For a brief time over the weekend, Russian authorities tried to "railroad" Chechen war refugees here back to their home towns.
On Friday, they hitched a locomotive to 100 rail cars in which more than 5,000 people had been living near a refugee tent camp and began to tow them back toward Chechnya. When the refugees realized their destination, they hopped off and blocked the tracks, prompting a standoff with soldiers, who fired shots over their heads.
In the end, 36 rail cars rolled into Chechnya on Sunday, but they carried only about 100 Chechens willing to return. The rest stayed here in Ingushetia, a neighboring Russian region that has been the destination of more than 200,000 refugees displaced by a Russian military offensive against separatist Chechen rebels.
Over the past week, Russian officials have been pressuring refugees to return home to areas of Chechnya controlled by the Russian army to make room in Ingushetia for a possible influx of thousands more refugees from Grozny, the Chechen capital, which the Russian military has placed under siege. Tent camp officials, for example, have struck the names of refugees from a number of Chechen towns off a list of eligible aid recipients, forcing some to live off the meager supplies provided by friends. Others were told they will stop receiving rations if they do not leave Ingushetia by Christmas.
Russian officials say that areas of Chechnya occupied by the army--which include the most populated regions other than Grozny--are safe places for refugees to resume a "normal life." In recent weeks, the number of refugees returning to Chechnya has exceeded the number arriving in Ingushetia, but the repatriation is apparently moving more slowly than the Russians would like.
"Where are we going to put people from Grozny if some of these people don't leave?" asked Sharvany Khuchbarov, the chief administrator at the Sputnik refugee camp near Sleptsovskaya, a few miles from the Chechen frontier. "If they keep getting food without pay, they will never go home."
Khuchbarov has made a list of Chechen towns deemed safe for refugee return, largely in army-occupied northern Chechnya plus a number east of the Ingushetia frontier toward Grozny that also are considered pacified. "We will have to cut off aid for people from these places," he said.
But many refugees say they have nothing to go home to. "My house is practically ruined. There are no windows. I have no money," said Asmart Aliyev, who was visiting friends on the train last Friday when it suddenly jolted forward. She is from Samashki, a town west of Grozny that was seized by Russian troops last month after several days of bombardment.
Aliyev has been told she will stop receiving food aid this month and should return home. "First they bomb us out of our homes, then say we will starve if we don't go back. This is Russia," she said with disgust.
Reports of looting and the killing of civilians by Russian troops in the town of Alkhan-Yurt, at the western edge of Grozny, have frightened many refugees here. They also complained of having to pay bribes to soldiers at checkpoints when they try to visit their home towns briefly to check on the condition of their property. "I'm not going back until Russian troops leave," said Hadisht Hasanov, a nurse from Samashki.
The pressure to return home is the latest in the trials of the refugees, who first arrived here to find inadequate food and shelter, along with the indifference and hostility of Russian authorities. Now Russian officials have grown even less tolerant of the presence of the refugees, most of whom have found shelter in private homes and abandoned farms and factories. About 17,000 live at Sputnik and another refugee camp in Karabulak, a short distance away.
The flow of refugees from Grozny has slowed significantly since late last week to about 2,000 a day at most, and Chechen officials say about 40,000 civilians remain in the city--four times the number estimated by Russian authorities. Recently arrived refugees say Russian shelling of neighborhoods in the capital made them fearful of leaving their basement bunkers. Elderly refugees and women with children also are unwilling to leave their underground shelters, which requires a walk of several miles through potential combat zones and forests.
Apty Asuyev, 43, left the south Grozny neighborhood of Chernorechnye three days ago. The district had been heavily shelled since Dec. 14, and last Thursday he buried a neighbor who was killed while fetching water at a roadside spring. "I couldn't stand the stress," Asuyev said. "Bombs, bombs, bombs. It seemed they timed them for prayer time at the mosque. I was sorry to leave people behind, but I had to leave."
Asuyev, an engineer by training, said that more than 350 people were holed up in nine basements on two streets in his neighborhood, subsisting on bread, jam and tomato and cucumber preserves. The residents would like Chechen guerrillas defending Chernorechnye to leave, but only on condition that the Russians permit a peaceful withdrawal, Asuyev said. Last Thursday, local elders tried to negotiate a withdrawal with Russian commanders, but the shelling resumed soon after the meeting. "Now, no one trusts the Russians," Asuyev said.
Russian plans for Grozny are hazy. Today, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev denied reports that his forces would storm the city beginning on Wednesday. "When a special operation is prepared, its date is never announced," he said. Russian officials have alternately predicted Grozny would fall by mid-December and, with that deadline past, by year's end.
Chechen leaders said today that combat is intense on Grozny's periphery, particularly to the south.
CAPTION: A Russian soldier helps an elderly Chechen refugee with her bags at the Chechnya-Ingushetia frontier.