On Russia's Fringe, Castoffs of Conflict Carry Seeds of Chaos

LENA ARSANAKOVA knew that she was out of line when she married her husband 30 years ago. But she could scarcely have expected her audacity to cause her so much sorrow.

Mrs. Arsanakova stepped across an ethnic divide when, as a Muslim Ingush girl, she chose a spouse from among her people's age-old neighbors and enemies, the Christian Ossetians. And as ethnic conflicts have ripped through the Caucasus since the Soviet Union broke up, she has been punished for her tolerance.

Today she lives, possessing only the clothes on her back, in a railway car on the sidetracks near the station here - with 1,000 other refugees from the shattered Chechen capital, Grozny.

She was only in Grozny because she was already a refugee from an earlier conflict between Ingush and Ossetians. Swept about by war after war, one woman among half a million homeless, Mrs. Arsanakova's uncertain future symbolizes the instability that will bedevil this southern mountain region for decades.

She hasn't lived in her real home, in the village of Chermen, since Ingush and Ossetian neighbors started shooting at each other there in October 1992.

Her husband, Chermen, still lives in the village he was named for, along with their adult son Arthur, guarding the family house. They are among the few hundred Ingush who have braved constant harassment by the Ossetians - including fairly frequent gunshot attacks - to maintain a presence in their native village.

Not many Ossetians live in Chermen anymore either. Many of the houses are now just a straggle of burnt shells lining a deserted, snow-dusted main street. Only a handful of families have found the money, the energy, and enough faith in the future to start rebuilding their homes.

That scene, more than two years after a relatively light conflict that the Ingush quickly lost, bodes ill for Chechnya, which has already been mired in more than two months of brutal warfare with Russian troops.

Chechen separatists are unlikely to give up fighting easily, as they have been gearing up for war ever since unilaterally declaring independence from Russia in 1991.

Uprooted by bombs

The residents of Grozny are paying dearly for the drawn-out conflict. Their town has been devastated by continuous Russian artillery bombardment and air raids. As near as anyone can tell, more than 400,000 Chechens have fled their homes in or around Grozny since the Russian Army rolled into rebel Chechnya last December.

Half of them have found shelter within Chechnya, in villages or towns so far spared by the Russian assault. The rest of them have sought safer refuge, flooding into the neighboring Russian republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia.

There, the vast majority have crammed in with friends or relatives, or just with sympathetic families. Only the least fortunate are having to make do in schools, hospitals, or the Nazran railway siding where Mrs. Arsanakova is staying.

But this may not last. ``A very precarious and fragile balance exists in the region right now,'' warned Nicolas Coussidis, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) official dealing with the Chechen crisis.

``The hospitality of local people, which is remarkable, is reaching a certain breaking point,'' he says.

The UNHCR and other UN agencies have appealed to world governments for $23.5 million to provide the refugees with food, shelter, health care, and decent sanitation, but so far donor countries have come up with less than $2 million, according to the head of the UNHCR Moscow office, Juan Amunategui.

The appeal is not only on behalf of the Chechens, though. For their plight has reminded people of earlier victims of the ethnic cleansing that has shattered the Caucasian mosaic in recent years, leaving tens of thousands of homeless in their wake.

Trend points upward

To start with, there are the estimated 60,000 Ingush - among them Mrs. Arsanakova - forced out of their homes in North Ossetia at the end of 1992 and shifting for themselves as best they can ever since.

Then there are about 37,500 South Ossetian refugees who have fled their homes in Georgia over the past four years, since the Georgian government crushed a South Ossetian bid to join up with their ethnic brothers north of the border in Russia.

The northern Caucasus region has also attracted refugees from farther-flung conflicts - Armenians, Azeris, and Tajiks - 37,000 of them by UNHCR's count.

A few miles down the road from Chermen lies Dachnoe, a clump of nondescript houses and low apartment buildings sinking into the mud, which was once an Ingush village.

Today, the only inhabitants are Ossetian, including eight families living in the former village kindergarten who are themselves refugees from Georgia.

Tamaz Guzitashuli arrived with his wife and three children six months ago. He has already given up hope of ever going back to his home in the Georgian capital, Tblisi, where he said his family had lived for generations.

Instead, he has transferred his fierce sense of possession to the one-eighth of a kindergarten that is all he has. Although he has never seen any Ingush - because they had fled long before he arrived in Dachnoe - they are his enemy now.

Should the Ingush ever try to return and reclaim their homes, ``I would have to fight them,'' Mr. Guzitashuli says simply.

Fruits of glasnost

Guzitashuli does not dwell much on the irony of being a refugee who has found shelter only because another refugee's home was empty. For one thing, he is too busy picking up loose potatoes from fields where harvesters have just plowed up the frozen earth, or finding other ways to survive.

When asked what he thought lay behind the turmoil that has forced so many families from their homes across the Caucasus since the Soviet Union broke up, Guzitashuli's neighbor, Tamazi Tochiyev, was quick to blame former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

``It was Gorbachev's democracy that did it,'' he spat, echoing a commonly held view in these parts: that a heavy Soviet hand kept a welcome lid on ethnic tension and that everything would have been all right if Moscow had only refrained from holding out the prospect of a lighter yoke.

Now nothing can be all right ever again, at least as far as Varshav Zgoyev sees it, from his vantage point as an Ossetian, living with his family in two rooms of the old village hospital in Chermen since his own home was burned down.

``You cannot live next to your blood enemies,'' he said tersely. ``Never. Life will never be normal the way it was before.''

And that is a view shared by many of the Chechens left homeless by the current war. They feel there is little chance that the Russian government will ever be able or willing to help rebuild their lives, even if they see an end to the conflict.

``How can we ever live there again?'' asked Rosa Ausheva of the town she once called home, Grozny.

Sitting on a bunk in the cramped sleeping car at the train station in Nazran, which she shares with her five-year-old daughter, Scherzeherade, and another family, Mrs. Ausheva simply has no idea what her future holds.

``How long do you think it will take to rebuild Grozny, the way they left it?'' she asks rhetorically. ``Do you think they will ever rebuild it?

``I just don't know where we are going to go.''

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