officially there are now 148,600 Chechen refugees registered in 123 centres across Ingushetia. Human rights organisations estimate that there are about 50,000 more unregistered in the republic.

However, the situation has changed since Aushev stepped down as leader of Ingushetia earlier this year and replaced in April by Zyazikov, a former general from the counter-intelligence service, the FSB, who is much more loyal to Moscow.

Most people on the ground see the planned repatriation as a political project rather than a humanitarian one. “If the return of refugees works out, Moscow will finally be able to report to the world that it has completed its ‘anti-terrorist operation’ in Chechnya,” said Murat Nashkhoyev, a Chechen political scientist. “It is because civilians, who left their native republic in the autumn of 1999 when the fighting started, are unwilling to return home, that the war cannot be officially declared over.”

According to the official Chechen Refugees Committee, 40 families have recently returned from Bart camp and 18 from Alina. However, Baudi Dudayev, head of an independent Chechen human rights organisation, the Independent Consultative Council, says the authorities have deliberately inflated the number of returnees.

Dudayev said he was aware of only 102 refugees, who had gone back to Chechnya for good. “Almost half of the first group who left could not live in the accommodation that was provided for them, mostly because they were afraid or it was badly fitted out,” he said. “They had to return to Ingushetia and that is not being advertised.”

Most of the property that’s still standing in Chechnya lacks elementary amenities. Much of Grozny lacks gas, electricity and water. So far the Russian authorities are planning to create only eight temporary settlement points and additional ones able to house 10,000 returnees by the autumn. The poor accommodation in them is no incentive for Chechens to go back.

Above all, however, the refugees fear the continuing “mop-up” operations by Russian forces against Chechen villages, such as the recent 20-day sweep through Mesker-Yurt which left, 42 villagers dead and more than a hundred wounded, according to the human rights organisation Memorial

“A mother, son and daughter went home from Ingushetia, ran into a mop-up operation the next day in their home village of Dyshne-Vedeno and almost lost the boy,” Baudi Dudayev said. “He came back to Ingushetia with his family - he had a head wound and a broken arm from a beating by Russian soldiers while he was detention.”

Pressure on the refugees to return is beginning to grow. They report that since June 1, they have stopped receiving free bread (the Russian Migration Service says that this is because it owes 560 million roubles, or about 18 million US dollars, to the government), the rules of registration have been tightened up and they are even being asked to pay for it.

“Recently all the camp superintendents were called to a meeting by the interior ministry of Ingushetia,” said Baudi Dudayev. “The deputy interior minister Ziyauddin Kotiev and the police chief of Grozny told those present that everyone should leave Ingushetia and return to Chechnya by the autumn and that gas and light should be switched off in the camps.”

Top officials from the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, recently met officials in the North Caucasus to get their reassurances that refugees would not be forced to go back to Chechnya against their will.

“The Russian authorities on all levels assured UNHCR that only those willing to go back would be returned under the new scheme,” the agency’s spokesman Kris Janowski said on June 14, after the meeting. “UNHCR estimates that very few displaced Chechens are willing to go back at this stage. Indeed, there are still people fleeing Chechnya.”

Zyazikov repeated this message, saying on local television only that, “We will not prevent Chechen refugees from going home.” But the latter remain fearful and some even raise the spectre of the Stalin-era deportations of the entire Chechen and Ingush nations.

“We Chechens, together with the Ingush, already endured something similar in the winter of 1944, when the Soviet authorities deported us from our native lands to Kazakstan and Central Asia,” said Birlant Khajieva, a refugee from Grozny. “Today we do not want to experience a repetition of that, even if this time it is ‘back again’ to Chechnya.”

Timur Aliev is a freelance journalist, based in Nazran, Ingushetia.

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