Russian security troops are forcibly resettling thousands of Chechen refugees from relatively safe and warm border tent camps to their war-ravaged homes in Chechnya.
On Monday Russian forces shut off all supplies, water, and electricity to the Aki Yurt camp, just inside Ingushetia, leaving more than 1,000 people - mainly women and children - with little option but to trek back in 14-degree weather to what remains a war zone. A spokesman for Ingushetia's department of interior confirmed Tuesday that the camp had been dismantled.
"Plans to expel the refugees have been rumored for some time, but now a real eviction is under way," says Svetlana Ganushkina, a member of the Kremlin's Commission for Human Rights. "Something very bad is happening down there."
Russia has long maintained that the refugee camps harbor Chechen guerrillas and their sympathizers.
All 10 Ingush tent camps, housing about 20,000 people, are slated for closure by year's end, Ms. Ganushkina says. "The people do not want to leave, they know nothing good awaits them," says Ganushkina, who just returned from a tour of Chechen refugee camps in Ingushetia. "They feel they are being squeezed out."
Russian officials have repeatedly denied that refugees would be forced to relocate against their will and have said that shelter would be offered in Ingushetia for refugees who refuse to go home.
Last week the US State Department said it had been informed that "only voluntary choices" would be offered to Chechens staying in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia.
But the Kremlin's own human rights commissioner, Oleg Mironov, told journalists Tuesday that "if the current plan (to expel refugees) is carried out, it will mean one of the biggest human rights disasters in Russian history."
Russia's Federal Migration Service, which oversees the Ingushetia camps, declined to comment. A spokesman for the Kremlin information service, Vladimir Ponomaryov, would say only that, "I haven't seen any official document that would change the official position that any resettlement should be voluntary."
About 150,000 Chechens, almost a quarter of the republic's population, are currently sheltering in Ingushetia, many in friendly Ingush homes or in makeshift dormitories in abandoned warehouses and farm buildings. Many have been there since the latest military campaign to restore Russian rule to the breakaway republic began more than three years ago.
Experts say the expulsions are aimed at facilitating a "political solution" to the Chechen conflict announced by President Vladimir Putin earlier this month. Under the plan, a new constitution for Chechnya will be chosen by public referendum in the republic next spring, followed by elections for a new local legislature and president. But a political process requires that the population be in its place, say experts, hence the accelerated campaign to compel their return.
Jabrail Gakayev, head of the Chechen Cultural Center and a leader of the Chechen diaspora in Moscow, says the situation in Ingushetia is growing critical. Russia says it has built housing in Chechnya for those returning home, but Mr. Gakayev says, "Conditions are not ready inside Chechnya to receive returning refugees."
Stanislav Ilyasov, Moscow's Minister for Coordinating Activity of Executive Bodies in Chechnya, told a government meeting in Ingushetia on Sunday that the refugees' reluctance to return home was the result of agitation by rebel agents. "They intimidate people, frighten them with (tales of) instability and lack of living conditions," the independent Interfax news agency quoted him as saying. He added that each returnee would receive a state subsidy of 20 rubles (60 cents) a day. "The mission to return the refugees home assigned by the president will be accomplished regardless of all complications, including counteraction by rebels," Mr. Ilyasov said.
But experts say the refugees, whose camps sit on the border often just a few miles from their home towns, are well aware of the situation inside Chechnya. "They know there is nowhere to go to but ruins," says Ms. Ganushkina. "It's a tragedy to send people to live in bombed-out houses that have no windows or doors, and in conditions where there is no physical security or other means to make a proper life."
With impoverished Ingushetia's regional government struggling under the extra burden of squatters, much of the aid to the Chechen refugees has come from international organizations.
The UN, which has poured resources into building schools, infrastructure and housing in the Ingush refugee camps, says the Russian government has violated its pledges not to use compulsion in resettling refugees. "What happened (at Aki Yurt) is very unfortunate, very much a concern for UNHCR," says Jean Paul Calvieri, the UNHCR's senior protection officer for Russia. "The camp was closed and people were left out in the open with no alternative but to return to Chechnya. We believe this cannot be called voluntary return."