To do so they must pass through a concrete barricade manned by Russian Interior Ministry troops. Old women clutching sacks of food watch part of it being confiscated by soldiers because it is "food for Chechen fighters".
All of this is presided over by Colonel Krulyov, an enormous ill-tempered officer, who bellows orders at soldiers and refugees alike. What, we asked him yesterday, had become of the refugees from Grozny, the Chechen capital, to whom the Russian army was meant to be giving safe passage?
"Get out," he shouted at us and demanded we produce "the chief of the journalists" to be reprimanded.
It is not like the return of refugees to Kosovo or East Timor, earlier in the year, fearful but hopeful that most of their troubles are behind them. The Chechens look grim but resigned. Most are going back simply because their towns and villages have been captured by the Russians and are no longer under air and artillery attack.
Salaudin Omalatov, his family and belongings crammed into an ancient car, said: "I will stay in my village of Novy Sharoy if it is not too dangerous. The bombings killed 47 out of the 1,500 people there. Three of my neighbours were hit by a ground to ground missile. Their bodies were torn apart."
There were other reasons for going back quickly. The villages and towns south of Grozny, captured by Russia since the start of the month, are being looted. One man says he saw a BMW car being slung underneath a helicopter. Another, from Alkhan-Yurt, devastated by the Russian bombardment, tells how even a neighbour who had belonged to a pro-Russian militia "was shot dead when he asked soldiers not to take his possessions".
Mr Omalatov was worried he did not have money to bribe soldiers at other checkpoints down the road. Just how essential this is was confirmed by a student called Musa Mazyev. He had spent a few weeks sitting in a cellar in the Chechnyan capital. On leaving the city, Russian soldiers said that if he wanted to quit Grozny he must give them 1,000 roubles or four bottles of vodka. Fortunately for him he had the money.
Warning to leave, page 11
Anatol Lieven, Review, page 5Reuse content