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Wednesday, November 3, 1999 Published at 01:33 GMT

World: Europe

Eyewitness: No escape from Chechnya

Russian troops have sealed the border

By Andrew Harding on the Chechen-Ingushetia border

Hemmed in like cattle, thousands of Chechen civilians are still trapped inside their republic, their escape route blocked by barbed wire and Russian troops.

There were desperate scenes on Chechnya's western border as angry crowds begged the Russians to let them out of the war zone.

Battle for the Caucasus
Cold, hungry and exhausted, several women fainted, an elderly man stood over the body of his dead wife, wailing with grief.

Frightened, hungry and exhausted, many of these people have been waiting here for more than a week.

Russian troops have sealed the border, deliberately trapping women and children in the war zone.

Occasionally a handful of refugees slipped through the Russian net.

[ image: One family was allowed out with this seriously ill 19-year-old man]
One family was allowed out with this seriously ill 19-year-old man
One family was let out because of a 19-year-old who was badly injured by a mine during the last Chechen war four years ago.

Now the Russians have cut electricity to the republic and cut off his makeshift life-support system.

He could barely breathe, but Russian doctors at a nearby field hospital said he would live.

Still, escape from Chechnya does not necessarily mean salvation. In the hills close to the border we found 8,500 refugees crammed into train wagons, bracing themselves for the coming winter.

One woman left home a month ago, now she is stuck here with her two daughters, the rest of her family is still trapped in Chechnya.

[ image: One woman says all the children are sick and unwashed]
One woman says all the children are sick and unwashed
All the children here are ill, she said, they haven't washed properly for weeks.

Back at the border there was a sudden desparate surge. A group of Chechen civilians had heard a whisper that they might be allowed back into the republic.

This crowd of people are hoping that they will be allowed back into Chechnya on board this bus, to go and find their relatives in the war zone.

They are prepared to risk their own lives, if the Russians will let them, to try and rescue their relatives. The bus was eventually let through, but only women and children were allowed on board.

Off they went, back into Chechnya to see what is left of their homes and their families.

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