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New York Times
December 27, 2001
Chechen Refugee Camps: Once a Haven, but After Two Years Still Not a Home

ZNAMENSKOYE, Russia — Officially, the tent city that houses war refugees here is called the Southern Point of Provisional Location, and once, that name might actually have fit. But nothing is provisional about the Znamenskoye refugee camp any more.

Russia's war against separatist rebels in Chechnya has been going on for more than two years now. For many of 3,021 refugees in this camp, the 85 dun tents staked into the barren Chechen landscape near the Terek River long ago made the shift from haven to home.

Znamenskoye, which mostly houses people who fled Grozny when Russian artillery flattened the Chechen capital in late 1999, is a wind- whipped monument to the wear and tear that ravages canvas, wood and people never intended to remain here this long. Now that a third winter has arrived — "attacked," as Russians more accurately say — it is threatening to come apart at the seams.

"Many tents are worn out," said Zinaida Kagirova, the camp registrar. "We were promised new ones, but nothing's happened. The bottoms are rotten, and now they say `fix it.' "

The same is true elsewhere in Chechnya and in neighboring Ingushetia, where thousands more tents shelter perhaps 30,000 Chechen war refugees who are still afraid to go home, or no longer have a home to return to. The region's camps house as many as 8,000 people each in conditions that increasingly suffer from financial and physical neglect.

President Vladimir V. Putin's special envoy for human rights in the region, Vladimir Kalamanov, castigated his own government in December for failing to stop the decline in what he called "absolutely unfit and tumble-down" Chechnya camps.

"It is absolutely clear that the looming winter has not given any indications to expect that it is going to be warm," he said in an interview with the Interfax news service. "The situation in which these people have found themselves is causing colossal damage both directly to them and to stability in the region."

They are merely the most visible casualties of a far larger refugee crisis. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated in November that there are a total of 150,000 war refugees in Ingushetia and another 160,000 in Chechnya, most living in houses, cellars, stores and even farm outbuildings.

The number of refugees has changed little since the peak of the war two years ago. "But we realize that staying the same actually means that the situation is becoming worse," said Michiel Hofman, who directs the Russian mission of the French humanitarian agency Doctors Without Borders.

His charity recently surveyed 408 families at 41 different locations in Ingushetia, half of them living in tent camps. Nearly two-thirds said their roofs leaked. Another two-thirds had holes in their walls. Half shared a latrine with at least 100 other people; likewise, half shared a single shower with more than 200 others.

Among the refugees themselves, cardiovascular disease rates were triple Russia's already astronomical average; diabetes rates were 4.5 times as high; and anemia — a symptom of malnutrition — almost five times greater.

Life is getting worse for the refugees in part because their savings have been depleted by two years of joblessness and partly because the Russian government's own meager system of assisting the camps has sputtered, throwing much of the burden onto international aid groups.

Officials at camps in Chechnya and Ingushetia say the government has fallen far behind in payments for electricity, gas and basic services at the camps. The Russians stopped serving hot meals there in April.

Znamenskoye's Russian administrators say the camp has received no federal aid since the fall. The flow started to dry up when the government shuffled the refugee administration last spring, officials said.

The toilets, a ramshackle row of perhaps two dozen wooden outhouses, are primitive and in disrepair. So are the showers. The entire camp needs rewiring.

"The No. 1 problem is tent repairs," said the camp commandant, Said Akhmed-Visaitov. "We have some tents where 27, 28 people live."

Crowding spreads disease: roughly 1 in 300 dwellers has tuberculosis. Last year, a hepatitis epidemic closed the camp school.

This year, the camp doctor said, lice are ubiquitous.

A local cooperative has a contract to erect and maintain tents, supply bread and remove trash and sewage. "Moscow hasn't paid them since May," Mr. Akhmed-Visaitov said.

Yet in Chechnya, at least, Znamenskoye is something of a model refugee center. The Council of Europe, a 41-nation group that acts as Europe's principal human rights monitor, has two officers permanently stationed here. Lord Judd, the head of the council's political affairs committee, periodically visits to take the measure of the refugee situation.

Lord Judd was at the camp on Dec. 6 and heard stories of food and medicine shortages and leaking tents. He pronounced conditions there "simply unacceptable" and worse than he had seen in the previous two years.

In the middle of the camp, in one of the 20-foot-by-20-foot tents, Alla Ostafurova, her husband and two of their three children share their space with two other families, steel beds crammed side by side on the wooden floor, spare blankets hung on ropes masquerading as walls.

On a good day, nine people live in the tent, she said. On some days there are as many as 20. Ms. Ostafurova, 44, and her family have lived like this since they fled the destruction of Grozny in December 1999.

"What can I say?" she said. "Nobody bothers us here. I have nowhere else to go. My house was destroyed, leveled to the earth. Our No. 1 topic of concern is whether we will be compensated for our house."

Znamenskoye residents get a ration of grain and canned meat, which camp officials say is frequently inedible. The Danish Refugee Council, one of the main charities in Chechnya, distributes food once a month.

Mrs. Ostafurova said her husband, who worked as a forest policeman in Grozny, now spends much of his time out of the camp looking for work.

It is a dangerous task, she says. In his native village in the Urus-Martan district, south of Grozny, five men were recently arrested by the military. Only two have returned.

Mr. Kalamanov, the Russian envoy, said in December that the Russian government plans to restore 15 hostels in Grozny and elsewhere to resettle the thousands of people who live in Chechen refugee camps, including Znamenskoye.

Whether the refugees will judge it safe to go is another matter. "Even many people whose houses are intact don't want to go back for lack of security," Mrs. Ostafurova said. "They're afraid that their children will disappear in some army mopping-up."

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