MAISKY SETTLEMENT, NORTH OSSETIA—Everyone here, it seems, has a story to tell.
I place my tape player on the table, hit Record, and the three Ingush men opposite me all begin talking at once.
"Let's start from the beginning—tell me your names again so I spell them right," I explain. "You don't mind if use your name? You can go by first name only, if you like."
Magomed Surov, the commandant of Maisky Settlement, says confidently: "You can use my last name, I don't care!"
Interrupts Akhmed Surov, his relative, "Where did you say you were from, again?"
"From Washington, from the States."
"Ah, you're from Washington," says Akhmed. "So of course you've heard of the Meskhetian Turks, the one's they're resettling in America? We want you to write us the exact same petition they did. Can you give it to the embassy?"
Back up for a minute here. Perhaps you haven't heard of the Meskhetian Turks. Or, for that matter, the Ingush. Or the Ossetians. The North Caucasus can be a confusing place.
Maisky—a collection of dilapidated metal trailers parked on a muddy, rutted field—is home to about 1,200 ethnic Ingush who were displaced from their homes in the Russian republic of North Ossetia in 1992. Several hundred people—Muslim Ingush and Christian Ossetians—were killed in a brief spasm of fighting and hostage-taking; thousands lost their homes.
"We haven't been able to go home for 12 years now," Akhmed says. "So we want to go to Washington. Or anywhere in America."
That seems a remote possibility. The Ingush of Maisky live a twilight existence; their unincorporated settlement is just over the border from the republic of Ingushetia, where the authorities might be more inclined to look out for their welfare.
Then there's the propiska hassle. Though supposedly unconstitutional, Russian authorities still enforce the propiska—a Soviet-style residence permit system. The Ingush of Maisky have a lot of trouble getting around without that stamp in their passport.
Yakub Tsurov, a bespectacled man in a professorial jacket, says, "It's like an iron curtain. Just going 18 kilometers to Vladikavkaz [the capital of North Ossetia] is a big problem."
The plight of the displaced Ingush, however, has long been overshadowed by the murderous war in Chechnya, just a few miles away.
A host of international aid groups provides food, clothing, sanitation, and basic medical care to Chechen refugees in the north Caucasus. The Chechens live in abysmal conditions—tent camps, improvised settlements, crowded private housing—and the Russian government has been pressuring them to return to the war-torn republic. Still, the Ingush refugees think they have gotten short shrift.
Suleiman, a local lawyer who helps the Ingush of Maisky write their petitions, tells me he is disappointed with the aid groups.
"The most frustrating thing is that there are international aid groups in Ingushetia who are charged with helping Chechen refugees," he says. "The Ingush refugees are in exactly the same situation, but no one lifts a finger for them. 'It's not in our mandate,' they say."
To be fair, that mandate is not an easy one. Aid work in the north Caucasus is an extremely dangerous job, and the Russian authorities don't always seem eager to help.
Take the case of Arjan Erkel, a Dutch aid worker with the group Medécins Sans Frontières. Erkel had been working with Chechen refugees in Dagestan, east of Chechnya, when he was taken hostage by armed gunmen on August 12, 2002. Two FSB (federal security service) agents—who had been tailing Erkel—reportedly witnessed the abduction and did nothing to stop it.
This past week, Erkel marked his second birthday in captivity. Frustrated by the lack of progress in securing his release, MSF is stepping up the pressure on the Russian government and going public with some very damning allegations. Top MSF officials have accused the Russians of deliberately blocking efforts to free Erkel.
An MSF official in Moscow tells me, "We are convinced the Russian government knows where Arjan is and knows who's holding him. And that they are doing nothing about it."
MSF is able to bring the full weight and prestige of its organization to bear in the campaign to free Erkel. The Ingush of Maisky, by contrast, don't seem to have much of a voice in the international community.
That makes their hospitality all the more touching. Maisky is muddy and ramshackle, but inside the trailers, everything is astonishingly tidy and neat. Magomed's wife brings out a steaming plate of meat dumplings. A shot of vodka, perhaps? Suleiman, an observant Muslim, declines. I accept.