Starving Chechens scramble to flee homeland

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The Independent Online

Russian tanks and armoured personnel vehicles roared across the Ingush-Chechen border yesterday bringing more fear and despair to the refugees trudging in long columns in the opposite direction from the lethal battles taking place inside the breakaway Chechen republic.

Russian tanks and armoured personnel vehicles roared across the Ingush-Chechen border yesterday bringing more fear and despair to the refugees trudging in long columns in the opposite direction from the lethal battles taking place inside the breakaway Chechen republic.

Vakha Sultan a Chechen farmer on the move told me: "Our children cry when they hear the explosions. We are going crazy from it."

Colonel Valery Kuksa, the Minister for Emergency Situations in the republic of Ingushetia, is already looking after between 140,000 and 170,000 refugees. "I expect there are another 100,000 waiting to cross", he said yesterday.

The Russian commander of the main border crossing point had told Colonel Kuksa he was under orders to open the border early today. Some 6,000 Chechens are already packed into an old stationary train a mile from the frontier between Ingushetia and Chechnya. It shakes at night from the roar of Russian artillery.

But despite Colonel Kuksa's efforts, the refugees are hungry and anxious. Vakha Kagirov, a bus driver from Grozny, the Chechen capital, said: "They give us food you would not feed to dogs."

An aid worker confirmed that the refugees were living on canned meat, mostly long past its expiry date. He said: "The main problems are that there is not enough food and the cold. We need to keep these people warm or they will not survive."

If Russian troops open the Chechen border today, as promised, another 100,000 refugees may flood out of the country to escape the bombing. That would mean one-quarter of the population of Chechnya would have fled since the Russian army began to advance a month ago.

The refugees are deeply conscious that their plight receives nothing like the international attention given to those from Kosovo or East Timor. Mr Sultan is quietly furious. He asked: "When 45 Albanians were killed in Kosovo you journalists made a great fuss, so why don't you report it when thousands of Chechens are dying?"

The answer is simple enough. The Albanians did not kidnap or kill aid workers and journalists. In the three years of Chechnya's de facto independence, Chechen bandits and warlords did both. Even travelling to the border with Chechnya, the Ingush government provides us with heavily armed guards. Mr Sultan accepts the explanation, but hints that the Russians themselves may have had a hand in the kidnapping.

Russia may come to regret restarting this war, but for the moment its troops are very much in control of the border. As we drove down a dirt track to the train where the refugees are living, we passed a column of 10 armoured personnel carriers from the Russian 58th Army, stationed in Ossetia to the west. The soldiers looked relaxed and confident.

The refugees have a sophisticated view of Russian strategy and its grim impact on their own lives. "I don't think the Russians will attack Grozny," said Mr Kagirov. "I think they will first surround it then they will bomb and shell it, destroying all our homes as they did before."

The despair on the train is almost palpable. The refugees sense that this war is different from the one the Chechens won three years ago. "How can you even call it a war?" asked Mr Sultan. "There is no resistance. Even if a fighter has a gun it is only a Kalashnikov rifle. What can a fighter do against rockets, planes and missiles?"

For the moment, the Russian army is fighting the sort of war it wants to fight. Its tanks and mechanised infantry are edging forward slowly, using heavy artillery and air strikes. Colonel Kuksa, a former infantry commander in the Soviet army, said: "The Russians are fighting a much smarter war than three years ago. Then they sent in their infantry first. Now they use their firepower."

The refugees believe Russia is not interested in distinguishing between Islamic militants and ordinary Chechens. Zara Tsugayeva said: "They are rounding up Chechens all over Russia. My two sons were arrested for nothingand thrown into jail for 15 days. The Russians are forcing our children to steal, rob and kill."

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