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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Frightened Minorities Flee Crackdown

Too frightened to stay in Moscow, Annaida, a 39-year-old Armenian mother of three, is fleeing back to another grim winter in food- and fuel-rationed Yerevan.


At least 10, 000 traders, ordinary workers and refugees like Annaida, who lack a Moscow propiska, or residency permit, have fled the capital in the last week, scared that they too will be caught in the dragnet that the authorities are casting for illegal residents from the Caucasus.


This is in addition to more than 4, 000 people who have been forcibly deported from Moscow, many of them first taken to detention centers scattered around the city and then put on trains bound for the south.


The crackdown, portrayed by the authorities as a war against crime rather than against foreigners, has provoked little negative response from Muscovites, who largely blame nationals of the Caucasus republics for much of the organized crime in Moscow. But for Caucasus nationals, life in Moscow has become a desperate quest to avoid the police and the feared OMON - the Interior Ministry's black-clad crack troops - who are conducting random checks of documents and make no secret of singling out people on an ethnic basis.


A document circulated to the Moscow traffic police specified that they should seek out people from the Caucasus. and human rights groups here say that the security forces are also targeting Central Asians, specifically Tajiks and Uzbeks.


Annaida, who refused to give her last name, fled to Moscow during the summer, driven from her native Armenia by the lack of fuel, food and electricity in the blockaded nation, which is at war with Azerbaijan. But she and her children, aged 11, 10 and 2, are heading back on Friday.


"I don't know what I will do in Yerevan", she said. "But here I am scared to even go outside.


"My husband goes to work in the early hours of the morning and is home by 6: 30. After that we don't leave the house".


The stories of fellow Armenians have only frightened them more. Annaida said that a pregnant Armenian girl she knew went for a walk at 10 P. M. - an hour before the curfew was due to start - and was dragged off to a police station for a whole night.


Others fall into the hands of the police, and under their truncheons, are being deported, and possessions and documents are frequently confiscated. The resulting fear among the Caucasus community has led to a mass flight - a fact that the police themselves acknowledge.


The figure of 10, 000 people having left the city of their own volition was cited by Colonel General Alexander Kulikov, the commandant of the state of emergency, according to Interfax.


"They feel guilty for their wrongdoings and have decided to escape from the city", said his spokeswoman, Galina Odinokova, who confirmed the figure.


According to Kulikov, an additional 4, 267 illegal residents have been forcibly deported in the 10 days since emergency rule was imposed.


Odinokova said that Moscow police forces were using whatever facilities they had at their disposal to hold detainees until they were deported. She said that although stadiums had originally been prepared for those being rounded up, they had not been used, and that there were no central holding camps.


In the southeastern district of Moscow, the police are using an old cultural center on Ulitsa Kemerova, next to the police headquarters, to house detainees. The Armenian Embassy alerted The Moscow Times to the existence of the detention center. Gayani Ambartsumian, the press attache, said Tuesday that an Armenian prisoner had thrown a piece of paper to a passerby asking her to call the embassy.


Police interviewed Tuesday night refused to say how many people were being held there, and refused a reporter access. They said that Caucasus nationals as well as Koreans were inside, and added that there was a rapid turnover as people were deported every evening, and fresh prisoners were brought in each day.


At 5: 30 P. M. on Tuesday, a group of OMON troops went inside the building and marched 12 men and a woman out and on to a waiting bus. The detainees bore no obvious signs of ill-treatment. Police said they were bound for Kursky Station, from which trains out of town head south.


Witnesses outside other "processing centers" reported seeing friends and relatives of people who had disap-peared seeking information about those inside. They were denied access by heavily armed guards.


The ethnic-oriented campaign has sparked protests from international human rights groups.


Helsinki Watch, a division of Human Rights Watch, issued a statement Wednesday saying: "Using the propiska system against non-Russians as a way of fighting crime is discriminatory because it affects the individuals of particular nationalities, and amounts to collective punishment of those nationalities".


Rachel Denber, the Moscow representative for Helsinki Watch, charged in a telephone interview Wednesday that the Moscow law authorities were "playing on popular racism" in their campaign against the capital's non-Russian residents. In a letter sent to Mayor Yury Luzhkov, the organization cited the cases of at least one refugee whose documentation proving refugee status was torn up by police.


Hundreds of refugees in search of such supposedly helpful papers were crowding into the rooms of the Georgian Consulate off the Arbat on Wednesday.


"It's like this every day", said the General-Consul, Alexei Papoashvili.


So far the Georgian Consulate has registered 7, 000 refugees, but Papoashvili estimates that there are actually 30, 000 in Moscow. Many of the Georgians, like Annaida, are frightened.


"I don't go out anymore", said Lyela, 23, who also declined to give her full name. A pale, slender woman with green eyes and dark hair, she held on tightly to her 4-year-old son, Guran, as people shoved forward into the room to file for refugee papers.


But unlike Annaida, Lyela cannot go home.


She and her husband left Sukhumi a year ago, before it fell to separatist Abkhazian rebels. Lyela said she has heard that her house burned down.


"We have absolutely nothing left", she said quietly. "We have nowhere to go".