Having fled a relentless onslaught of bombs and sought refuge in an indifferent, even hostile, Russia, thousands of refugees from Chechnya today faced yet another nightmare--a punishing cold snap that invaded shelters which in many cases were already inadequate.
Early nighttime temperatures dropped to the teens and were forecast to reach zero in Ingushetia, the little Russian region west of Chechnya where most of the nearly 200,000 refugees have fled. Even in official camps set up to house about 10,000 refugees, ice was forming on the insides of heated tents. Refugees at a tent city here in Karabulak, about nine miles inside Ingushetia, pleaded for bigger wood-burning stoves. Children shivered in their mothers' arms and old people lay listlessly under piles of blankets.
"We already have three children in the hospital with lung troubles," said Adlan Shayipov, who until today lived in an abandoned bus with 26 members of his extended family. "We are going to freeze tonight. This tent was made for two stoves, but they gave us only one, and it is too small."
The misery of the refugees in the unseasonably cold weather stood in marked contrast to comments from the government of President Boris Yeltsin that Chechnya's humanitarian catastrophe is an invention of the West.
Responding to reports of indiscriminate bombing by the Russians and growing Chechen civilian casualties, the Clinton administration and other Western governments have stepped up criticism of the six-week ground offensive and called for talks to end it. The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees warned of deteriorating conditions for civilians inside Chechnya who have been displaced by the war.
In Moscow, the civilian bombardments produced the first cracks in support for the war among Russia's top politicians. Today, Grigory Yavlinsky, head of the social democratic Yabloko party, called for talks with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov.
Yavlinsky said Russia must "stop the massive bombing of the territory of the Chechen republic" and "suspend broad-scale ground offensive operations." He in effect suggested that Russia declare victory. "The Russian armed forces have fulfilled their mission," Yavlinsky said. [See story, Page A36]
Meanwhile, thousands of refugees were spread throughout other areas of Ingushetia, huddled in abandoned, snow-covered farms, factories and construction sites, sometimes sitting around open indoor fires or stoves. Most refugees, Ingush officials said, are housed in private homes and protected from the cold; otherwise the crisis would be graver.
The U.N. refugee agency said about 4,000 refugees a day are fleeing Chechnya. The border was reopened last week after Russian troops had sealed it for 12 days. Panicked refugees continue to line up in cars and buses extending four miles into the territory.
Russia has supplied some food, including bread and cooking oil, along with tents and beds for the refugees. Most medical supplies as well as some shelter are being provided by the Ingush government. "Russian help has been slow, and way too little," said Azamat Nalgiyev, a member of the Ingush parliament.
But Moscow has been largely unmoved by the refugees' plight. On Monday, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov warned ambassadors from the Group of Seven industrialized countries, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that word of a refugee crisis is being spread "for the sole purpose of putting pressure on Russia."
He said that the West used the term "humanitarian catastrophe" to excuse its bombing of Yugoslavia, in purported defense of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians. "It's a banal scenario which was also used in the Balkans. This term was used exclusively to justify the military operation," he said, adding, "A rigorous tone should not be used in dealing with Russia."
Today, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin repeated Moscow's contention that unless "terrorists" in Chechnya are eliminated in the offensive, Russia is in for continual attack. Russia blames Chechens for a series of Russian apartment building bombings that took nearly 300 lives.
"Do you see?" he said. "After numerous attacks on a neighboring republic, we were forced to take the only possible decision--the only possible decision--and to eliminate the terrorists at their bases. Otherwise we will have the same thing four, five or 10 times. They'd come here 100 times. We have no choice, and we can't just send in one special unit or a local policeman with a gun."
The refugee exodus is far greater than during the last war in Chehcnya, which ended in 1996 after two years with Chechnya effectively free of Moscow's control. Only about 30,000 refugees fled to Ingushetia in that conflict.
Russian television broadcasts daily scenes of airstrikes, massed artillery fire and assaults by multiple-launch Grad rockets, which Moscow says are aimed at guerrilla positions. Foreign broadcasts display neighborhoods of Grozny, the region's capital, hit by bombardments. Witnesses report attacks on other towns and hamlets throughout the region.
In Karabulak's tent city, conditions ranged from the barely tolerable to dangerously unhealthy. Dagman Datsayev said children in her tent were sent to a neighboring shelter because the stove was too small and warmed only the center of the structure. Cold seeped through wooden floors and pierced the edges of the canvas tent, which were lined with felt and cotton. The two dozen occupants were in danger of eviction; the original inhabitants had gone to live with friends, but were coming back because their hosts cannot afford to keep them.
Datsayev wore only the sweater and dress she brought from home in September when she grabbed her toddler son and fled the first bombs that fell in her neighborhood. Her feet are covered only by sandals. She has to beg food from other refugees because she left home in such haste that she forgot her identification documents.
"I don't know where we'll go tomorrow," she said.
CAPTION: Two women who fled Chechnya sit in a railway car near the Chechen-Ingush border. An early cold snap threatened the health of many refugees in such inadequate shelters.