In a telling reversal of the human flow through this chaotic checkpoint on Chechnya's western border, thousands of refugees are lining up to return to their homes in Chechen towns conquered by Russian forces in their current offensive.
In recent days, for the first time since the Russian ground campaign began 2 1/2 months ago, the number of people reentering Chechnya from the neighboring republic of Ingushetia exceeded the number fleeing it. While about 200,000 Chechen refugees remain in Ingushetia, the decision by many to return could represent an early success in Russian efforts to pacify the rebellious republic under Moscow's control.
The returning refugees said they are tired of wintry life in tent camps, abandoned buildings and as guests of friends and relatives. When they receive word that their towns and villages are quiet and the war has moved on, they pile belongings into trucks or squeeze into decrepit buses for the journey back.
The journeys are not without hazards. Refugees coming out of Chechnya said roads are still subject to shelling, especially close to the capital of Grozny, which is still under rebel control. Nonetheless, the shift in the tide indicates that no one expects the Russian sweep to be turned back soon.
The refugee returns have exceeded the daily outflow by several hundred for several days, with more than 4,000 moving each way. Today, the numbers going back appeared to far exceed those coming out, although specific figures were not available.
Of the returnees, some are scouts, mostly women, sent by families to assess the situation. Still others are merchants carrying food and toiletries inside for sale at meager markets. But most are haggard refugees trying to restore shattered lives.
"We are willing to take a chance. Our house is damaged, but still standing. We'd rather live there in the cold than here," said Timur Khandorov, who was traveling with his family to Urus-Martan, a town recently conquered by Russian troops.
Khandorov was sitting precariously atop a formidable pile of chairs, blankets, clothing and blankets on the back of a two-ton truck. He said that the Russian occupiers have set up a civil administration in Urus-Martan under the guidance of a Chechen who is known as a neutral. His father visited Urus-Martan Sunday and gave the all-clear. "I hope he is right," Khandorov said.
Russian officials are counting on fatigue among civilians and guerrillas to ease a restoration of Moscow's control over Chechnya. Today, the Russian parliament issued an amnesty for anyone who had committed "public-threatening actions" during the war. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said the amnesty would reduce Russian military casualties. "A growing number of people cooperate constructively with the federal authorities," he said.
Malika Bakuyev, from Alkhan-Yurt, said she would try to return to her hometown, which borders Grozny to the southwest, on Tuesday to inspect her family's house. The town was badly battered when the Russians invaded Dec. 1. "Alkhan-Yurt is wrecked, but we don't want to stay away. Everything we have is there. I hope," she said. Her doubts grew with reports that Russians had looted houses there.
Russia has moved quickly to restore utilities and schools in the northern section of Chechnya already under its control. Most military units are stationed outside towns, although riot police usually occupy a central building to keep order.
The Russians have placed Moscow loyalists or Chechens who opposed the central government of President Aslan Maskhadov in administrative posts. In Chechnya's fractured prewar political landscape, many towns opposed Maskhadov's rule, although they did not necessarily favor a return of Russian troops, who were driven out by separatist Chechens in a brutal civil war that ended three years ago.
Few refugees arrived from Grozny today. The Russians had threatened to obliterate the city last weekend, and warned civilians to flee. The promised heavy air and artillery strikes have not materialized, although today, artillery peppered the outskirts of the city. The renewed shelling seemed to be one factor in the unwillingness of many to leave the capital.
The family of Jamil Abdukharuv left Grozny in a little white sedan Sunday. They arrived in Ingushetia today having spent the night at a crossroads south of Alkhan-Yurt. "The road beyond was being shelled," said Jamil. "We did not leave Grozny to die on the way here."
Russian forces are inching closer and closer to Grozny's edge. Today, troops occupied Khankala, a village that abuts Grozny on the east side, putting them less than a mile from apartment buildings on the city limits.
Russian generals were vague about how they intend to take Grozny. They spoke of allied Chechen troops doing it, or the "local population" expelling the remaining defenders.
"We will indeed help them, but our actions will not be a kind of large-scale operation with big casualties on either side," said Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev.
A Russian attack jet crashed today near the southern town of Shatoi today, and its pilot ejected safely. The Chechens said they shot it down; the Russians said it went down because of mechanical difficulties.
Russian troops were also preparing the invade Shali, the largest town other than Grozny still in rebel hands. "Shali will be mopped up and if there is anyone there, they will be destroyed, to put it in simple terms. Certainly, I do not want any unnecessary bloodshed. But war is war, " said Gen. Gennady Troshev, the eastern front commander.
Troshev met with a village elder, handed him a Russian flag and told him to raise it in the town to prevent an assault.
CAPTION: Chechen refugees sit in a truck headed from Ingushetia back to Chechnya. In recent days the number of people returning to territory occupied by Russia has exceeded the number fleeing the devastated region.
CAPTION: A Russian soldier loads ammunition into a machine gun as his comrade keeps watch at an artillery post 20 miles southeast of Grozny, the Chechen capital.