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Harsh Welcome For Chechen Refugees

'Caucasus-1' is the sole checkpoint on the Chechen border and the traffic is increasing. The small neighbouring republic of Ingushetia is struggling to cope.
By Hussain Pliev

The number of Chechen refugees seeking shelter in Ingushetia is increasing daily, and has now surpassed 200,000, according to the official Ingush register.


The meagre facilities and supplies for the refugees are desperately inadequate, and with as many as 4,000 new refugees crossing the border daily, the situation is likely only to deteriorate.


'Caucasus-1' is the sole checkpoint allowing passage between the two territories-a slender and crowded humanitarian corridor through which to escape the war.


Representatives of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have called the refugee problem in Ingushetia severe and have called on Russia to simplify the procedures for those refugees in Ingushetia to travel on to other regions of Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Refused permission to leave Ingushetia, many refugees are trapped in the camps.


Some go in the other direction, with as many as 500 people returning each day to Chechnya to find lost relatives or take in much needed food. One woman by the checkpoint was the exception, continuing to live with her family in Chechnya, travelling occasionally to Ingushetia to buy food.


"It's better to live in Chechnya and put up with bombardments than live like a tramp in the refugee camps," she said.


Few of the Chechen refugees have taken this option, but many would agree that the circumstances for them in Ingushetia are harsh.


Approximately 180 tons of flour are needed each day to feed the refugees, creating an enormous strain in this small and developing republic. Russia is providing some aid, including 30-50 tons of food and 45 million roubles ($ 1,707,780) from the federal budget. But it is not enough.


Ingushetia's hospitals are struggling to cope with 500 patients with respiratory problems, 2,000 children with intestinal infections and 22 cases of tuberculosis. Every day, as many as 6 infants and 10 adults die, from a variety of diseases, wounds and hypothermia.


Many observers have coined the phrase "humanitarian catastrophe" to refer to the crisis, while Russian authorities prefer to talk of "a difficult situation". Either way as winter approaches the situation can only deteriorate.


Without the rapid deployment of a substantial international aid, Ingushetia has little hope of coping with such a large number of refugees in the longer term, and especially through the coming winter.


Ingushetia is home to 340,000 people. After the 1994-96 Chechen conflict, 20,000 Chechen refugees remained in the republic. This is in addition to the 19,000 displaced Ingush from the regions of Prigorodny and Vladikavkaz, in South Ossetia, who have still not returned home after fleeing the 1992 clashes known as the Ossetia-Ingush war. The republic is thus hosting a refugee population 70 per cent the size of its own population.


Despite the hardship, the people of Ingushetia have displayed a remarkable generosity towards the refugees, sharing their homes and meagre resources with the Chechens. Of the estimated 200,000 refugees, only 25,000 are living in official refugee camps or disused railway carriages.


The majority has been given shelter with Ingush families. Some Ingush politicians have opened their homes to as many as 20-30 people. One notable public figure, who received a "friendship medal" from Boris Yeltsin for sheltering the mothers of Russian soldiers, has welcomed 150 people into his home.


In a recent interview, Ruslan Aushev, the Ingush president, strongly criticised the Russian authorities for their conduct in Chechnya. "We have different values in life...


"My people went through the hell of deportation in this century," he said, referring to the Stalin-era trauma that affected many of the peoples in the region.


"So the exile of 10 people is regarded a tragedy. For the Russian authorities, even if it's 100,000 exiles, they regard this as merely a necessary result of the current situation."


Aushev also commended the Ingush people for offering a helping hand to the Chechen refugees. "When you don't know how to act," he said, "act with dignity."


Hussain Pliev is a journalist with Ingush TV in Nazran, Ingushetia.


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