Chechnya refugees tell horrific tale of unrelenting bombardment by Russians

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The Independent Online
"I FOUND just the legs of my niece after a Russian missile hit her house, nothing else," said Vahid Derbishev. "Her name was Ilena and she was only 12."

He had just crossed the border from Chechnya with the surviving members of his family. Sitting beside him was Ilena's mother, Asila, staring fixedly in front of her in shock with a white bandage wrapped around a scalp wound.

The tragedy of the Derbishev family, all farmers from the village of Samashki, 15 miles inside Chechnya, did not end with Ilena's death, said Shahid, another uncle. "When her father and her brother went to the cemetery to bury her remains they were caught in another missile attack and killed."

The Chechen referees, who have poured across the border into Ingushetia since Russia opened it two days ago, tell of an unrelenting bombardment of villages and towns. This takes place regardless of whether or not there is any resistance to the Russians, they said.

"I am certain there were no fighters in our village," said Lida Akuyeva, a tough-looking woman who used to run a small business smoking salmon. "Local people had asked anyone with a gun to leave. Nobody fired a shot at the Russians."

The refugees are bitter that they were lured on to dangerous roads by Russian promises of a safe corridor and then left to wait at the border.

Mrs Akuyeva, a neighbour of the Derbishevs, has seven children with her, five her own and two whose parents were killed in the 1994-96 Chechen war. "Five days ago we left home. We were with a lot of other women and children. Suddenly a helicopter appeared and flew low. They must have seen who we were but then planes came to bomb us."

As Russian forces advance into the towns and villages in the central part of the country they enter a heavily populated area. It is filled with straggling villages of red-brick and painted-wood houses.

To keep their own casualties low the Russians use heavy artillery and aircraft to indiscriminately bombard the terrain ahead of them.

Roads are continually strafed, Vahid Derbishev said. "I saw eight cars burned out by a main crossroads. They had gone to the border to escape but had been forbidden to cross by Russian troops. They were going back into Chechnya when they were hit."

Samashki is close to the border. For Chechens trying to flee

the country from further east, the journey is far more dangerous over roads and bridges which are being systematically destroyed. Tuki Kerzoeva said she came from the village of Vedeno in eastern Chechnya, considered by Russia to be a stronghold of Shamil Basayev, a Chechen warlord. She said: "Bombs killed 37 women and children when they hit Vedeno at the end of October. We haven't even seen Basayev in a long time."

Many of Mrs Kerzoeva's neighbours want to escape, but "are too frightened to go because the Russians attack the roads." As we talked beside the road at the Kavkaz crossing point a burly man shouted: "What is important is to get people out. Only 40 per cent of those who want to escape the bombing have been able to get here."

If this is true, then Ingushetia, with a population of 300,000 and already host to 200,000 refugees, is going to be overwhelmed by the mass influx of Chechens. There is already nowhere to go. Mrs Akuyeva said: "I have got one room for five of my children but, can you imagine, there are already nine people in it."

Most of the refugees are women and children. Mrs Akuyeva says the men fear that if they try to cross the border they will be arrested. "The Russians ask for documents," she said. "But none have been issued in Chechnya for the last three years so they cannot get across."

The refugees say they were too frightened and too intent on trying to save their own families to estimate total Chechen casualties. But almost every village is being hit, particularly in the fertile central plain.

There is a sense of desperation surrounding the refugees. Russia, they feel, wants to settle the Chechen problem by main force regardless of civilian casualties.

"I was in Grozny when it was attacked," Shahid Derbeshiv said. "It was like a meat cutter had been through it. The war will go on until the West stops giving money to Russia."

The refugees agree that the devastation from the present war is far worse than in 1994-96. A member of Ingushetia's parliament, who did not want his name published, said: "There are three reasons why the Russians are bombarding like this. It is partly revenge for their defeat in the last war. They also want to keep their own casualties down. Also, what happens in Chechnya now is part of the electoral campaign to succeed Boris Yeltsin as president. They are too far committed now to risk losing."

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