Chechen refugees trapped at border

Russian troops continued their border blockade yesterday, keepingthousands from fleeing.

Khava Atsayeva and her son fled their home in the Chechen capital of Grozny after Russian missiles hit an open-air market and killed more than 100 people on Oct. 21. They waited a week without food or water to cross the border here, she says, finally slipping over by paying 3,000 rubles (about $114) to a Russian officer.

These are just two more of some 200,000 refugees who have fled into neighboring Ingushetia with just the clothes on their backs.

As Mrs. Atsayeva speaks, a russian jet roars overhead, firing rockets into Chechnya, followed a few seconds later by the thump of several loud explosions. Refugees say the target was the rebel-held town of Chernovodsk just five miles down the road.

Russia invaded the mainly Muslim territory last month to stamp out terrorists it accuses of masterminding apartment bombings in Moscow. Caught in the cross-fire, masses of civilians have fled, many more have been blocked from leaving, and hundreds have been killed.

But despite increasing international pressure to allow civilians to flee the fighting, Russian forces have sealed the checkpoint for the past week. They say they are preventing rebel Chechen fighters from infiltrating Russian-held ingushetia.

But the scope of the humanitarian crisis is becoming grave, say refugees and aid organizations. Thousands of refugees are backed up along nine miles of the road to the checkpoint, waiting to travel into Ingushetia, say those who made it through. Refugees already fleeing there have nearly doubled the population of that tiny republic of only 300,000.

The West tries to help

The Western community is urging Russia to pursue a political settlement rather than its military bombardment of the territory. But the West basically recognizes Russia's territorial integrity - its right to protect its people from terrorists.

On Tuesday, President Clinton met in Oslo with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The president reportedly urged him to halt Russia's assault on Chechnya.

But Mr. Putin shrugged the suggestion off after the meeting. "After all," he said, "it's an internal Russian matter."

He did, however, say that Russia would allow the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to send a humanitarian mission next week to Ingushetia, Dagestan, and some places in northern Chechnya. A United Nations mission is also expected in the region next week.

A tiny trickle of Chechen refugees seeped through the checkpoint on Tuesday. They say that tens of thousands of their fellows are trapped without food or water in a no man's land between this border and Grozny, some 30 miles from here. They also charge that Russian troops have used them as human shields to pave the way for their advancement into the territory.

"The Russians say they are fighting terrorists, but they are the only terrorists I've ever seen," says Liza Nagalayeva, a young schoolteacher from the town of Kulari, about 18 miles inside Chechnya.

Ms. Nagalayeva came to Ingushetia two weeks ago before the Russians sealed the border to buy supplies for her family. When the blockade went up on Oct. 23, she was stranded.

"The Russians won't let anyone go in either direction," she says. "I am frantic for news about my two children. I just want to go to them, but the Russians won't let me."

Tales of terror

The few refugees coming through the tight border cordoned off by Russian military tell stories of deprivation and horror under what they describe as incessant and indiscriminate Russian bombardment.

"It's impossible to live in Grozny. There is no electricity, no gas, no water, no food," says Akhmad Abdulkhamov, a mullah who says the Russians let him come across the border early this week because he is a religious official.

"I came to tell people here that it is only innocent people suffering in this war," he says. "I want to help to find peace somehow, but the Russians will not listen. I believe they want to kill every Chechen."

Other refugees say they were forced to form a human screen for the advancement of an armored column to flank the town of Achkhoy Martan.

"We were forced to join hands in a long line by the road while [Russian troops] drove about 100 tanks through a checkpoint" last Sunday, says Grozny resident Tamara Magomedova. "Our Chechen fighters didn't shoot because they could see we were their own people."

Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev vowed yesterday that Russian forces would take control of the entire Chechen territory. He says the Russian Army "is planning to free not only the city of Grozny from terrorists, but all of Chechnya," the Interfax news agency reported.

According to refugee accounts, panic broke out on the Chechen side of the Ordzhonikidzevskaya crossing point Tuesday morning, and at least one person was killed in the ensuing crush.

People panic

"We gathered at 9 a.m. because the Russians promised they would let us through today," says Khava Khokhayeva, a housewife from the town of Samashky. "But they said we were not orderly enough, and they laughed at us."

She says people pressed forward, and that she saw two women crushed to death by armored vehicles that pushed the crowd back.

Russian TV later confirmed that one woman was killed while trying to force her way through the checkpoint.

"I don't understand why the world doesn't care about us," says Ms. Nagalayeva, the schoolteacher.

"We saw on TV that all Western countries came to help the refugees in Kosovo, but why won't anybody help us?" she asks.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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