Refugees flood tiny Ingushetia

Russian troops opened the border between Chechnya and Ingushetiayesterday; thousands of refugees crowded through.

Here in this wind-swept, mountainside camp, 5,000 refugees huddle in old, tattered army tents on dirt floors - most without beds or blankets. Artillery shells boom in the background. And Russian fighter planes dive overhead beginning their strafing runs against nearby Chechen rebels.

The conditions in the Sputnik refugee camp, just inside the Ingush border, are dire. And relief workers and Ingush officials say the situation is deteriorating further. They say this tiny territory of only 300,000 people is ill-prepared to deal with the scope of the looming humanitarian crisis.

In just the past month, its population has nearly doubled with the deluge of refugees. And the tens of thousands more now pouring in - since Russia opened the border yesterday - have officials here worried. So far, Russia - which says it is bombarding the Chechen republic to stamp out terrorism - has done nothing to help feed and care for the civilians fleeing the fighting.

"This is becoming a huge social danger and an intolerable strain on our economy," says Maj. Tugan Chapanov, the Ingush police commandant in charge of the Sputnik refugee camp.

"This big number of hungry, angry people is a threat to the stability of Ingushetia and the entire region," he adds.

With the harsh mountain winter about to set in, Ingush officials say they are doing all they can to help their brethren - who share the same language, background, and customs. But their supplies of food and fuel are running out.

Ingushetia so far has managed to provide basic shelter for barely one-tenth of the refugees in six ramshackle tent camps and two half-mile-long sidelined passenger trains. The majority of refugees - mostly women and children, because Russians refuse to allow men of fighting age to leave - are living in the cars and buses that brought them here in open fields, or with sympathetic Ingush families.

"We are very concerned about the conditions among the refugees," says Nick Coussidis, a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees official and leader of the first UN assessment team to visit the region since the war began a month ago.

A crowd of angry, shouting Chechen women surrounded Mr. Coussidis at the Sputnik refugee camp Wednesday, accusing the UN of turning its back on them.

"Women and children are dying. The Russians say we are terrorists, but can't you see we are just people like you?" asked Aza Khemeyeva, a sobbing, middle-age woman whom the crowd pushed forward to talk to Coussidis. "People are waiting for a miracle. You are our final hope," she said. "Please help us."

Coussidis, flanked by Ingush guards but clearly shaken, said the UN may step up shipments of humanitarian aid for the refugees, but it will not install any permanent presence in Ingushetia because several UN and Red Cross workers have been killed or kidnapped in the region. "We have to think about the safety of our colleagues," he said.

The Sputnik camp is made up of several hundred former military tents pitched in a bleak, barren field just below snow-covered mountains. They're the old-fashioned, square-shaped tents with peaked roofs the Russian Army used.

About 5,000 people huddle into ill-heated, canvas tents - the old Russian Army model of square shapes with pointed roofs.

"There is nothing to eat here but bread," says the camp doctor, Abdulgoni Magamadov, himself a recent refugee from the Chechen capital of Grozny. The daily bread rations at the camp are about 10 ounces per person. "This will lead to malnutrition within two weeks," Mr. Magamadov says. "When winter comes, people will start to die."

In one typical tent, 29 people, including 12 children, live on a dirt floor with one small wood stove for cooking and heating. The refugees must forage for wood, and with snow beginning to fly, that will become difficult to find.

"I have five children and only three blankets," says Koku Akhmedeva, who fled Grozny three weeks ago when russia pummeled the city with bombs. "We left with only the clothes on our backs. I grabbed the children and all the money I had, and we fled," she says.

The 6,000 russian rubles (about $220) she had is gone now, mostly spent for transport to the border. "I can't afford milk for the children," she says, jostling her 14-month-old daughter, Zulikhan, on her hip. "We really are facing disaster," she says.

Ingush authorities say they are doing all they can. There is a great deal of sympathy for the Chechen cause, and many local people have opened their homes to refugees. But officials warn the republic, one of the Russian Federation's poorest regions, cannot long stand the strain.

And Moscow, which is responsible for the turmoil, has so far extended little material assistance. Russian authorities have instead offered to resettle refugees in the empty northern plains of Chechnya that were recently occupied by Russian troops. Alternatively, they say they'll pay the train fare to any other part of Russia where a refugee wishes to start a new life.

Major Chapanov admits that neither scheme has so far found a single taker at the Sputnik camp.

"The way to solve our problems is to stop this war and let us go home," says Tamisha Sukhayeva, a well-spoken woman who fled Grozny last week with her two small boys.

"My children are dying here. I want to go home as quickly as possible," she says, as she strokes the top of her toddler's head.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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