Chechens Pick the Tent Life

AKI-YURT TENT CAMP, Ingushetia -- Ghaida, 43, has been living in the Aki-Yurt tent camp in northern Ingushetia for three years with her husband and five children -- ranging in age from 23 to four.

Her youngest, who hides behind his mother's legs when strangers enter the scrupulously clean tent, soon recovers sufficiently to pull faces and run around like a mad thing.

The camp life is all he knows, but Ghaida says she will not return to Chechnya until she is sure her menfolk will be safe there.

"I'm afraid to go back there. ... I have a son who is 20 years old," she said, tucking her dark hair back into her headscarf.

"In 1996, in the first war, my husband's brother was burned to death. ... I don't want this for my son," she added.

"Here it is calmer than in Chechnya, here we are not afraid to go to sleep. When I am sure that we can be guaranteed a peaceful life there, only then will we return."

She said the family home in the mountain village of Pervomaiskoye, southeast of Grozny, had been partially destroyed, but they hoped to rebuild it.

Ghaida is among tens of thousands of Chechens preparing to spend their third winter in tent camps in the regions neighboring Chechnya. Russia says life is returning to normal in Chechnya, but few of the Chechens believe that life is any better there now than it was before the military compaign started in 1994.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates there are some 160,000 displaced Chechens in the region itself and a further 150,000 in Ingushetia, on the republic's western border.

Many have been living in tents since the current conflict flared in October 1999.

Others were fortunate enough to find homes with host families or shelter in empty buildings.

Russia has offered cash, aid and temporary housing to those willing to return home. But it seems this is not enough.

"The impression you get talking to IDPs [internally displaced persons] is that they are looking for a fundamental breakthrough, not just little bits here and there," said Jon Hoisaeter, UNHCR protection officer for the North Caucasus.

"The federal army is not trusted by the Chechen population. Until there is a fundamental change you won't see massive returns."

In November, Moscow held talks with a rebel representative for the first time in the current campaign, so far with no concrete results.

Graffiti on the green, UNHCR-stamped tents is testament to the anti-war feeling. "Stop the war" is daubed in Russian on one; "Pull out the troops" says another.

Russia is fighting its second post-Soviet campaign against Chechen separatists after withdrawing in ignominy in 1996 and granting the region de facto independence.

Moscow says it has established control over Chechnya, but its troops still die almost daily in guerrilla raids. Around 80,000 soldiers are still stationed there, after the government shelved plans this year for a dramatic pullout.

Saida, 13, from Grozny has been living in B Camp, one of four at eastern Ingushetia's Sleptsovskaya site, for two years. She says she has no family there. "It's just me and my mom."

Aid workers say her experience is typical.

"Quite often the families here have no adult males, as they have disappeared or been killed," said Philippe Genoud, UNHCR technical coordinator for the region.

Others stay behind in Chechnya to fight or earn some money, Genoud said.

Human rights groups have been vocal in condemning the notorious zachistki, or mopping-up operations carried out by troops in Chechnya, saying soldiers routinely round up hundreds of men in villages and beat and torture them.

Officials deny systematic human rights violations.

Aid workers are racing against the clock to ensure refugees are kept warm and dry in sub-freezing winter temperatures.

"Effectively the work for winterization only started in October and November. We are doing everything possible to get them all in a dry place," Genoud said.

"Most of the tents are sufficient for the summertime, but not for the wintertime. They need supplementary protection against the cold, and especially against the damp."

As the white jeep with the blue UNHCR logo turns past the barbed-wire fence, down a mud track and into Aki-Yurt, a short ride from the Chechen border, curious children gather round.

The camp, shrouded in mist rolling through hills, is home to around 6,000 people, some of whom approach the visitors to put their case.

Chickens and turkeys peck at the stony ground.

"Please tell the gentleman I need him to come and see my tent. It needs repairing or replacing," one woman says.

Aid workers say the mood in the camps is better than it was several weeks ago when winterization work had just started.

The workers say people are happier as long as they see something being done.

"People need more blankets and even more beds. They need stoves and more coal, because gas supplies don't always get through," Genoud said. "Also the kids often have no shoes or jackets or adequate head coverings, so it's not only a question of shelter, it's general preparation."

Wooden shacks, separate for men and women, serve as toilets.

Health regulations state they must be at least 30 meters from dwelling areas and water sources and emptied regularly.

Aid agencies say the greatest health risks are tuberculosis and influenza. AIDS is a growing concern.

Each camp has its own medical station and the aid agency Medecins Sans Frontiers, or Doctors Without Borders, runs mobile clinics.

Some refugees can go to local hospitals.

Security checks are also paramount, as tents have been known to burn down and safety regulations are not always respected.

Genoud points to a tent anchored to a gas pipe and reprimands its owner.

"Please get that off. ... One cigarette is all it takes."