Chechens Pouring Into Neighboring Regions; Heavy Shelling in Grozny
NAZRAN, Russia (AP) _ Refugees fleeing the war in Chechnya have caused a near crisis in neighboring Ingushetia, where the population has swelled by half, and more arrived Sunday in battered buses, packed cars and canvas-covered trucks.
About 10,000 people have been arriving in this Caucasus republic from Chechnya each week since Russian troops invaded the republic on Dec. 11 to suppress its claim to independence.
Some refugees have gone on to neighboring North Ossetia, Dagestan or elsewhere in Russia.
But most stay in tiny Ingushetia, crammed into emergency housing or squeezed into private homes and putting tremendous new strains on the already battered economy.
There are now more than 140,000 refugees, the majority of them from Chechnya, in addition to the 260,000 permanent residents. With an area of roughly 2,400 square miles, Ingushetia is only a third the size of Chechnya _ slightly larger than the state of Delaware.
``Soon there may be a deficit of food, beds and medicine here,″ said Nazir Doskiyev, head of the Ingush immigration office. ``If the refugees stay until summer, there may also be an epidemic.″
The refugees continued to arrive Sunday amid reports of heavy new shelling in Grozny and a Russian ground attack on a village west of the capital.
``People in Grozny are dying under destroyed houses _ old women and children are dying of hunger,″ said Murat Gazdiyev, 59, who holed up in the besieged capital for weeks with his wife and six-year-old son before heading to the Ingush capital of Nazran.
``It’s impossible to live there,″ he said.
Entering the sixth week of their siege of the capital, Russian forces pounded two neighborhoods in southern Grozny on Sunday, Ingush officials said.
Moscow’s troops also launched an attack with armored vehicles Sunday morning on the village of Yermolovka, 9 miles southwest of Grozny, according to Russian military sources in Nazran quoted by the ITAR-Tass news agency.
Stepped-up Russian attacks around Grozny are expected to exacerbate the refugee crisis. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which has distributed aid and supplies worth over $1 million in the region, says more than 400,00 people have been displaced by the fighting in Chechnya.
``It’s becoming worse every day,″ said Helena Baer, of the UNHCR emergency office in Vladikavkaz, in the neighboring region of North Ossetia. ``Their needs are becoming greater and greater,″ she said.
In Nazran, several thousand refugees occupy railroad cars on sidings, a school and other emergency housing.
Each refugee is given free housing, blankets, some food and $5 by the Russian government _ the very force that bombed them out of their homes.
A cow is tied in the yard outside one brick building, where 43 people are living in eight rooms. Several refugees from Grozny, wearing skimpy coats or sweaters _ practically all they own _ shivered in the cold as they alternately poured out their anguish and praised the generosity of their Ingush hosts.
``I never thought this could be possible _ that the Russians would bombard our city and we would be standing here as refugees,″ said Zaira Kostoyeva, 50, who fled to Nazran with her five daughters. She had worked as a medical assistant in Grozny for 32 years until her hospital was bombed.
``Our landlord will let us stay here. It’s a Caucasus tradition,″ she said. ``But, if we can’t go home, we have to die.″
Ultimately, the Chechens’ powerful attachment to their ancestral homeland, even if it lies in ruins, may prevent the refugee crisis from bringing a long-term disaster to Ingushetia and neighboring regions.
But first the war must end.
Gazdiyev, holding his little boy’s hand as they walked down a Nazran street, seemed torn between rage and homesickness.
``Let Yeltsin choke on his humanitarian aid,″ he said. ``He’s a maniac, a bloodthirsty bastard.
``We must go back as soon as possible _ it’s our home,″ he continued. ``I will dig in the ground, and make a hut for my family back in Grozny if I have to.″
Thousands of civilians have been killed since President Boris Yeltsin sent troops eight weeks ago into the small, mostly Muslim region to put a stop to Chechnya’s independence drive. Many nations, and many Russians, have expressed outrage at the carnage.