Anguish at Chechen border

Fleeing refugees blocked by Russian soldiers, barbed wire

November 04, 1999|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- The women, babies in their arms, children at their sides, stand against the coils of barbed wire, shouting at the Russian soldiers before them in anger and desperation, crying in helplessness and fear or simply shocked into miserable silence.

Behind them, perhaps 10,000 other refugees press forward, straining to escape the destruction of war-torn Chechnya. The women at the front struggle to stand up. The barbed wire tears at their skirts. The soldiers let only a few stumble through.

"It looked like World War II," Valentin M. Gefter, executive director of the Institute of Human Rights here, said yesterday. "If then it was done by the enemy, now it is done by our own people."

Gefter was describing the chaos at the Chechen border town of Kavkaz, which was shown on the television news yesterday and Tuesday. The desperate people are Russian citizens -- but ethnic Chechens -- and since Oct. 23, Russian soldiers have been refusing to allow them to escape into the adjoining region of Ingushetia. The line has grown 10 miles long. People are spending cold, wind-swept nights in cars, buses or simply on the ground.

A middle-aged woman died in the crowd near the crossing Tuesday, apparently from a heart attack. Yesterday, a baby was born there, on the road.

"The most awful thing is that our television viewers are getting used to this," Gefter said. "They are getting used to the idea that peaceful people should be responsible for what happened there."

Gefter and other human rights activists have been unable to detect much sympathy among average Russians for what has been happening to Chechen civilians since Russia began a bombing war six weeks ago against Islamic militants.

Despite the lack of any evidence, Russians hold the Chechen people responsible for the terrorist bombings of two Moscow apartment buildings in September. The rubble was quickly bulldozed, unlike after bombings in the U.S., where authorities sifted through the debris for weeks. A man was arrested yesterday in connection with the bombings but was identified only as being a supporter of Chechen warlords. Russians think Chechens deserve whatever happens to them, Gefter said.

Assistance sidetracked

At the beginning of October, the city of Moscow sent a train with 100 cars -- used as temporary barracks at construction sites -- to Ingushetia to shelter some of the 193,000 refugees who streamed in after the bombing began.

Moscow's Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov, who has presidential ambitions, declared that it wasn't fair for Ingushetia to suffer alone under the weight of the refugees. With great ceremony, he sent off the cars. They arrived Oct. 15, but the Russian military commandeered 20 of the cars to house soldiers.

"The soldiers wouldn't even allow us to approach the cars," said Valery Kuksa, the Ingush minister in charge of emergency situations. On Friday, a Russian newspaper published a report about the missing cars, accusing the military of taking 80 of them. That apparently got action.

"We solved the problem yesterday," Kuksa said, speaking in a telephone interview. "And we got the cars."

For days, Russian officials have insisted that the border is open. But yesterday they allowed only a relatively small trickle of women and children to cross the barbed wire and newly dug trenches. They said 1,300 went through, but it was impossible to confirm the number.

"What is happening there borders on a crime," Oleg P. Orlov, a member of the human rights group Memorial, said yesterday. "Maybe it has already passed that point. What is happening violates every Russian law. Why are people prevented from passing? On a general's order."

Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin has said that Russia is only after terrorists. He has denied numerous reports that his soldiers bombed a market in the Chechen capital of Grozny, killing civilians, and strafed a Red Cross convoy, killing two Red Cross workers.

"He says we are fighting international terrorism," Orlov said. "We say that it is impossible to fight terrorism at the expense of hundreds of thousands of innocent people suffering from the federal army actions."

During a meeting in Oslo Tuesday, President Clinton told Putin the United States was concerned about the humanitarian crisis. Putin said he would allow international observers to travel to the border, and a United Nations delegation is expected to visit Kavkaz today.

Red tape blamed

Vladimir A. Kalamanov, head of the Russian Federal Migration Service, told a news conference yesterday that the border had never been closed and blamed the huge crowd on slow paperwork.

"I have never seen any order, any government instruction to close the borders," he said. "We are migration officials. We had problems with our Form No. 7. But this is a very important document for us. A month after filling out this form people will be coming to us to decide the question of their status. And status means com- * Air exceeds 15% of leg depth. Distributing 237.5 points of excess space through leg.

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