Human Rights Watch researchers in southern Russia have learned that thousands of elderly, poor, and infirm civilians remained trapped in Chechen combat zones.
According to government and U.N. officials, some 200,000 Chechens have already fled to Ingushetia, a small republic in Russia lying to the west of Chechnya. Escape is proving to be a costly endeavor, however, as each stage of the trip requires a substantial cash payment. Although the average monthly income in Grozny, the Chechen capital, was some 250 rubles (U.S. $10), before the war, escape to neighboring Ingushetia can cost that much for each displaced person. The total cost for an extended family seeking to flee the fighting can reach thousands of rubles. "Everyone is selling their jewelry, everything they have, to get out ," one middle-aged woman reported. "If you don't have anything to sell, you can't leave." Another woman said that up to 2,000 people remain trapped in the Staraya Sunzha suburb of Grozny. Yet another displaced Chechen said that 12 people remain trapped in her deserted apartment building in the Zavadskoye district of Grozny. "They are too poor to leave and I don't know how they will survive. If they are not hit by shells, how will they eat?"
Once safely over the border in the Stavropol province of southern Russia, local Chechens said they were forced to pay an average of 1,500 rubles (U.S.$60) for each family member seeking to escape from Chechnya. "Every border guard and ticket seller wants some money," one man said. "And then you have to bribe the local police to get permission for your relatives to stay in Stavropol." Human Rights Watch has learned that Chechens throughout Russia are being harassed by local authorities, and that those without proper local residence permits are being repeatedly extorted for cash.
"This kind of predatory extortion for compliance with residence permits is bad enough in peacetime as a violation of freedom of movement," commented Holly Cartner, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division. "But these are helpless civilians fleeing armed conflict. The Russian government has a legal obligation to protect them."