Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

The Forgotten Refugees

Why the victims of North Ossetia's four-day war remain trapped in purgatory
By Erik Batuev

The 7,000 Ingush families marooned in Maiskoe's makeshift shanty-town have been living in limbo for the past eight years. They are the forgotten refugees of the North Caucasus wars, their plight overshadowed by the bitter deadlock in Chechnya and the sprawling refugee archipelago to the east. Hope -- like the other necessities of life - is in short supply.

The Ingush refugees are the victims of the four-day North Ossetian conflict which flared up in the autumn of 1992 and claimed an estimated 500 lives. The families were driven from their homes in the Prigorodny region by ethnic Ossetians who disputed a Moscow edict giving the Ingush the right to settle there.

Any refugees attempting to return to Prigorodny in recent years have been subjected to vicious attacks from local residents whilst the Kremlin has stubbornly refused to intercede. Consequently, they remain trapped in Maiskoe - the last Ingush enclave in North Ossetia - or just across the border in Ingushetia.

Their enforced exile is unthinkably bleak. Most of the refugees have made homes for themselves in abandoned railway carriages on the outskirts of the settlement. The electricity supply is irregular and gas is non-existent. Others live in a flimsy tent-town, huddled under dilapidated electricity pylons.

Starved of the media spotlight, the Ingush refugees receive nothing from the international aid organisations which distribute food and clothing amongst the 250,000 Chechen refugees currently living in Nazran.

Earlier this month, the Ingush president, Ruslan Aushev, asked the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, to introduce direct presidential rule in North Ossetia and enable the displaced Ingush to return to Prigorodny. Putin, however, has entrusted General Victor Kazantsev, the new governor of the Southern Federal Okrug, with the task of defusing the situation.

"Neither Ingushetia nor North Ossetia needs us," said one refugee.

Some of the Ingush families have attempted to return to their homes, even without guarantees of security. But buses have been mobbed by stone-throwing crowds and newly rebuilt homes have been burnt down or destroyed by bomb attacks.

The conflict between the Ossetians and their Ingush neighbours has its roots in recent history. In 1944, Ingush families living in the Prigorodny region were accused of collaborating with the Nazis and summarily deported to Kazakhstan.

The Ingush were rehabilitated by Nikita Khrushchev in 1957 and given permission to return to their homes. Forty per cent of Ingushetian territory was subsequently transferred to North Ossetia.

However, the Ossetian authorities in Vladikavkaz introduced a welter of red tape, preventing many Ingush from reclaiming their homes and it was not until the spring of 1992 that the Russian Duma passed a law guaranteeing the Ingush territorial rehabilitation.

However, fierce fighting broke out on the night of October 31, 1992, and a state of emergency existed in North Ossetia until February 1995. The combatants included volunteers from South Ossetia - then a mutinous republic of the new Georgian state - eager to fight alongside their ethnic kin.

According to some observers, Russia saw the war in North Ossetia as a convenient means of provoking armed conflict with neighbouring Chechnya. On the eve of the fighting, the then minister of emergency situations, Sergei Shoigu, handed over 57 armoured vehicles and 300 automatic rifles to the Ossetian forces. "To guard the water utilities and wells," Shoigu later explained to the Moscow Prosecutor's Office.

However, analysts have since speculated that Moscow expected the Chechen president to enter the war on the side of the Ingush fighters and give the Russians an excuse to invade a republic which was already displaying breakaway tendencies.

However, the Chechen leader took a neutral stance and consequently the fighting was short-lived. Over 35,000 Ingush residents were forced to leave their homes which were promptly occupied by South Ossetians. With South Ossetia itself in a state of conflict with Georgia, these settlers have shown few signs of wanting to leave.

Before the war, 28 North Ossetian settlements were inhabited by Ingush families but refugees have returned to just three - villages which have always had an exclusively Ingush population. Here, too, life is hard. The Ingush find it almost impossible to get jobs and are subjected to regular document checks at Ossetian police posts. Until recently, they were forced to seek medical aid across the border in Ingushetia as Ossetian hospitals refused to treat them.

And the unresolved conflict continues to poison the community at large. One Ingush resident told me the following anecdote to illustrate the impossibility of his existence.

An Ossetian family, the story went, discovered that one of their cows was missing and suspicion naturally fell on their Ingush neighbour.

In order to prove his innocence, the Ingush went in search of the cow and found her in a nearby wood, in the throes of giving birth. The man helped to deliver the calf and led both animals back to the Ossetian's farmstead.

The Ossetians took in the cow and her calf without a word of thanks, terrified that their neighbours had seen the Ingush entering their gates. Only later did the Ossetian farmer approach his neighbour's home, secretly through the kitchen garden, and offer him a basket of vegetables.

"They could kill me for this," he told the astonished Ingush. Such tales give a disturbing insight into apparently unbridgeable rift which has opened up between the two ethnic groups.

Erik Batuev is a regular contributor to IWPR