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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Scared Refugees Regret Returning Home

NAZRAN, Ingushetia — Chechen refugees who found safety in Ingushetia are being sent back to Chechnya and settled in Argun, one of the republic's most dangerous towns.

The federal government would like to show that life is returning to normal in Chechnya, but according to the Memorial human rights group, the first group of 177 refugees who arrived in Argun on Tuesday immediately regretted they had come.

As the refugees were settling into their new homes in a dormitory and two former kindergartens, federal troops were out in the area seeking retaliation for the explosion of a land mine earlier that day.

As the newly arrived refugees watched, federal troops shot and killed a local man, Zarman Khamtsuyev, a lathe operator at a technical college in his mid-40s.

Lipkhan Bazayeva, a Memorial representative in Ingushetia, said the man had run out onto the street after hearing gunfire and the soldiers pointed their assault rifles at him. "He shouted that he works there, but they shot him point blank," Bazayeva said Thursday by telephone.

Bazayeva said she heard about the killing from Tamara, a Chechen woman who had returned to the Sputnik refugee camp in Ingushetia from Argun on Wednesday.

Tamara, who asked that her last name be withheld, said Khamtsuyev's violent death was all the newly relocated refugees were talking about. They came out onto the streets shouting and cursing those who had talked them into returning to Chechnya.

"They understood that they had walked into a trap," said Bazayeva said. The families, persuaded they would be safe and well cared for in Chechnya, had given up their tents in Ingushetia's refugee camps and had nothing to go back to. Even so, two families had returned from Argun, she said.

Such violence is not unusual in Argun, which lies between the relatively rebel-free districts in the north of Chechnya and the mountains in the south, where the rebels are based and fighting is still in full swing. Every day, land mines explode and people are killed.

The federal minister in charge of Chechnya, Vladimir Yelagin, defended the decision to send refugees to Argun.

"Because most are from Grozny, and Argun is the closest town to it. They want to be close to home," he said in response to a question at a news conference in Moscow on Wednesday.

Bazayeva said, "Of course everyone wants to get close to home. But no one wants to die."

Ingush President Ruslan Aushev said the federal government was more concerned about its image than about the refugees.

"When international organizations come here, including the Council of Europe or European Parliament or other human-rights organizations, they see all those tents," Aushev said Sunday on TV6's "Itogi" program.

"And they ask [the Russian government] — if you say that you have resolved the Chechen problem, why are refugees not going back if everything is all right there?" Aushev said.

Bazayeva was more blunt. "When there are no complaining people, it [the government] can say that it has solved the Chechen problem. People will be dying in Chechnya, but no one will know about it."

Sixteen human rights organizations, including Memorial and the Moscow Helsinki Group, signed an open letter to President Vladimir Putin on Thursday urging him to stop the relocation of refugees back to Chechnya.

The Chechen government plans to bring all 35,000 refugees from the camps in Ingushetia to Chechnya by the end of the year. It hopes this will help re-route more of the humanitarian aid from Ingushetia to Chechnya.

"We don't want to go there," Yesita Gakshiyeva, 45, a refugee from Grozny who lives with her extended family of eight in the Sputnik camp in Nazran, said last week.

"I am afraid for my sons. There are no guarantees that they will not be arrested in Chechnya," she said. Like many Chechens, she has a family member who has been killed.

"My son-in-law, from Noviye Atagi, went out to the toilet early one morning and was spotted by soldiers who were riding by in an armored car," Gakshiyeva said. "He died five days later — we got his corpse with several bones broken and fingers smashed."

Lecha Visaitov, 41, who lives with six families in a tent in the Bart camp in Karabulak, said they would like to go home. "Our house in Alkhan-Yurt is 60 percent destroyed, but we could rebuild it," he said. "But we are afraid of cleansings, arrests, murders there. My cousin had to pay bribes to get his relatives out of detention in Gekhi-Chu. I will not go there before it all stops."

The federal government, however, has already taken steps to force refugees to return to Chechnya. A government decree issued in March forbid humanitarian organizations from distributing aid in the refugee camps after April 1, directing them to distribute food only to refugees living in private homes.

Hot food and bread are to be distributed in the camps only by the Emergency Situations Ministry, according to the decree. But no hot food has been supplied since March 26 and bread supplies — half a loaf every second day — only resumed this week, Memorial said.

Magomed Gireyev, who heads the Ingush office of the Nationalities and Migration Ministry, said the problem is that suppliers are refusing to deliver food until they are paid for past supplies, and the Finance Ministry is behind on allocating funds. It owes 180 million rubles ($6.25 million) for food alone, he said. Ingushetia has 150,000 registered refugees.

Violating the government decree, aid organizations continued giving food parcels to the camp residents in April — 13.5 kilograms of flour, some rice, sugar and salt — but their food stocks were almost exhausted by the beginning of last week.

Zhenati Mirzoyeva, 47, shares a tent in the Bart camp with 17 other people and said they were left with 10 kilograms of rice, flour for two days and a bottle of oil. "Today we asked our neighbors for some tvorog and made pies. But we have already sold almost all of our things and only a little gold jewelry is left for sale," Mirzoyeva said. "I have no idea what we will eat then."

Gireyev said a wise government would create good conditions in Chechnya so that the refugees would want to go home. "What this government is doing is making things worse for them here so that they go back," he said. "All they want is safety."

Valery Kuksa, the Ingush emergency situations minister, also criticized the decision to relocate refugees to temporary homes, such as the renovated kindergartens in Argun.

"Why did they spend all this money to build temporary housing when they could have invested it into the restoration of the Chechens' own homes and they would have happily returned there?" Kuksa said on "Itogi."

"I think they just want to report to the president of the Russian Federation, 'Vladimir Vladimirovich, all the people are back and the camps are liquidated.

"And after that, even if 300,000 homeless Chechens are hanging around in Ingushetia, no one will worry about it," Kuksa said.