World Russia

The train to nowhere

Refugees fleeing Moscow’s brutal campaign in Chechnya face grim conditions

Malcolm Gray December 6 1999
World Russia

The train to nowhere

Refugees fleeing Moscow’s brutal campaign in Chechnya face grim conditions

Malcolm Gray December 6 1999

The train to nowhere

World Russia

Refugees fleeing Moscow’s brutal campaign in Chechnya face grim conditions

Malcolm Gray

By Malcolm Gray in Nazran

At dusk, the orange lamplight from a train hundreds of cars long fosters the appearance of warmth and normality. It is an illusion. The green train to nowhere is sidelined in the southern Russian republic of Ingushetia to provide shelter for some of the 220,000 refugees who have fled Moscow’s war to retake control of breakaway Chechnya next door. As many as 60 men, women and children are jammed into each car, huddling together against the cold nights of the Caucasus foothills. Those who have reached that inadequate sanctuary are the luckiest of the unlucky.

Thousands of civilians still in Chechnya faced the advance last week of more than 50,000 soldiers circling the capital, Grozny, backed by devastating artillery and air strikes. Russian generals are bent on avenging their humiliating defeat by Chechen rebels in 1996, and they have shown little concern about how they do it. While there is no definitive count of civilians killed, more than 2,000 wounded patients lie in Ingush hospitals alone. “All we want is to live normal, ordinary lives,” says 48-year-old Eliza Djeneralova, sitting in a railway car with only an inadequate wood-burning stove for warmth. She recendy escaped from Grozny with her husband, Shamil, two young children and their grandmother. “Russia wants to kill us all,” she says, “and the world doesn’t seem to care.”

Canada and other countries have stepped up criticism of Moscow’s brutal war in the North Caucasus, arguing that its fierce and indiscriminate use of

force against civilians has gone well beyond the initial goal of wiping out Chechnya-based terrorists whom the Kremlin blames for blowing up apartment buildings in Moscow and two other cities this fall. But Western officials are also acutely aware that they can do little without Russia’s co-operation, and say Chechnya must not be allowed to damage the crucial relationship with Moscow. Ailing Russian President Boris Yeltsin, briefly hospitalized again last week for what doctors said was acute bronchitis, insists Chechnya is “purely an internal matter.” Russian leaders blithely deny that the rising death toll among civilians and the continuing exodus to Ingushetia add up to a humanitarian catastrophe.

Tell that to Ruslan Aushev, Ingushetia’s 4 5-year-old president. Recognizable for his trademark bushy moustache and military fatigues, the Afghan war veteran boldly accuses the Russian military of targeting and killing civilians and has appealed for international aid. The refugees now threaten to double his impoverished republic’s population

of 340,000 people. “This is a human tragedy,” he says. Due to the strong historic ties between Chechens and Ingushi, practically every family in Ingushetia has taken in friends, relatives and complete strangers. Yet at least 25,000 people have found nothing: they are housed in railway cars and six muddy tent cities that have sprung up near the Chechen border outside Nazran, the Ingush capital.

Food is scarce at the makeshift setdement overlooking the grandly named Ingushetia International Airport where Djeneralova’s family stays. She estimates that the hard-pressed Ingush authorities, who get littde help from Moscow, give out only about 10 g of bread a day to each refugee. Outside the railcar, husband Shamil puts down the axe that he and a taciturn pensioner have used to split a few damp logs they have collected. “Fuel is going to be a problem,” says Shamil. “It’s already getting cold and everyone is looking for wood to burn.”

Shamil then points to his grizzled companion and tells a story about Russian-Chechen distrust dating from the

days of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. “Yussup was 15 in 1944,” recounts Shamil, “when Stalin accused the Chechens—and the Ingushi, too—of collaborating with the Nazi invaders. He rounded up almost all of them and deported them to Kazakhstan. Yussup and many others made it back from the steppes in 1957, but look at him now. Once again, the Russians have forced him onto a train—even if this one isn’t going anywhere.” The memory of that wartime deportation to Soviet Central Asia remains so intense that leader Aushev had to send in bulldozers to pile up dirt barriers in front of the refugee railcars before recent arrivals, who feared another mass deportation, consented to board them.

Life is not easy for relief workers either. The ever-present risk of kidnapping by rebel gangs, who demand $1 million (U.S.) for a snatched foreigner,

as well as Moscow’s reluctance to admit outsiders into Chechnya, have kept many international aid workers out of the war zone. The international Red Cross has yet to return in force. The organization pulled expatriate members out of the region late in 1996 after stillunidentified gunmen murdered six of its employees, including a Canadian nurse, in a Chechnya hospital.

Omar Ozarov no longer puts much faith in the protection promised by the red cross. At 56, he has worked as a doctor for 30 years, most recendy at a psychiatric hospital near the village of Samashki in western Chechnya. “Our hospital was clearly marked with red crosses but Russian troops attacked it anyway,” he says. “They shot up the place, killing the head doctor and wounding me in the left leg.”

Now, he is recovering in an overcrowded regional hospital in Nazran that can provide only basic drugs and simple surgical procedures to the casualties of war. Among his fellow patients is a 13-year-old boy who had his bombshattered legs amputated by men from

his village. Abdul Naekef, another 13year-old boy, lies in a bed in the corridor, his right leg filled with shrapnel he took just as the family was preparing to flee Grozny in their Lada. “He got out just before a bomb from a plane destroyed the car,” says his mother, Laiza. “Otherwise, he’d be dead.” As Russia’s onslaught continues, many more will not be so lucky. El