Chechnya’s Refugees

By Michael Dennis

When most people hear about Chechnya, they immediately think of war, terrorism, and political violence. Indeed, suicide bombings, purportedly committed by the so-called Black Widows (Chechen women driven to violence by personal loss), rocked the Moscow subway system the last week of March, killing dozens. While this tragedy reveals the consequences of Russia’s decade-long war in the North Caucasus, there is another stark reminder of the human suffering created by these wars – refugees. The recipient of a multi-country Fulbright Fellowship to explore attitudes toward political violence among Chechen refugees, I spent more than two years living with Chechen refugees in the Republic of Georgia, Azerbaijan, Poland, and Belgium, and, in doing so, I came to appreciate the exceptional suffering Chechens endure.

Driven from their homes by Russian guns, Chechen refugees lost most of their worldly possessions and, for many, the lives of loved ones, and once they escaped Chechnya, they were confronted with appalling circumstances and a bleak future. By any measure, the vast majority of Chechens live in abject poverty, barely scraping by on subsistence packages from human rights groups. There are few employment opportunities and many suffer from a host of physical ailments and psychological trau- ma. Many Chechen refugees fear returning home because they expect retribution from the Russians and Chechnya’s pro-Moscow government run by President Ramzan Kadyrov. Kadyrov has been accused of orchestrating his own regime of terror and torture in recent years. According to Memorial, a prominent Russian Human Rights organization, a state of fear reminiscent of Stalin’s Terror pervades contemporary Chechnya.

Despite the poverty, I was always treated as a special guest in each Chechen dwelling, a trademark custom throughout the Caucasus. Precious foods like mutton, a rarity in refugee diets, and bread, pickled vegetables, and cheeses were laid out with copious amounts of tea and sugar. Often I arrived at a refugee dwelling expecting only to conduct an interview, but ended up spending an unexpectedly cheerful evening with my hosts, many of whom were no doubt grateful for a return to some sort of normalcy. These were surprisingly good times amidst many less enjoyable times. A sick mother unable to afford medical fees for her ill children; the young men who left on an errand but never returned; families unable to afford the most basic needs and cramped together in crowded shan- ties, deserted old-mountain villages, abandoned factories, and discarded train-cars.

A generation is growing up either in destroyed villages in Chechnya, under constant threat, or in dilapidated refugee camps. This generation, much like the Afghan refugees in Pakistan after the So- viet invasion, is growing up without any conceivable hope for a normal future. The Afghan refugees eventually formed the core of the Taliban movement. Will history repeat itself in the North Caucasus and the refugee camps in Europe? Only time will tell. For now, the most pressing concern for the vast majority of Chechen refugees is to provide for their families and to live in peace and security – a simple goal in troubling times.

Michael Dennis is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Government. His research specialties include political violence, ethno-nationalism, political Islam, trans-national and regional terrorist organizations, and militarized refugee communities.