Author: Antje Mayer
Published: Profil Nr.33/Aug.02

Always on the Edge

About the forgotten conflict in the Caucasus region

For 300.000 Chechenian refugees in Ingushetia going back home is not a real alternative. Saira, a Chechenian mother of three sons, has a wish: “I´d rather go back today than tomorrow”. Her hometown is not far away: To Grozny it is just a hundred kilometres. The 42-year-old English teacher is one of 300.000 people who have had to flee to Ingushetia from the war in Chechenia . She has been waiting to return for three years in a refugee camp.

The ground is covered with carpets in her army tent. Saida has obviously made herself comfortable for a longer period of time. “I have little hope that anything is going to change in the near future” Relatives have told her that the villages are still being bombed. “My three sons are 14, 17 and 19 years old. They should have been back in school and studying a long time ago. But for young men it`s too dangerous right now.” Because of the Russians, she says. “Because of the purging businesses in shacks, mostly car-repair shops. At least there is electricity and drinking water.” On the tents, home-made antennas point into the sunny sky. When the children are playing hide-and-seek and their fathers hum a melody while washing their cars, nothing seems to be temporary. Nobody here acts as if he was going to move away soon. 

Because although the Russian president Vladimir Putin declared his “Anti-Terror-Campaign” to be over in the summer of 2000, between fifty and a hundred civilians a month die of violence in Chechenia, according to the human rights organisation IHF (International Helsinki Federation of Human Rights). Between 80.000 and 120.000 Russian soldiers are stationed in the small territory. And according to a report by the aid organisation “doctors without borders”, more people still leave Chechenia than come back. 

50.000 refugees are less lucky than Saira and her family: they were not even registered; for officially there is no reason to run away anymore. To force the people back into the war zone, the report continues, the amount of aid is reduced for everyone. Saira confirms this: “Except from a Danish organisation we don`t get much help with food anymore. The Russian Ministry of Crisis Situations (Emercom) has reduced its aid to a minimum for strategic reasons, and the Ingushetian government, too, is putting the refugees under a lot of pressure.”

The mini-state Ingushetia, that used to form the Chechenian-Ingushetian Republic together with Chechenia until 1993, has been bravely resisting the near war. On the luscious highlands, herds of sheep and cows graze peacefully, and before the wide alpine horizon the fire of wild gas springs can be seen among the clan cemeteries. The Turkish half-moons on the rooftops of the houses and village mosques mark the border of the Islamic world that runs through the Caucasus region. The relationship with Moscow is relatively good. At least it finances ninety percent of the ingushetian state`s budget; for the tiny country does not have much more to offer than a few healing springs. 

As a buffer zone to the “wild” east it fulfills it’s purpose.It would seem more peaceful if there weren’t so many derserted trenches, watchtowers and danger signs reading “Stop. Military zone. Warning! Gunfire!” all over the place and the woods in the mountains on the border to chechenia weren’t full of mines. Not long ago , there was no border and none of the locals know were it actually runs. The country is packed with uncounted checkpoints, where ununiformed miitia with splinter-proof vests and kalashnikows ask for money and documents without greeting and search rusty Wolgas and Ladas as well as the many new Mercedes limousines for weapons and drugs.

On the bazaar of Nazran,once only a village , that is a small town now because of the thousands of refugees that moved there, babushkas wearing scarves on their heads are sitting on cement- and floursacks. Who takes a closer look can recognize the yellowed UNHCR imprints. Reminders of the close war and the fact that over half of the people here have been driven out of their homecountry, that lies only a dozen kilometres away. When “Verpiss dich!” (“Piss Off!”) by the German pop group “Tic Tac Toe” booms across the bazaar, the song gets a political touch. Everywhere in the area people are building and renovating. There is no shortage of cheap labour among the refugees. In a field near Karabaluk the Ingushetians are conjuring a new Las-Vegas-style government quarter up, including a new, ambitioned university. There’s something ironical and absurd about the setting: What is being bombed in Chechenia, is being rebuilt in Ingushetia. Peace on one side is nurtured by the war on the other. The small Ingushetia is surviving between the frontlines, and it’s doing well. From the standpoint of political economy, the tiny state’s profiting from it’s precarious situation. 

Karin Wiedman from Germany doesn’t believe the conflict will come to an end very soon. One and a half years ago, she moved to Ingushetia to look after an educational programme sponsored by the EU: Twenty refugees are being trained as tailors, hairdressers or joiners, so they can set up on their own. “Because it’s such a success”, she says , the programme is even to be continued and extended with the help of the Ingushetian government. The authoroties don’t seem to believe in a speedy return of the refugees anymore themselves. Even though the participitation in the course is hooked to one condition: the founding of a “mobile business”, that can quickly be shifted from one place to another. But contact with home is inevitably getting the more sparse, the longer the conflict is not resolved. Saira, for example, doesn’t visit her relatives in Grozny very much anymore. “There’s four checkpoints, which means I have to pay four times, and I can hardly ever afford that.”, she explains.

More work for the keepers of the archives, who don’t want to watch the people’s memories fall into oblivion.People like Shachmann Ajdamirow, a refugee himself, who leads the human rights organization “Memorial”. Based in Nazran he collects and registers eyewitnesses’ reports and photographs from the war. “Hardly a day passes without us hearing of new war crimes. Not for weak nerves”, he says, while clicking through his pictures on the computer: images of dead,mutilated bodies. 
The story of the photographs is often not clear, neither is the identity of both the culprits and the victims. His colleague Ramsan Takierl, who travels home regularly and speaks with the villagers, tries to explain the picture’s origins. “Usually at night, but increasingly also in broad daylight, sometimes even while the children are in school, masked men in cars without number plates arrive and carry out “zatshiskas”, so called purges.”, he tells. That the soldiers brushed up their pay in this way, according to Ramsan , was only the least part: “Young men are arrested at random, usually on the pretext of having to check their documents, and put into hidden camps. Women and children, too. Many are tortured, raped or murdered. And only this july they were bombing villages again.” The activists almost seem to have come to terms with the fact that they are crying in the wilderness with their stories. The outrage over the war crimes in the Caucasus region, that has always been rather discreet, has died down. Since the US have started their campaign against islamic terrorism, moscow feels its policy of severity towards the chechenian rebels has been confirmed demonstratively. Leila, a young chechenian woman, who works as a translator, and whose headscarf could just as well pass as a facion accessoire, gets very angry about this sometimes: “They can’t just lump together a whole people with terrorists and islamic extremists!”, she says. But as she approaches the spot where the chechenian border appears on the horizon, she becomes very quiet. The place she comes from is close, but still so far away. She is married to an Ingushetian man now. And even if she weren’t, hardly anybody in this place could think of a good reason for her ever to go back home.