THE staff at kindergarten No. 7 in this muddy town on the Chechnya border was ready yesterday for a flood of refugees. Blankets and mattresses were stacked in the classroom, loaves of thick white bread were piled in the kitchen, and in one closet lay a skinned calf, ready to be grilled.
Throughout the weekend, hundreds of women and children, fleeing possible violence in Chechnya, where Russian troops were poised yesterday to storm the capital Grozny, packed buses, cars, and even dump trucks to reach the safety of this border on the east of the breakaway republic.
Russia's state-run Ostankino TV reported yesterday that 67,000 refugees have fled to Ingushetia, which borders Chechnya to the west.
Clutching bundles of food and clothing, many of the women arrived here after countless checks for weapons by Russian soldiers. They were exhausted and worried, scared for their husbands, brothers, and sons left behind to fight the Russian military.
''They all stayed, even my 14-year-old brother stayed. He said 'I'm a man now, and I have to defend my motherland','' said the teenaged Zulikha Kosumova, who arrived here last week with her three sisters and their many children, ranging in age from 6 months to eight years.
She pulled a thick stack of Polaroid snapshots from her purse, showing her and her sisters in a different life, wearing a lot of makeup and dressed in a variety of costumes as they had mugged delightedly for the camera only a few days ago.
''My parents were proud to stay in Chechnya, they were ready to fight,'' and had amassed an arsenal of grenades and guns at home, added her sister Nura. Far from that danger her twin nephews, toddlers Hassan and Said Mugamed, played happily on the warm floor.
In the heated kitchen, women in colorful long skirts and kerchiefs kept their spirits up by frying potatoes and boiling meat, the homey smells drifting outside, where stray dogs fought over scraps of food in a nearby overflowing garbage dumpster.
But in one empty hallway of the flat-roofed cement building, a scruffy little boy sat alone on a wooden bench, nervously playing with his shirt cuffs and wincing as the distant sound of rifle volleys punctured the air through the laughter. Too young to fight but too old to enjoy the kindergarten atmosphere, he had nothing to do but wait.
''No, I'm OK,'' he replied in a small voice, when asked if he wanted anything to eat.