Early this morning, hundreds of Chechens who have fled to Ingushetia stood in a drizzle, awaiting relatives trapped inside Chechnya, for the scheduled 6 a.m. opening of the border. Then the hour was changed to 9 a.m.
At about 10, a Russian-manned loudspeaker at the barbed-wired crossing blared that the border, which was closed a week ago, would not reopen. The voice blamed Ingushetia, a tiny, impoverished Russian region to Chechnya's west, for failing to set up a proper regime of passport control and auto inspection.
"Dear citizens. The Russian armed forces are ready to open the border and permit people to pass into Ingushetia. But for fault of the Ingush government, this can not happen today. . . . Avoid provocative acts and remain calm. Return home."
At that last remark, made without a hint of irony, a group of about 200 Chechen women here on the Ingush side shouted almost in unison: "Home! What homes?"
Civilians appear to be the main victims of Russia's month-long military assault on separatist guerrillas in the breakaway region of Chechnya in which villages and towns have been indiscriminately bombed and shelled. Tens of thousands have fled their homes.
The Chechens are not alone. The last year of the century has been a year in which belligerent governments, claiming the moral high ground, have launched military campaigns in the name of fighting evil--and in the process attacked civilian targets, driving hundreds of thousands of refugees out of their houses.
Serbia assaulted Kosovo, saying it was trying to squash a separatist Albanian guerrilla movement in its southern province. It killed an estimated 10,000 civilians and drove more than 800,000 people into neighboring Macedonia and Albania.
NATO attacked Serbia from the air in the name of protecting Kosovo's ethnic Albanians. While NATO succeeded in returning the ethnic Albanians to Kosovo, its airstrikes killed hundreds of Serbian civilians and provoked an exodus of tens of thousands from cities into the countryside.
Now, Russia insists it is making war not against the Chechen people, whom Moscow claims as its own citizens. Moscow says its aim is to stamp out Islamic militias that invaded Dagestan, another neighboring Russian region, as well as terrorists, whom it blames for bombing Russian apartment buildings, killing nearly 300 people. Yet, since it crossed into Chechnya last month, the Russian military has been bombing Chechen towns and villages from the air, and with multiple rocket launchers, howitzers and tanks.
Gen. Vladimir Shamanov gave a flavor of the Russian mood when he arrived at the border this morning to affirm its closure. He berated loitering refugees for last month's apartment building blasts in Moscow and other cities. Then he said flatly, "The road will not be open today."
Russia has made little provision for refugees in Ingushetia, which has a normal population of 340,000. Almost all the 170,000 refugees who have fled Chechnya in the past two months are sheltered in the region. As many as 100,000 more may be on the Chechen side of the border waiting to get out, according to Ingush officials.
International aid has been mainly limited to medical supplies, plastic sheeting and blankets. Ingush officials say they need 70 tons of flour a day to feed the refugees, but in the past month have received 200 tons from Russia. The price of bread has doubled in October.
Since the border was sealed, Russian forces have let only several hundred women and children through to seek medical care. Late this afternoon, more than 100 were let in, including a convoy of about 40 Chechens, five of them children, who were wounded in Grozny and other towns in the past few days. The crossing lies on the main road from Grozny, the Chechen capital, to Nazran, Ingushetia's biggest city.
The refugees painted a picture of near panic in Grozny. Russian troops are at the outskirts of the city and residential areas have been bombed. Grozny refugees said the Russians usually bomb the capital after 10 p.m., sometimes stopping at midnight, sometimes firing through the night. For more than a month, most of Grozny has been without electric power, cooking gas and running water.
Luba Zhibulev, a middle-aged woman who left the city two days ago, said food is increasingly scarce and neighbors rely on one another to provide sugar, flour and other essentials. "There is no government there. Only fighters and frightened civilians. I think everyone would leave if they could," she said.
"People are going mad. They cry suddenly, or wake up screaming. Faces are turning to stone. I have never felt such tension," said Hava Arayev, a mother of two from Urus Martan, a Chechen town that has suffered heavy airstrikes.
The Chechen civilians insist that the Islamic militants do not enjoy wide support. On this lonely stretch of road, it is easy to find someone critical of Shamil Basayev, the guerrilla commander who led the Dagestan incursion, and his aide, an Arab Islamic militant known as Khattab. "Basayev and Khattab are [bad]," said Itimat Magomedov, speaking with the weary abandon of an elderly woman who has had to drag a bundle of blankets two miles across the frontier no man's land.
As the refugees tugged their meager belongings into Ingushetia, Zulihan Deniyeva approached the crossing in hopes of being allowed to reenter Chechnya. She left a week ago to buy food and medicines in Ingushetia, leaving her husband and three children behind. The border closure left her stranded.
Deniyeva asked Russian armed police troops guarding the crossing when they might let her in. One shouted back, "First we'll go into Grozny, and then you can come in, to collect your dead men."