After more than a year in the muddy Karabulak tent camp, Chechen refugee Said Gunash decided it was time to go home.
He was determined not to spend another winter in the crowded camp. And, having declared victory over Islamist separatist guerrillas last spring (and several times since), Russian federal authorities were pressing the 140,000 Chechens spread across neighboring Ingushetia to return to their native republic.
So, in late November, Mr. Gunash decided to "see things for myself. I wanted to live in my own home."
He bribed his way through a series of Russian military checkpoints and made it to the smashed shell of his house in the Leninsky district of Grozny, the regional capital. After days of foraging for building materials among the ruins, Gunash and three friends began repairing his red-tile roof, in full view of a Russian checkpoint.
Gunash didn't see the blast, but when a Russian armored vehicle hit a land mine near his home, the response by federal troops was immediate.
"They just started shooting at us, and we ran," he says, thumping a mud-encrusted boot into the gray-brown slop at Karabulak camp.
"There are many people like me, who want to move back. But when they start shooting, how can you live there?" Gunash asks, wincing at the memory. "Certainly it was dangerous, but I thought things were getting better."
His story is not unique. Refugees testing the waters in Chechnya often flee back across the border. They angrily describe a still-active war zone, in which Russian "mopping up" operations often abuse civilians - including harassment at checkpoints, detentions, and killings.
Russian troops, for their part, are subject to near-daily attacks and ambushes. Following a Dec. 17 assault on his office in the regional capital, pro-Moscow Mayor Bislan Gantamirov claimed, "Grozny is boiling with rebels," in an interview with a Russian TV station.
An official with the pro-Moscow Chechen civilian administration said on Saturday that at least 11 Russian servicemen had been killed in the past 24 hours in a series of hit-and-run clashes. The Russian military command announced it would close roads in Chechnya to civilian traffic from Dec. 25 until Jan. 10, to head off potential rebel attacks over New Year's, Russia's most widely celebrated holiday.
When he sent troops back into Chechnya in September 1999, then-Prime Minister - now President - Vladimir Putin promised a limited operation to "restore law and order" to a region that had fallen into virtual anarchy under elected Chechen-separatist rule.
Large numbers of refugees fled in all directions during the previous Chechen war, from 1994 to '96, which resulted in de facto independence for the Russian republic. This time, only Ingushetia opened its borders. Those who crossed expected a stay of several weeks. In the Russian lexicon, they are not refugees, but "temporarily relocated people" and therefore not eligible for government support.
As winter snow falls and the mud turns into a frozen dark sea, resignation is setting in for "relocated" Chechens, who are braced for another long, north Caucasian winter. For every refugee who goes back, three more leave.
"There are no human rights there at all," says Zura Magomadeva, a school director who recently spent a month in Chechnya. "I want to go back. It's my motherland," she says. "But how can I teach my children about justice? You can forget about that place, it is a horror."
Such conditions make the tent camps, which are organized and relatively safe - if uncomfortably muddy - seem almost cozy. Better still are the new, winterized tent camps now under construction by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Ingush authorities. The new camps, with room for 12,000 refugees, have wooden floors and gas and electricity hookups. Most of the improved tents are earmarked for those living in frigid railway cars.
Russian authorities had delayed permission to build the more permanent winter camps, first imposing an Oct. 1 deadline for all displaced Chechens to return home, then later moving it to Oct. 31. The majority of the displaced live with local Ingush families, UN figures indicate, while 50,000 are in camps or "spontaneous settlements."
For the UNHCR, the Moscow-imposed deadline and delays were unacceptable. "We had a conflict with federal forces then. That was where our interests collided," says Aslambek Dakhilgov, deputy head of the UNHCR in the region.
Many displaced Chechens have no identity documents, and so can be easily detained in Chechnya, he says. Young men are especially vulnerable.
"Everyone wants to go home, but if you have a son between 18 and 25 years old, you can do nothing to protect him," says Alek Didigov, a heavyset Chechen who could easily fit the Russian stereotype of a guerrilla himself. "That's why people are afraid, afraid, afraid," he says. "You must understand that word."
Fatima Ahmaeva, a woman in a colorful wrap and plastic shoes, agrees: "If I go back home, [Russian] soldiers will take my kids. How do they know if they are guerrillas or not?"
Mr. Dakhilgov of the UNHCR says, "Some people believed the propaganda, then went back and found their house destroyed, or people were detained, or someone was murdered, and they came back here.
"If they eliminate [military] checkpoints, they can expect a mass return," Dakhilgov adds. "Every sober person, even in the federal government, knows you can't leave this longer than spring."
The refugees echo that analysis. They note the welcome mat is wearing thin with Ingush families who have accepted Chechens into their homes, sometimes as many as 35 at once.
Material from the wire services was used for this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society