A determined delegation of 10 women approached the gruff Russian border guards blocking the road from Chechnya today and from under their scarves they pleaded in unison: Let our children leave.
One guard in camouflage fatigues cruelly rebuffed them: "We'll let you leave when you're all dead."
But shortly afterward, an order came from an anonymous commander to permit six women and 18 ill children to cross the sealed Chechen frontier into the neighboring region of Ingushetia.
Only a handful of refugees have been able to escape the bombing and fighting in Chechnya since last weekend, when Russia closed the border between the breakaway region and Ingushetia. The few refugees who have crossed--another small group of women and children made the passage two days ago--tell stories of desperation and danger. They have been preyed upon by Islamic militants who resent their efforts to leave. They are bullied by Russian troops, who moved into Chechnya a month ago to shut down what Moscow officials see as a terrorist haven.
The refugees who made it across the border today said they have lived on bread and water for the past five days. Towns and villages along the Chechen side of the border have come under frequent fire from Russian helicopters and artillery, they said. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of refugees are stranded in the area trying to get out.
"Once, a helicopter fired bullets in a field near where people go to urinate," said Sharifa Nazhayev, who arrived today with two young daughters. "I think they want us even to die of a heart attack."
Russia has promised to open the main road west from Grozny, the Chechen capital, into Ingushetia on Friday. Until the border was closed, about 170,000 Chechens had poured into Ingushetia since late September. Tens of thousands of other Chechens have also fled their home villages and towns in advance of the Russian onslaught but remain inside the region.
Valery Kuksa, Ingushetia's emergencies coordinator, said he expected another 100,000 refugees to stream across the border if Russia opens the road. Added to the 170,000 refugees already here, that would amount to more than a quarter of the estimated population of Chechnya.
Many refugees said the last straw came on Oct. 21, when a Grozny market was hit by Russian rockets, reportely killing scores of people. "We knew we could not stay anymore," said Nazhayev, 27, who left Grozny two days later. "We know that anything and anyone can be hit."
Her husband, a truck driver, was not permitted to accompany her into Ingushetia. "The guards scolded him," she said. "They asked, 'Why are you trying to hide behind women's skirts? Go back and fight.' "
Nazhayev and a neighbor, Zina Shatayev, fled by bus. Normally, the fare to the border is 30 rubles, just over $1. The driver took pity and charged them 15 rubles because they would need the money for food, Nazhayev said.
Not all Chechens were so kind. Chechen militiamen sporting the characteristic long beards worn by the region's Islamic fundamentalists--called Wahhabis, after a pious Saudi Arabian sect--commandeered civilians' cars and trucks for the war effort, the women said. The rebels criticized men for fleeing.
The refugee women had nothing good to say about the Islamic rebels, who are led by Shamil Basayev, one of numerous Chechen guerrilla leaders who have made the republic a lawless redoubt. "They have built themselves big houses. Africans and Arabs run around like they own Chechnya. They have brought us plenty of disasters," said Shatayev, who brought a son with a chronic back problem out of Chechnya.
Along the way, the women said, Russian jets buzzed a refugee column but did not attack it. The main problems arose when the group arrived at the border to join other stranded refugees. Nazhayev said five children died from the cold and ailments.
On Tuesday, delegations of women visited the Russian border guard post to ask that they be allowed to cross. The Russians initially gave them a cold response, especially a guard named Vladimir. "He laughed and said, 'The more of you who die, the more we get paid,' " recalled one woman, who declined to give her name.
However, later in the day, Kuksa, the emergencies official, came to the border and arranged for the passage of a woman with two sick toddlers, plus four women who were breast feeding ill babies. Kuksa, who is a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, said he intervened to defuse a tense situation. "The Chechens were saying there was a child dead here, a child dead there. I don't know. I didn't witness it," he said. "But I arranged for some mothers and children to cross over."
He did not return today for the second release. "This is not my job," he said.