For most of the last five years, Dagman Tatasheva has been living in a tent in the muddy Satsita refugee camp here just outside Chechnya. Then one day last week she heard a rumor and ran to see if it were true. It was. According to the official lists, she no longer lived at the camp.
Plainly, of course, she still did. Her mother, war-wounded father and two small children were still huddled with her in the same dank shelter, scraping by on the same dismal food rations. But since Tatasheva, 43, was not on the list, the camp administrator told her she had no choice but to leave.
"Take your tent down and move out," she recalled him ordering her hours earlier.
"Where am I supposed to go?" she answered.
For the 1,400 Chechens left in the Satsita camp, that is the pressing question these days. In the last six months, authorities in the Ingushetia region have closed down four large tent camps that have sheltered refugees who fled the outbreak of the second war in next-door Chechnya in 1999. Now Satsita, the final tent conclave, faces imminent closure and its remaining residents face a foreboding future.
Russia has been eager to uproot the tent camps and push refugees to return home as part of what President Vladimir Putin calls a "normalization" plan for Chechnya. He contends that because Chechnya is no longer at war, there is no need for refugee camps. Yet many displaced Chechens remain unconvinced, their doubts confirmed by the assassination last week of Chechnya's pro-Russian president, Akhmad Kadyrov.
"Who doesn't want to go home?" said Zalavdi Visarigov, 43, who has lived at Satsita camp since 2001 with his family of 11. "Of course I want to go home. But the conditions aren't good there. My home has been destroyed. I have absolutely no place to go back to. Everything I used to own I lost."
"We still have war in Chechnya," added Zara Suleimanova, 46, who came to Ingushetia in 1999. "We don't get humanitarian help here, but at least there's no bombing."
Chechnya has been plagued by war for the last decade, first from 1994 to 1996 and then again since 1999, as Chechen separatists joined by Arab allies fight Russian troops in hopes of expelling them from the mountain region. In recent times, the war has evolved from full-scale battles into sporadic guerrilla attacks, nighttime abductions and occasional bombings.
Life in Chechnya has begun to improve in small ways over the last six months. Shops and cafes have opened in the capital of Grozny, many checkpoints have come down and some buildings are being reconstructed. But many Chechens fear that a vacuum opened by Kadyrov's death will lead to renewed violence as rival clans struggle for power.
At the height of the war, more than 300,000 refugees were living in Ingushetia, placing an enormous burden on the region and stoking resentment against the Chechen guests. As the situation has calmed somewhat, many Chechens have returned home, often under official pressure. The Ingushetia government counts 44,000 Chechens remaining, a number that human rights groups consider an underestimate, but authorities are focused on the relatively few yet visible refugees still living at the only remaining tent camp.
Human rights groups say the government intends to close Satsita for good on Thursday. A regional official said no date had been set for the closing, but that it would occur by the end of May or early June.
"While federal and Chechen officials pretend to have 'objective' reasons (like fire hazards) for their efforts to close the camps, the actual reason appears to be the visibility of the tent camps, contradicting claims that the situation in Chechnya has 'normalized,' " the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights said in a statement last month.
In theory, the government is helping refugees resettle. Those whose homes were destroyed in the war are entitled to about $12,000 in compensation. In practice, though, fewer than 2,000 have received the money, according to human rights groups, and many refugees say they are forced to give as much as half of it back under the table to the officials handling the program.
"Everything I deserve to get from the government they keep for themselves," said Assa Khamadayeva, 50, who cares for 14 children and grandchildren at Satsita on a monthly pension of $38. Humanitarian aid has been cut back or cut off, refugees said. "For two years I have not seen any washing powder or soap," Khamadayeva said.
Ingushetia officials denied pushing the refugees out unfairly. "None of them has ever complained to us," said Magomed Markhiyev, deputy prime minister in the regional government.
He acknowledged, though, that some refugees were improperly taken off the camp registration lists. "I cannot exclude the fact that there are certain defects in this work," he said. "But I have given order not to violate any laws and to do everything fairly."
And he acknowledged reports that compensation for refugees was sometimes being taken back through extortion. "To be honest, I have heard about that," he said. "But as soon as you try to find out exactly who suffered from that, no witnesses can be found. I've never seen any real facts."
Taisa Tepsayeva said she has complained about being pushed out, to no effect. Just last week, Tepsayeva, 35, learned that an order had been signed saying she and her six children could no longer stay at the camp where she has lived for the past three years. She pulled out a copy of Order No. 1229, signed April 28, that she had just received the day before.
She said she went to the camp commandant. "I asked why did you cross my family out?" she recounted. He explained she had to leave because her children were in school, she said. "They want in a secret way to get rid of us."