North Ossetia: Refugee Resettlement Furore

Ingush displaced by conflict a decade ago remain marooned in an unrecognised refugee camp, as disputes hamper resettlement process.

North Ossetia: Refugee Resettlement Furore

Ingush displaced by conflict a decade ago remain marooned in an unrecognised refugee camp, as disputes hamper resettlement process.

Eleven years after a brief but bloody conflict between North Ossetia and Ingushetia, hundreds of people are still stuck in temporary camps on the border between the two north Caucasus republics.

The Ossetian government has offered to rehouse the displaced Ingush – but not necessarily in their home areas. This angers Ingush activists, who do not want to see their ethnic kin resettled anywhere but their original places of residence.

In 1994, ethnic Ingush displaced from their homes in North Ossetia by clashes two years earlier set up an impromptu encampment outside the village of Maisky, still inside the republic but close to the border with Ingushetia. The settlement remains technically illegal, and has no formal status as a camp for forced migrants.

“Even children know they have no right to live here,” said Suleiman Katsiev, a lawyer with the Memorial human rights group in Ingushetia. “They also know that their troubles will never end until the settlement is granted official status.”

“These people have been disowned by both North Ossetia and Ingushetia,” said Vitaly Smirnov, who handles Ossetian-Ingush post-conflict issues at the Russian presidential envoy’s office. “Ossetia is in no hurry to seek official recognition for the settlement from the [Russian] federal government, while Ingushetia wants the ‘Ossetian’ Ingush to go back to their former residences.”

Ingush and North Ossetian forces went to war in 1992 in a dispute over the Prigorodny district, most of which used to be part of Ingushetia. The land was transferred to North Ossetia when Stalin had the entire Chechen and Ingush nations deported in 1994, effacing all trace of the Chechen-Ingush republic. His successor Nikita Khruschev reinstated the republic – but North Ossetia kept the Prigorodny lands.

The Chechen and Ingush set up separate republics within Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Ingushetian claims to Prigorodny mounted. But by now there were many Ossetians living alongside the local Ingush.

Conflict broke out at the end of October 1992, and in a battle lasting just five days, hundreds of people – mainly civilians – died and thousands of homes were burnt to the ground. According to different estimates, between 30,000 and 60,000 Ingush and some 5,000 Ossetians became forced migrants. The fighting ended when Russian troops were deployed in the region.

Many displaced Ingush have lived in the shantytown near Maisky for nine years. They are unable to return to their devastated homes or resettle anywhere else. The settlement consists of some 250 families living in 150 railway cars clustered between a road and a railway. Another 1,300 people have found shelter with relatives, or are renting rooms in Maisky.

Maisky, whose residents are nearly all Ingush, managed to escape the violence that affected other parts of Prigorodny district. After the conflict, it was left de facto beyond the control of the Ossetian authorities. According to Smirnov, “North Ossetia lost control of the village after the conflict for a long period. Ossetian social workers and police alike were afraid to come here.”

As a result, the village played host to the displaced people – much to the annoyance of North Ossetian government, which blames neighbouring Ingushetia for encouraging the impromptu refugee camp.

“The authorities in Ingushetia made the people come to Maysky and establish the settlement without our knowledge,” said Sergei Tabolov, North Ossetia’s minister for ethnic affairs and external relations.

“They made these people settle in our territory, encouraging them to build this makeshift refugee camp. Not wishing to aggravate the conflict, North Ossetia allowed this to happen, but now we are facing a lot of problems stemming from the unofficial nature of the camp.”

One of these problems is that local people have thrown power lines and gas pipes from Maisky to the camp. There are no meters, and the refugees would not be able to pay anyway, and residents of the village have stopped paying as well. The North Ossetian electricity company says the village and the camp owe it 330,000 US dollars, and periodically cuts off the supply to both. The gas supplier is threatening to cut supplies as well.

“Last time the electricity stayed off for about a month,” said Katsiev. “Only when the refugees threatened to block the federal Caucasian highway and wrote to the presidents of Russia and North Ossetia… did the authorities agree to sit down and talk, and eventually resumed the power supply to the camp. But the electricity can go off at any time, since the problem has not been solved.”

Smirnov said the Russian presidential envoy in the region had paid for the power lines to the village and the camp to be separated so that the debt could be assessed more easily, “We have also spent a lot of money rehabilitating power networks in Prigorodny district, so we’ve asked the North Ossetian power company to offset the camp and village debt against this investment. But they have only agreed to write off less than a million roubles [33,000 dollars].”

The North Ossetian government does not want to see the settlement growing into a permanent site, and takes the view that residents should be rehoused in other parts of Prigorodny.

One hundred and fifty families have moved out of the camp since 1997, but the resettlement process has been far from smooth because of distrust between the Ossetian and Ingush communities. In spring this year, there were cases where convoys of Ingush vehicles returning to their former villages were stopped by crowds of Ossetians throwing stones. Sometimes the Ingush try to negotiate their return in advance, but talks often fail.

On other occasions the authorities rule that return is not an option, and offer unoccupied plots of land so that the Ingush can build new homes. But a recent attempt to relocate 91 families who took up the offer failed earlier this month. An official report by the Russian envoy’s office said that unidentified people blocked the authorities’ attempts to transport the families’ railway cars to be used as a temporary home at the new site.

Smirnov explained that the problem was that many of the refugees come originally from villages close to the Ossetian capital Vladikavkaz, but Ossetian government policy is to resettle them in other parts of Prigorodny. The policy is condemned by some Ingush groups who see it as an Ossetian attempt to consolidate political control over lands that were historically theirs. “In a bid to preserve them [these lands], those forces are pushing for the return of former Ingush residents to those villages,” said Smirnov.

Meanwhile, the people at the Maisky camp – caught between the differing agendas of Ingush interest groups and the North Ossetian government – continue to live in dire conditions. “Our suffering is beyond description,” said Patimat Khamkhoeva, who has been in the camp since it was founded. “When the power is out, there is no water either. In summer and in winter we have to haul water in buckets from a neighbouring village five kilometres away.”

Vsevolod Ryazanov is a senior research associate at the North Ossetian Institute of Humanities and Social Studies in Vladikavkaz.

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