#5 - JRL 7244
June 29, 2003
Forced to Return
One of the fundamental laws of civilization is that people should not be forced back into raging conflicts from which they have managed to escape. Russia is violating this law, and the Bush administration and other friends of Russian President Vladimir Putin are choosing not to notice.
The violation is taking place in Chechnya, a province where Russian troops have battled local separatists for much of the past decade. The war features terrible human rights abuses on both sides. Chechen forces kidnap for profit and target civilians suspected of cooperation with Russian authorities. Russian troops regularly round up Chechen boys and men, who sometimes are freed in exchange for bribes and sometimes disappear forever. The Russian government, despite occasional promises to do so, has not held its forces accountable for any of the rapes, tortures or disappearances that have occurred.
From time to time it suits Mr. Putin's purpose to announce that the war is over. Tens of thousands of homeless Chechens in neighboring provinces, afraid to return, are an embarrassingly visible refutation of this fiction. So Russian forces have begun pressuring these displaced people to return, against their will, to refugee-style camps in Chechnya. This pressure is accomplished by various means, according to employees of the nonprofit Doctors Without Borders, who have investigated: destroying the tents they live in, cutting off water or electricity, menacing Chechen men with arrest or worse.
This forced return is only one small part of the misery that has been visited on the Chechen people, but -- unlike the fighting, which at this stage no one seems to know how to stop -- it is easily preventable. In past years the State Department has objected to overt Russian return programs, with some effect. This year the Russian pressure is more oblique, and the U.S. government seems to have no desire to trouble "my good friend Vladimir Putin," as President Bush recently called him. The Russian president was honored last week with the first state visit for a Russian ruler in London in 129 years, banqueting with Her Majesty and riding in the royal carriage. Meanwhile, no one speaks for the Chechen civilians being herded back to a war and kidnap zone.