#4 - JRL 7171
Russia Accused of Pushing Refugees Out
May 7, 2003
By YURI BAGROV
SLEPTSOVSKAYA, Russia (AP) - A stone's throw from a refugee camp where thousands of Chechen live in flimsy tents, 180 new houses stand waiting for the most vulnerable families. But regional officials won't let them move in and have ordered an international aid group to tear the houses down.
Officials in the Ingushetia region say Medecins Sans Frontieres built the houses without the proper permits. But MSF accused officials Tuesday of playing bureaucratic games as part of a campaign to force refugees to return to Chechnya against their will.
Ingush authorities, who handle refugee affairs, could not be reached for comment.
The group, known in English as Doctors Without Borders, also questioned Russian claims that refugees are returning voluntarily. In February, it surveyed nearly every family living in the tent camps - more than 3,200 in all - and found that 98 percent do not want to return to Chechnya. Nearly all said they feared feared for their lives.
``They are driving us out of Ingushetia,'' said Aslanbek Shalimov, who lives in a tent camp in the village of Sleptsovskaya, just yards from the empty houses. ``It is easier to evict us from tents than from houses.''
Chechnya has been wracked by violence since 1994, when Chechen separatists began a two-year war with Russian troops. That conflict ended in 1996 with de facto independence for the republic.
Russian forces returned in 1999 after rebels raided the neighboring Russian region of Dagestan and after apartment-house bombings in Russian cities killed more than 300 people.
Since last year, Russian officials have been encouraging refugees in Ingushetia to return to Chechnya as part of broader efforts to show that peace is returning to the region - despite daily fighting, frequent attacks on civilians and persistent complaints of kidnappings and killings by the Russian military.
In December, a camp in the village of Aki-Yurt was unexpectedly closed. Rights groups said 1,500 people were left homeless, but officials said most left voluntarily and the rest were given alternative housing. Refugees and human rights organization say officials have threatened to close the other camps and are using intimidation and blackmail to convince people to return.
The alleged pressure appears to be working, and the camps are steadily losing residents, Medecins Sans Frontieres said.
``If the flow of refugees returning to Chechnya is growing, it is because people are left without a choice,'' Anne Fouchard, a spokeswoman for the group's French branch, said at a news conference in Moscow. ``Forced return is a clear violation of fundamental rights of civilians subject to violence.''
Ninety percent of those families who told the aid group they don't want to return said they have no alternative shelter, but the group believes it is only a matter of months before the camps are shut down. Gabriel Trujillo, head of MSF France's mission in Russia, said there are persistent rumors that two camps that together house nearly 1,000 families will be shut down in May.
Russian officials deny they are forcing anyone to return, but say the tent camps are no place to make a permanent home.
Aid groups agree, and that's why Medecins Sans Frontieres began building real houses last year. About 100 families who were living in makeshift shelters moved into the one-room structures, which, though primitive, are warm and dry.
But the latest batch of 180 houses, funded by the European Union and completed in January, have been standing unoccupied - ``as if teasing us,'' Shalimov said. Plans to build another 1,200 houses are in limbo.
Medecins Sans Frontieres provided journalists with a copy of a letter from a local prosecutor informing the group that it must destroy the houses. The letter said the group did not have construction permits.
Medecins Sans Frontieres refuses to comply with the destruction order and has been paying fines on the houses since March. The group insists it had government permission.
Meanwhile, the aging tents are providing increasingly inadequate shelter, MSF said. It said 42 percent of the tents leak, and five percent have no floor.
But refugee Raisa Shalimova, Aslanbek Shalimov's sister, said she is doing all she can just to hold on to her family's place in the camp.
``My house has been ruined there, and there is no room for us in the temporary shelters in Chechnya,'' she said.