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NEWS FEATURE: Chechen Refugees Fear Iraq War Is Making Them Forgotten People

c. 2003 Religion News Service KARABULAK, Russia _ Aset Mutsuyeva lives in a barn. She counts herself lucky. Some of the dozens of other Chechen refugees housed in a former farm here live with actual cows, whose smell becomes overpowering when temperatures soar over 100 degrees. Still, at 63 years old, with shrapnel in her […]

c. 2003 Religion News Service

KARABULAK, Russia _ Aset Mutsuyeva lives in a barn. She counts herself lucky.

Some of the dozens of other Chechen refugees housed in a former farm here live with actual cows, whose smell becomes overpowering when temperatures soar over 100 degrees.

Still, at 63 years old, with shrapnel in her right leg from a Russian bomb and coming up on her fourth year in this refugee settlement, Mutsuyeva has given up hope that she will live to see peace in a region where war has raged and sputtered since 1994.

“Now that military operations have started in Iraq, no one will pay attention to our problem,” says Mutsuyeva, a handsome woman with a dignified bearing, as she sits on a tiny stool in a friend’s cubicle in the barn. “Maybe it would be better if it were all ended with a nuclear bomb and we were killed that way.”

Refugees’ poverty, hopelessness and sense that the world has forgotten their predicament combine to send many of them into a deep and lasting funk, say medical workers with World Vision, the U.S.-based Christian humanitarian organization that offers the refugees free care.

In the deeply traditional, staunchly Muslim and rigidly patriarchal Chechen society, women, especially, struggle with depression and thoughts of suicide, says a World Vision psychologist who comes to the dairy farm for counseling sessions.

“Just a few days ago, I had a woman come to me and say, `You know, I don’t eat. Only when my five children and my husband are full. Only then do I eat what is left over,”’ says Maya Ezhiyeva, herself a refugee from Grozny, Chechnya’s capital. “This war touched everyone. They lost someone close to them, killed or disappeared. People live with this trauma every day.”

Once a week, Ezhiyeva and three other doctors arrive at the dairy farm/refugee camp and spend the day in a small olive green canvas tent, the interior of which is partitioned by white sheets to give each doctor privacy for examinations. Ezhiyeva plays relaxing music on a small tape player so that she and her patients cannot be overheard.

What Ezhiyeva hears over and over again is that people _ especially mothers _ have no hope for their children.

“Some weep because they lost their children. Others weep because they are afraid of losing their children,” says Ezhiyeva, adding that she detected a “kernel of hope” that Chechnya’s March 23 constitutional referendum might bring change.

In the referendum, heavily promoted by the Russian government, a whopping 95 percent of the voters allegedly supported a new constitution reaffirming the republic’s membership in the Russian federation. Chechen opposition leaders derided the Soviet-style results.

The referendum was designed, in part, to bolster Moscow’s claim that the security situation in Chechnya has stabilized. It has not, as is witnessed by the frequent bombings, kidnappings and skirmishes between Russian soldiers and Chechen rebels seeking independence.

Such dangers hinder the work of World Vision, which operates four mobile medical teams, two among refugees in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia and two in Chechnya proper.

“I don’t go anywhere without a man with a gun,” says program manager Perry Mansfield, an American who is based in Ingushetia and has yet to set foot inside Chechnya in his 11/2 years on the job. “It is clear that it is not safe there, no matter how much the government says the military phase is over. … I can’t monitor what we do in Chechnya. I can’t assess the need in Chechnya.”

In an interview before the referendum, Mansfield was skeptical that it would bring change, saying, “I don’t think we’ll see white flags flying from the hills,” in reference to the Chechen rebels concentrated in the mountains of southern Chechnya.

On the day of the referendum, at a heavily guarded polling station in the Chechen village of Achkoi-Martan, a steady trickle of voters arrived on foot to vote. As Russian soldiers with automatic weapons lounged on a nearby bench, two local schoolteachers paused to explain that they voted `yes’ to the proposed Chechen constitution in hopes it would bring peace.

“We’ve seen war twice already. We don’t want to see any more. My 5-year-old boy is still afraid of loud noises. I don’t want him to grow up in fear,” says Zura Bashayeva, 49, the deputy director of a nearby orphanage substantially damaged by Russian bombers.

Despite the referendum’s passage and Russian officials’ promise of an amnesty for certain Chechen rebels, fear and uncertainty reign in Chechnya and among the 100,000 refugees living in nearby Ingushetia.

World Vision doctors point to the Russian military’s so-called “cleanup” operations as the biggest single source of anxiety. The dreaded cleanups, painstakingly documented by human rights organizations, often amount to little more than the kidnapping of young Chechen men by Russian mercenaries.

According to parents interviewed in Ingushetia and Achkoi-Martan, the cost of buying a relative’s release begins at $1,000. Ezhiyeva, the World Vision psychologist, says Chechens may be baffled by the larger causes of the wars and lawlessness plaguing their land but they understand perfectly well the business of kidnapping.

Sitting in the 15-foot-by-25-foot cubicle shared by 13 people in the refugees’ barn, Zaiba Gezmakhmayeva, 64, turns the conversation from the referendum to something more pressing _ the disappearance of a boy relative who recently went missing in the city of Urus-Martan.

“If it works out well, we’ll pay his ransom. If not, he’ll just disappear. We’ll never see him again,” Gezmakhmayeva says succinctly.

DEA END BROWN