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Refugees Inside Chechnya Struggle

March 2, 2000

ZNAMENSKOYE, Russia (AP) _ Saida Khamzatova lay in an overheated tent, coughing feverishly. Her son, born just six hours before and swaddled in a white cloth, cuddled beside her.

Khamzatova, a refugee from the Chechen capital, Grozny, didn’t make it to the hospital. Instead, she gave birth in the refugee camp inside Chechnya where she lives, and said she hadn’t seen a doctor since the boy, Ismail, arrived.

``A pediatrician and a gynecologist were supposed to come for her, but no one has,″ said Zulkhan Mezhidayeva, an aunt. ``We don’t know whether to weep or scream.″

Thousands of refugees like Khamzatova who fled fighting in breakaway Chechnya have remained inside the republic _ and out of the international spotlight. They say they haven’t received adequate help from the government and don’t expect to get it.

It isn’t known how many people displaced by the war stayed inside Chechnya, but officials say there are at least 5,000 at two tent camps in Znamenskoye, 40 miles northwest of Grozny. Thousands more are believed to be living with strangers and relatives elsewhere in the republic.

Unlike the overcrowded refugee camps in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, the Znameskoye camps have gas and electricity, and tents are lined up in neat rows along gravel-paved paths. In the Ingush camps, some refugees must scour for wood or coal to heat their tents, while the roads between the tents often become stretches of ankle-deep mud.

``Of course the conditions here aren’t as good as they are at home, but they’re tolerable,″ said 41-year-old Ruslan Selimkhanov as he watched the news on a large-screen color television set.

Away from the government eye, however, living conditions are more tenuous. Refugees scattered in other areas of Chechnya say they are almost completely dependent on the generosity of relatives and strangers, and that government help rarely reaches them.

Refugees in Gudermes, Chechnya’s second-largest city, said they had received food packages just once in the last three months.

On a recent day at Gudermes’ lone aid distribution point _ a former grocery store housed in a single room _ about 200 refugees crowded before a narrow door blocked by a desk.

Inside the room, stacks of boxes filled with milk, tea, canned meat, macaroni and other food sat unopened. Officials said the refugees themselves were to blame for not getting aid, complaining that they create chaos at distribution points and don’t have the right paperwork.

``We can’t give aid unless they have documents _ it’s not turning out like we’d want,″ said Laila Kurazova, an official with the local branch of the Federal Migration Service.

Kurazova said Moscow had also made it difficult to distribute aid to the 10,500 refugees in Gudermes. The latest shipment provided for about 3 1/2 ounces of cooking oil for each refugee, but the oil they got came in about one-quart bottles, she said.

Some local officials complained that the refugees are a major burden in the aftermath of the latest combat and the years of lawlessness since rebels won de facto independence from Russia in 1996.

But most seemed prepared to help the refugees at any cost.

``It’s shameful for a Chechen not to help another Chechen whose plight is as bad as the refugees’,″ said Alvi Dudukayev, deputy governor of the Argun region. ``It’s our obligation to make sure they’re cared for, even if Russia doesn’t.″

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