Human Rights Watch condemned the Russian government for closing one of its borders with Chechnya to ethnic Chechen civilians.
"The Russian government is obligated to protect displaced persons, and must do so without discrimination," said Holly Cartner, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia Division. "Instead, Russia is sending Chechen refugees back to the very bombs they are fleeing. This exposes them to mortal danger, and is a gross violation of Russian and international law."
The closure of the border exclusively to ethnic Chechens was first reported by the Russian television station NTV, and then confirmed by two other sources. A Dutch journalist who visited a border town near Bratskoe on October 9 told Human Rights Watch that he spoke to a group of about fifteen men who told him a similar story. The men also reported that police at the check point had solicited bribes of one thousand rubles (about U.S.$40) per male and five hundred rubles (about U.S.$20) per female to allow them through. The displaced persons said that they had gone ahead of a larger group of civilians to try to ensure entry onto North Ossetian territory. The size of the second group remains unclear, as Russian police ordered the journalist to leave the check point.
The displaced persons told the journalist that Russian artillery had fired on them while they fled Chechnya along a road following the Terek river. They claimed they saw the dead bodies of fourteen civilians along the way. It remains unclear whether Russian forces intentionally targeted the civilians or whether they were caught in crossfire as Russian troops engaged Chechen fighters.
Representatives of the Russian human rights organization Memorial, who yesterday returned from Ingushetia, told Human Rights Watch that on October 11, they interviewed several displaced persons who had also been turned back at the North Ossetian border. The displaced persons said they had been forced to travel back into Chechnya along the Terek river, where they were under artillery fire from both sides. After this perilous journey, they eventually made it to the road to Ingushetia and left Chechen territory.
While the border between Chechnya and Ingushetia remains open for ethnic Chechens, Russia is still forbidding displaced Chechens from leaving Ingushetia for other cities in Russia, where many have relatives who could care for them. The refugees are being forcibly concentrated in Ingushetia, and conditions remain desperate with insufficient food, shelter, blankets and medical supplies.
The NTV broadcast on Tuesday also mentioned that local authorities in North Ossetia neglected to provide sufficient aid to those ethnic Russians who were allowed to cross into North Ossetia. In reaction to this broadcast, the head of the Russian Federal Migration Service, Vladimir Kalamanov, expressed outrage at the inadequate care for displaced ethnic Russians, promising to correct the situation. However, Kalamanov evidently chose not to mention that ethnic Chechens had been turned back.