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Friday, November 5, 1999 Published at 13:38 GMT

World: Europe

Eyewitness: Chechnya's desperate traffic

Chechnen refugees load onto a bus in the border queue

By BBC Moscow Bureau Chief Kevin Bishop

Descending slowly over the snow-covered fields of the Northern Caucusus, a familiar sensation spreads through me.

A knot tightening in the stomach and the recurring thought that maybe I should have stayed at home and continued to cover this war from a distance.

Most of us here in Moscow have seen a video, released by the Russian Interior Ministry, of how Chechen kidnappers execute and torture their captives.

[ image:  ]
It doesn't bear describing here, but needless to say it is gruesome in the extreme. It sticks in the mind as a backdrop to everything we do.

We land at the optimistically named Ingushetia International Airport and I look out for the security detachment we have been promised.

There is no sight of any armed guard - just a couple of baggage handlers and a litter of new-born puppies, yapping and playing. The knot tightens.

Shortly, our guard appears.

Jambulat is a 27-year-old police officer who studies law to keep his mind occupied. He looks something like the Arsenal and England defender Tony Adams. As we climb into our jeep, I hope he has the same penchant for ruthless tackling of his opponents.

'Desperate traffic'

We speed to the Chechen border. Russians don't recognise it as such, but it is the type of border that has become so familiar this year. For Chechen-Ingush read Kosovo-Albania, or East-West Timor.

[ image: A Chechen woman gestures as Russian soldiers block the border]
A Chechen woman gestures as Russian soldiers block the border
A thousand or more people are thronging the border post. Men dressed in black leather coats and trilby hats. Women in an array of attire that stretched from Sunday best, with glitter and high-heels, to dressing gowns and slippers.

They are all refugees who managed to flee the fighting in Chechnya before this border was closed to all but the most desperate of traffic.

All of them have one reason to be there - hope that something, someone would come across the border with news of their loved-ones.

Some two or three kilometres up the road - invisible to the eye, but fixed in the mind - is a column of refugees, in cars, buses, tractors, lorries. Fleeing the bombing of Grozny, of Gudermes and Bamut. Living day and night on the open road, the cold and hunger must be ever present.

Overhead, bombers and attack helicopters fill the atmosphere with terror. Several refugees were killed in such a column last week near the town of Samashki.

Power cut

Back at the border, the ones who have found safety look desperately down the empty road, past the collection of soldiers and special forces. Nothing moves.

[ image: This Chechen woman is living in a basement.]
This Chechen woman is living in a basement.
Every now and then a car or bus appears in the distance. The news spreads fast among the crowd and they surge to the barrier, clamouring to get to the front, to be the first to peer into the windows of the vehicle, hoping to see a familiar face.

Only the very sick and wounded are allowed out, and even their numbers cannot begin to tell the whole story of how many are waiting.

A grey Volga squeezes through the crowd, its boot crammed with a few meagre possessions. The mother gets out and screams for directions to the hospital. We follow.

Her son Isa is 19 and was badly wounded by a mine in the first Chechen war, four years ago. He has been paralysed and now the Russians have cut off the electricity to Grozny. His life-support machine - primitive as it was - is now useless. A Russian doctor rushed him into an inflatable tent, the only real sign of medical aid at the border.

"He'll live," he tells his mother. "But you're just in time."

Jambulat is getting hungry, and the light is fading. The kidnap gangs operate at night and we have to get to the hotel.

Black humour helps us through the long, breakneck-speed race back to Nazran. What would be worse - a high-speed crash on a lonely Ingush backroad, or months chained to a Chechen radiator?

Bombing civilians

Ingushetia is a small, impoverished region of southern Russia that has had its fair share of instability since the end of the USSR.

Its population has been swelled by upwards of 150,000 refugees over the last few weeks. We pass by the burgeoning refugee camps - tented villages, smaller but so reminiscent of Kukes and Stankevic.

On a hillside in the distance we can see the dim lights of a train, some 100 or more carriages long.

[ image:  ]
We visit them the next day - 8,000 are living there, the sealed windows keeping in the heat by day, the bitter cold by night.

Sixty people in each wagon for two months now have been breathing, coughing the same air. No-one has washed for weeks.

All the children are ill, the mothers tell us. One woman holds her three-week-old grandson in her arms.

"Abdullah, we've called him" she says, her eyes red.

"He's one of the terrorists the Russians are bombing".

Relative safety

We left the next day. The airport feels safe, but someone reminds me that a journalist was kidnapped from the steps of a plane some while back.

We pass through security. A hand-written poster advises us that, as an anti-terrorist measure, we are forbidden to carry on board cigarette lighters, souvenirs, batteries and toys. I hand over my share of the offending items and climb onto the airport bus.

The rest of the passengers are Ingush officials and those refugees lucky enough to be able to afford the flight to Moscow.

A young girl, no more than five, clings onto her mother and a small doll she has managed to slip through security. I decide not to report her.

The tension is lifting; we're all getting out of here. That little girl might not return until the war is over. But we will be back very soon.

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