Hundreds of refugees from Chechnya are huddled here in railway cars on a train to nowhere.
They have fled to Ingushetia to escape the bombing and the ground fire in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, Russia's breakaway southern region. They have also run away from obscure Chechen hamlets that have been hit by airstrikes, rockets and artillery during a month-long Russian military offensive against separatist Islamic rebels.
Ingushetia, Chechnya's tiny neighbor, is host to the bulk of more than 170,000 refugees who have fled Chechnya over the past month. Most either rent rooms or have found shelter with friends or families, preventing the influx from becoming a humanitarian disaster.
Yet many refugees are without adequate shelter--about 5,000 live on this train parked near the Chechen-Ingush border, about 20 miles northeast of the Ingush capital. Another 15,000 are scattered across abandoned state farms, in cow sheds, garages, warehouses and factories. Ingushetia, with 340,000 inhabitants, runs along Chechnya's western border and is among Russia's most impoverished regions. The refugees have swelled its population by nearly 50 percent.
The Russian government has set up tent camps for only about 7,000 refugees, Ingush officials said. They have no running water, are overcrowded and lack food and medicine. Official Russian reports say, however, that the situation is under control.
"There are lots of promises, but things are not moving very fast," said Zarema Kurkieva, a representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Nazran, Ingushetia's largest city.
"For now, what has been provided is first aid," said Valery Kuksa, Ingushetia's chief emergencies coordinator. "But it is not enough. They say help is coming. I hope it will be enough."
Russia's slow aid effort contrasts sharply with the speed of its military buildup in and around Chechnya. Russia has mobilized 90,000 troops armed with rifles, machine guns, tanks, artillery and surface-to-surface missiles. Military traffic on Ingushetia's narrow roads has grown heavy the past two weeks as olive green convoys of troops, supply trucks and armored personnel carriers rumble to and from the Chechen border.
Chechnya has been virtually independent from Russia since Russian troops withdrew from Chechnya in 1996 after a bloody two-year war. But Russia sent troops back into the region in late September to end what Prime Minister Vladimir Putin says is a terrorist threat and to provide law and order in a region where banditry, kidnapping and gunplay rule. It is hard, however, to persuade refugees like those on the train that Moscow has their interests at heart.
"I am tired of hearing how Putin is going to create a normal life for us," said Shirvani Daoud Nerzaem, who was packed into a passenger wagon with 55 members of his extended family, 27 children among them. "Russia never has provided a normal life and never will."
The train is about 100 wagons long, and is made up of sleeper cabins with shelf-like, second class beds. It was put here by the Ingush government to serve as a temporary shelter.
Nerzaem, 27, and his family are living off grain and flour they brought from Grozny. They came with blankets and the clothes they wore. Bread and sugar are provided free. Meat must be bought on the market. Overhead, the whisper of high-flying jets heralded bombing to the east, inside Chechnya. The thuds of shelling in nearby mountain ranges made Nerzaem's four small children wince.
"The last war went on for [two] years. I can't imagine living here for that long," Narzaem said. He is from Urus Martan, a town that suffered recent heavy bombing.
Not far away on an abandoned state farm, the Zaurbayev family turned a room at the end of a low barn into a dormitory about the size of a walk-in closet. They have set up a wood-burning stove. There is electricity too, although Ingushetia is subject to sporadic brownouts.
Shaban Zaubayev, 40, a mason from Zandak, built bunk beds out of scavenged planks. The place is not insulated, and the five children caught colds. They have slightly pinched cheeks indicating undernourishment.
Zaurbayev is doing odd jobs such as harvesting potatoes to earn money for food.
"They bombed Zandak hard. We couldn't stay. Zandak is close to Dagestan, but the Russians said we could only leave for Ingushetia," he said, shortly after walking in the door with beef bones to make soup. "They seem to be bombing with everything short of nuclear weapons. Perhaps that is next. The Russians say they love us. That is rather hard to believe."
For all the hardships, many refugees worry about relatives left behind. Last weekend, Russian troops sealed the Chechen-Ingush frontier, stranding thousands of refugees inside the war zone. At first, government officials said they closed the border to curtail smuggling of gasoline and cars. Later, the Federal Security Service, Russia's intelligence agency, said the closure was aimed at preventing guerrillas from crossing the border.
Umar Gamulayev, who lives in the 4,000-resident Sputnik tent city, said his sister, Marian, returned to Grozny last week to retrieve some household goods and got trapped. Her toddler son is in Sputnik, in the care of an aunt among three other adults and 18 other children. "Of course, the child cries every day. We don't even have a way to talk to my sister," said Gamulayev, 44. The phones, along with electric power, are not functioning in Chechnya.
Tamara Natayev rented a large room of a private house in Nazran. Several relatives remain in Chechnya. "Who knows if they are stuck on the road? When we left, we were afraid of what was there. Now we are afraid of what we'll find when we go back," she said.
The Russians have pledged to open one border crossing Friday, said Kuksa, the Ingush emergencies coordinator.
Chechens have become pariahs in the rest of Russia because they are blamed for the bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow and two other cities in September that killed more than 300 people. Few Russians have objected to the decision to close their escape routes or keep them inside Ingushetia.
Only a few refugees with relatives or other connections deeper inside Russia can leave Ingushetia. Every day, Chechens line up at the government Migration Office in Nazran petitioning for permission to go north. "I've been coming for eight days," said Sayid Hunayev, from Grozny. "Every day, they say 'Come tomorrow.' "
CAPTION: Chechens get out of a truck in Ingushetia, where many refugees have fled to escape the violence of the Russian invasion of their homeland.
CAPTION: Chechen refugees prepare food in a camp near the Ingush-Chechen border.