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Chechen Refugees Facing Different Fear

Published: January 31, 2003 (Issue # 839)



  • Chechen refugees in Ingushetia say that they are being put under pressure to return to the still war-torn republic.
    Photo: Sergey Grachev / The St. Petersburg Times

SLEPTSOVSKAYA, Ingushetia - A year after fleeing Chechnya to get away from marauding men with guns, Khava Saltamatova now fears different men - the ones who come to her tent in a refugee camp with promises of help.

"They come from door to door and say, 'We already have trucks to take you back whenever you're ready,'" Saltamatova said. "They say there are new apartments waiting for us in Chechnya."

And the men, whom she refers to only as "they," say something else that sounds both generous and ominous "There will be assistance for 2,000 of us." About 4,000 people live in her camp, and the implication is that those who wait too long will be left with nothing.

Promises that sound like threats are the latest phase in Russia's efforts to get refugees in Ingushetia to go home, even as the fighting in Chechnya continues.

More than 100,000 refugees are estimated to be in Ingushetia - the equivalent of about 25 percent of the republic's native population - and their massive presence and sprawling tent camps are a visible reminder of Russia's failure to end the war in Chechnya.

Last year, officials closed down one camp and refugees said soldiers fired volleys outside another.

Apparently stung by criticism, Russia has backed off from such methods, and has promised no one will be forced back to Chechnya, say refugees and human-rights officials. But Russian and Ingush authorities have not disavowed a statement last year that the camps will be closed, and the Kremlin is clearly eager to have as many as possible back by March 23, the date for a constitutional referendum portrayed as a major step toward restoring order and undermining the Chechen rebels.

"Now, the government is being more sophisticated, more professional," said Aslanbek Dakhkilgov, an official of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Ingushetia who monitors conditions in the camp.

Some of the men making the promises that Saltamatova and other refugees worry about emphasize professionalism, making their pitch sound like a job recruiter urging someone up the career ladder, a potentially powerful inducement for a man crushed by the endless tedium of refugee life.

"We tell them that job placement is guaranteed," said Vakha Naliyev of the Ingush Migration Service, who works in a camp just up the road from Sputnik. "There are no kind of threats ... We propose that they return."

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ALL ABOUT TOWN

Friday, Aug. 29


Park Pobedy will feature the sights and sounds of the world outside of Russia during the Open Art International Festival today. Taste foreign cuisine, learn how to make tea like the Chinese or relax in a hammock during the free event. Although entrance is free, you must register beforehand if you wish to attend.



Saturday, Aug. 30


Break out the tweed and channel your inner Englishman during the English Hunt Picnic this afternoon organized by the Bagmut stables from Krasny Bor in the Leningrad Oblast. Equestrian stunts, English archery and classic hunting fashion will all be available to visitors hoping to live like the characters in “Downton Abbey” if only for a day. Tickets for the event cost 7,900 rubles ($219.40).


Bookworms will have their chance to swap out well-read classics for something new for their bookshelves at Knigovorot, a free book exchange that will be held in the Yusupov Garden on Sadovaya Ulitsa today. Come for the chance to get a new book or take the opportunity to discuss the literary merits of your favorite authors with fellow fans.



Sunday, Aug. 31


The Neva Delta International Blues Festival wraps up this afternoon on Vasilevsky Island with a concert featuring not only some of Russia’s best blues bands but international stars as well. Admission is free for all three days of the festival, which begins on Aug. 29, and the shows starting at 5 p.m. each day.



Monday, Sept. 1


Today marks the beginning of Lermontov-Fest, a fall festival celebrating the life of one of Russia’s most remarkable poets who, in a fate eerily similar to Pushkin’s, was killed in a duel at the age of 26. Organized by the Lermontov Library System, the next several months will see art exhibitions, concerts and public lectures focusing on the Lermontov’s short yet prolific career. Check the Lermontov Library System’s website for more details.



Tuesday, Sept. 2


Join expats and practice your Russian during the Russian Club’s weekly meetings every Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. The club is free to participate in although you need to be a registered member of Couchsurfing.



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