As Vladimir Putin and George Bush sit down today at Camp David, back in Russia Putin's government is driving women and children who had fled the fighting in Chechnya back into the war zone.
Of the conflict's 220,000 displaced persons, about 11,000 sit conveniently concentrated in tent camps just east of Chechnya. The Kremlin has for years pursued an on-again, off-again policy of trying to herd these refugees "home." It's about sweeping dirt under the rug: Putin insists there's sufficient calm and order in "pacified" Chechnya to hold a presidential election in two weeks. Tent camps filled with refugees shrieking that they won't go back because there's a war under way don't agree with that pretty picture, so the refugees and tent camps must go.
Or something like that.
So while this week's spotlight is on the diplomatic dance between Putin, Bush and the United Nations over Iraq, there's been little notice of desperate refugees being driven out by harassment. The Associated Press reports that a 1,150-person tent camp has suddenly been closed to journalists and rights activists. Residents of the camp have snuck out word that police and government officials have arrived and begun to cut off electricity and gas and to remove latrines–a nice touch, that–and that two desperate women who tried to stop them were beaten severely enough to need hospitalization. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is alarmed, human rights groups have put forward thorough documentation of these crimes against humanity as a long-running Kremlin policy–and now the American President is sitting down across the table from the Russian President.
Moreover, the American President is armed not just with intelligence from the human rights crowd but from his own State Department. In blistering and detailed testimony before Congress last week, Assistant Secretary of State Steven Pifer asserted that "the daily reality for the people of Chechnya has been bleak and deteriorating." He laid much of this at the door of Chechen terrorist groups. But he also–in a new breath of common sense for Washington–insisted that large portions of the Chechen resistance could not be considered terrorists. And he harshly slammed Russia's conduct of the war.