The Chechen Disaster

At the Kavkaz-1 checkpoint a huge crowd of women in headscarves and men in skullcaps, anxiety etched onto their faces by weeks of waiting, surges forward as each decrepit bus full of refugees from Chechnya limps through the final checkpoint to safety. Some of the younger men scramble into the boughs of oak trees to see if relatives who have been stranded on the Chechen side of the border have made it onto the bus out. Most are disappointed.

Russia's six-week-old campaign to purge Islamic extremists from the rebel republic of Chechnya has turned into a full-blown humanitarian disaster. Nearly two thirds of the civilian population have been forced to flee their homes. Heavy bombing has reduced many of the villages of western Chechnya to rubble, and electricity and gas supplies to the region have been cut off, making most urban areas uninhabitable. But two weeks ago Russian forces all but closed off the last border crossing with the neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia, trapping fleeing civilians inside Chechnya with little hope of escape. The trickle of refugees the Russians do allow through are dazed, dirty and clearly overwhelmed by their ordeal. "It is a nightmare," says Dzhamal Shakhsaido from Samashki, who waited for six days to cross the border and slept with his family in an open field. "No food, no water--people are suffering terribly."

The scale of the mounting disaster has clearly shaken the West. It has, for once, dropped its usual reflexive sympathy toward Boris Yeltsin's government. Last week in Oslo, Bill Clinton bluntly told Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that the Chechen war was damaging Russia's reputation, and that a political solution needed to be found in a hurry. By contrast, during the last Chechen war from 1994 to 1996, which left 80,000 dead and devastated the republic, Clinton compared Yeltsin to Abraham Lincoln trying to hold together the Union. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright condemned the "indiscriminate use of force against innocent civilians" after a column of refugees under Russian Red Cross escort was shelled early last week, killing at least 20 people. Heavy artillery attacks killed an additional 32 people in Grozny over the weekend.

But after ignoring Russian protests over NATO's Kosovo campaign, the West in fact has little moral or economic leverage over Russia. Putin cares almost solely about how the war is playing at home--and so far he is riding a wave of popular approval for the war. The International Monetary Fund, which is scheduled to disburse a $640 million tranche of a $4.5 billion loan next month, insists that its main concern is merely the effect that the war may have on Russia's budget. So Putin can shrug, and does: he has urged the West to give Russia "international support in fighting terrorism" and repeated that Chechnya was "a purely Russian issue."

That may be; but inside Russia the "issue" is causing chaos. On the Chechen side of the border with Ingushetia, a line of cars and trucks stretches for 10 to 20 kilometers--no one knows for sure, least of all the Russian authorities--as an estimated 40,000 people wait to escape the fighting. Near-hysterical refugees say at least six elderly people have suffered fatal heart attacks and a dozen people have been seriously injured in the crush. Ingush authorities say that the Russians are not allowing doctors or food to be sent to the Chechen side--though Russian soldiers have, in defiance of standing orders, been told by their officers to ferry some children and elderly people across the 10-kilometer no man's land on their armored personnel carriers. "People are going mad out there," says Sultan, an Ingush interior-forces officer. "The federal forces are torturing these people."

Russian authorities claim that they need to screen fleeing civilians to weed out "terrorists." But the process of checking names against a computer database is painfully slow, and at the current rate it will take another fortnight just to process those who are already waiting. "It's inefficiency, and it's revenge," says Mairbek Gaibekov, who had been waiting for his wife's relatives to cross for five days. "They want to punish all Chechens."

The refugees' problems don't end once they cross the border. In all, nearly a quarter of a million people--or two thirds of the population of Chechnya--have been forced to flee. More than 200,000 of them are already in Ingushetia, nearly doubling the population of the tiny, impoverished republic and completely overwhelming its meager resources. "Ingushetia will survive--but only if we get help, and a lot of help, fast," says Azamat Nalgiyev, a local member of Parliament. The majority of the Chechen refugees have been housed in army tents and abandoned railway carriages. But there is not enough shelter--or food, or fuel--to go round, and as the numbers of refugees swell, many are forced to build makeshift bivouacs and scavenge local dumps for building materials, clothing and food.

Ingushetia's president, Ruslan Aushev, has sharply criticized Moscow's latest war and predicted that if the federal authorities don't step in with a massive relief program "the Chechen people will not forgive Russia for generations." But Moscow, insisting that the refugee crisis--like the war--is an internal Russian problem, is reluctant to allow international aid agencies into the region. At the same time, Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry is struggling to cope, and international agencies themselves are wary of sending Western staff into the region because of a spate of kidnappings by Chechen gangs.

In the face of mounting criticism, Russia seems to be stepping up its offensive. Defense Minster Igor Sergeyev said last week that contrary to earlier plans to establish a "security zone" around the republic, Russian forces would retake the whole of Chechnya and stay there "forever." Air raids have been stepped up to more than 100 sorties a day, and the rumble of heavy artillery echoes along the Ingush border round the clock.

But as winter closes in on Chechnya, Moscow may begin to realize that subduing Chechnya may prove harder than its bullish generals imagine. Despite Russian television reports that morale in the Army is high, troops on the ground show little enthusiasm for the war. "If you want to know who needs this war, look in Moscow, in the Kremlin, where the politicians are dividing up the money they're making on us," says Sergei, an Interior Forces colonel who requested anonymity. "My boys don't have enough to eat--they want to go home; I want to go home."

According to the Defense Ministry's own statistics, 93 percent of the 30,000-strong force in Chechnya is made up of conscript soldiers who may be no match for battle-hardened Chechen fighters in infantry clashes. Two thirds of Chechen territory--including the mountainous south, which is inaccessible to heavy armor--is still in rebel hands. And the republic's two largest cities, Grozny and Gudermes, are still not taken. The hardest military tasks still lie ahead--that may mean a long war against a notoriously stubborn enemy. That's bad news for the refugees waiting for peace in their tent cities in Ingushetia, for the reluctant Russian conscripts in their damp dugouts on the front line--and also, potentially, for Vladimir Putin, for whom Chechnya could yet turn into a disaster of his very own.