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Woes Not Over for Chechen Refugees

November 15, 1999

SLEPTSOVSKAYA, Russia (AP) _ The choking stench of unwashed bodies fills the tent Tamara Alieva shares with 40 other Chechen refugees in a camp set on a wind-swept, snowy field.

The air in the crowded tent is stale and hot; the wooden boards covering the frozen ground are icy cold. A single iron stove provides heat.

But as bad as it is, ``we aren’t complaining,″ says Alieva, 31, who fled the Chechen capital of Grozny with her 9-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter to escape Russian air and artillery attacks. ``We are lucky to get a place here.″

For many refugees, the harsh conditions at the Sputnik camp are a haven compared to waiting for days to cross the border into the republic of Ingushetia after Russia closed the frontier for days at a time.

Some 5,000 people live in mostly old and frayed tents at the camp. Altogether, some 200,000 people have fled Chechnya since early September, mostly to Ingushetia. Most found accommodation with relatives or rented housing. Only refugees with no money went to Sputnik or another nearby camp where refugees live in railway cars.

At first the camps were short of tents and ovens and did not have enough food. Eventually, Russian authorities provided more tents and ovens and then arranged for hot food.

Then, in early November, on the eve of the arrival of a mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Russian officials delivered a diesel generator to provide electricity, and wood for ovens.

``They give us presents before each visit of a United Nations or OSCE mission, as if to tell us: We remember you, don’t complain about the conditions,″ said 69-year-old Vakhid Dudayev.

There is only enough water at the camp for drinking and cooking. Officials have not installed showers, despite repeated promises.

``We dream about getting a wash,″ says Zorya Shanayeva, adding quickly, ``I’m not grumbling.″

``I only hope they (the Russians) don’t drive us from here. We don’t want to go back under the bombs.″

Russian military officials insist they have only targeted Islamic militants in Chechnya and deny hitting civilians. But witnesses in Chechnya report many civilian casualties.

``Chechen militants had a camp right next to our village,″ Shanayeva said. ``But Russian planes kept hitting the village without noticing the camp.″

Valentina Yusupova, 76, recalled the arduous wait to cross into Ingushetia. ``A person can get accustomed to everything, even to bombings, which we saw all the time, but not hunger. I was standing in line on the border for six days, and I thought I would die of either hunger or cold,″ she said.

In an overcrowded hospital near the camp, 14-year-old Yusup Magomadov remembered the Oct. 28 air raid in which he lost both his legs.

``In the morning we went to play soccer at a lawn not far from our school,″ he said. ``There were 22 of us, all school children.″

``Suddenly there was an explosion and I fainted,″ the boy said. ``When I regained consciousness, I was covered in blood. I could hardly recognize my school mates, as they were covered in blood too. They were screaming and calling for their mums.″

The attack killed eight children. Five children lost both legs and two others lost one leg, Magomadov said.

Sitting at the boy’s bedside, his mother Leila said doctors at a hospital at Urus-Martan in Chechnya had to amputate both her son’s legs because they had no way to treat gangrene. The operation was carried out in a basement lit by candles as Russian jets pounded the city, she said.

In the next bed lay 10-year-old Sultan, wounded in the leg during a Russian air raid. He shares the bed with his mother Zeiman, who has arm and leg injuries.

Another 13-year-old son was killed in the attack on their village, the mother says, bring a tearful outburst from Sultan.

``Mum, why did you tell me before that my brother is in another hospital. And now you are saying that he is dead?″

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