Ingushetia, the last refuge from the scourge of war

Chechen family terrorized

Refugees displaced inside Chechnya or in neighbouring Ingushetia often have to cope with physical threats. Elina Charlaev is 28. She was living with her two little girls Riana (1 month) and Irna (7) in a tent with her husband Aslan (27) in the Spoutnik camp. On 6 January 2003, Russian soldiers came to take Aslan. Elina wanted to stop them. An officer threatened her, as he grabbed the infant's head "Let go of your husband or I'll rip the baby's head off", he shouted before he dragged the young man away. Aslan was released on 13 January with broken ribs and a damaged kidney. Since then, he left, for fear of being arrested again.

The image of the country is one of refugee camps, ragged tents, hard winters and children playing in the mud. The reputation that sticks to Ingushetia, located on the border of Georgia and the autonomous republics of North Ossetia and Chechnya, is synonymous with a humanitarian disaster.

The number of refugees, that had reached a million persons in the 1990s, has dwindled over the years, but the temporary camps are still there. Reminiscent of a kind of final and desperate last refuge. And the energy Moscow is exerting to set up a semblance of democracy in Chechnya is not stopping the gap.

Ingushetia is down in the dumps. The economic situation is disastrous, unemployment is high and kidnapping has become almost a way of life, or at least a popular source of income not targeting exclusively foreigners. On July 4 a local correspondent of Agence France Presse, Ali Astamirov, was abducted by a group of three armed men who apparently left towards Chechnya. Since that time, there has been no news from his kidnappers.

The case was considered sufficiently serious for the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dominique de Villepin, to mention it a few days later to his Russian colleague Igor Ivanov. Ali Astamirov is a Chechen national who used to work for the television in Grozny.

As geopolitics would have it, Ingushetia shares a border with Chechnya, Putin's nightmare. But Ingushetia and Chechnya have other things in common - starting with hatred for Russians whose Western ways are literally repulsive to young Muslims. This hatred culminates in the creed of blood that underlies the merciless war their Chechen cousins wage on Moscow where a large-scale suicide attack took the lives of 129 persons in Doubrovka theatre in October 2002.

So there is nothing surprising about finding a Putin man, former FSB (ex-KGB), General Mourad Ziazikov, at the head of the tiny autonomous republic. At the presidential elections in 2002, his opponents referred to him as the "representative of the NRVD", the body that organized collective deportations of Ingushetians ordered by Stalin in 1944 to punish them for collaborating with Nazi Germany. 30 to 40% of the 135,000 deported Ingushetians died.

The Ingushetia-Chechnya Republic was taken off the map and the Ossetian enemy, loyal supporters of the "Little Father of the People" moved into the empty houses, adding to the hatred that brought the two communities back on the path to civil war in 1992. The war that broke out in Chechnya in 1994 and again in 1999, and its effects on neighbouring Ingushetia have completed the devastation of the region.

Marc Joolen is the operational coordinator at Médecins Sans Frontières, the non-governmental organization for which he covers Caucasus.

"The situation is bad in Ingushetia," he explains, "70,000 Chechen refugees are still there. And you need to add those who were forced to return to Chechnya but whose houses had been destroyed. Since they have become refugees in their own country, they must choose between living under atrocious conditions or coming back to Ingushetia. Where the situation is getting more difficult."

Ingushetia

  • Capital: Magas since November 1998
  • Area: 3600 m_ (9 times smaller than Belgium)
  • Type of State: Autonomous Republic in the Russian Federation
  • Type of Government: The latest vote elected the FSB (ex-KGB) general Mourad Zielzlkov with "support of the Kremlin".
  • Population: 488,000
  • Context: The youngest, smallest and one of the poorest of the autonomous republics in the Russian Federation has never got its essentially agricultural-based economy off the ground. Exploitation of oil, the country's only resource, has remained in the hands of the government. On two occasions, Ingushetia has become a miserable asylum for refugees: the first wave belonged to the Ingushetian minority in Ossetia, exiled since the war in 1992, the second came with the first war in Chechnya in 1994.

The Ingushetian authorities as well as the federal immigration services are applying pressure to have the camps closed - gas cuts, administrative red tape, physical threats. The measure was suspended early last winter, but the plan is still in application. Entire homeless families have swarmed around the remaining camps. Others have set up in lodgings where often they are unable to pay the rent. "Going home," Lisa, 34-year old mother of four children, tells the MSF staff, "I would like to go back to Chechnya, but there are still raids and kidnappings all the time. And we don't have a house to go to..."

According to MSF, 98% of the refugees do not want to go back to Chechnya, mainly because they fear for their lives. One family out of two prefers to live underground, with their feet in a puddle. Humanitarian aid is insufficient, says the NGO that employs some forty people on the site in medical and sanitary aid. The official argument - that overly generous humanitarian aid could contribute to making the refugees stay put in Ingushetia - simply doesn't hold.

To deal with the most urgent problems, MSF started building new temporary shelters: 180 were constructed out of a scheduled 1200 before the authorities declared that they were illegal due to fire risk. The problem is more political than financial. Ingushetia wants to have nothing more to do with Chechens. As for the international community - it would rather watch from a distance for fear of losing the relations maintained with Vladimir Putin. MSF, that denounces the administrative harassment of humanitarian workers, has asked the UN agencies to take a clear position on the forced repatriation now taking place.

There seems to be no end to poverty in this part of the planet. With all the long-term consequences we can imagine. "The pace of attacks in Moscow will step up," Marc Joolen predicts. "A lot will depend on Putin's re-election in 2004."

Dossier compiled with the help of Médecins sans Frontières however the report does not necessarily reflect the opinions of MSF.