in Moscow - Winter snow is in the air, and frosty winds are blowing across the northern Caucasus. Refugees from Russia's war in Chechnya have taken to railway cars to avoid the elements. Even so, two young children (aged 8 months and 2 years) died of simple colds in the Sleptsovsk-North railway-car camp in November because they lacked medicine. More than 7,000 refugees in the camp are crowded into 124 railway cars, most of which lack heat. Two weeks ago, Russian migration agents brought in woodstoves for some of the cars, but they have failed to supply wood or coal in sufficient quantity to keep the stoves going. The refugees are, in fact, running the camp themselves. Throughout the two-month campaign against Chechnya, Moscow has maintained that there is "no humanitarian disaster." Officials have been slow to make any provision for civilians forced to flee the fighting. According to human-rights monitors, refugees have been flowing into the camp at a rate of 30-40 per day. In addition, about 175,000 refugees are living in the homes of local residents in Ingushetia, normally a city of 347,000. Overcrowding leads many to sleep outside in the cold. Haida, a woman living in Wagon No. 54 at the railway camp, said she and her children slept outside for 11 days in November. Children and the elderly are stricken with colds and dysentery, she said. In Wagon No. 67, a Grozny resident named Zura told monitors for Human Rights Watch that all of the children in her car were sick and suffering from constant coughs. While fighting continues in the lowlands around Grozny, Chechnya's capital, up to 20,000 civilians in mountainous Shatoi district are trapped under constant bombardment from Russian forces. Exit routes for civilians have been blocked in every direction. Briefly, Moscow agreed to open a way for Grozny residents to get out. But routes to the north remained under heavy attack by forces closing in on the capital, and snow has blocked high mountain roads leading south. Russian forces ensured that the humanitarian situation would grow more complex when they demanded last week that Chechens leave Grozny. Just as the military moved to surround the capital, it also suffered its largest casualties since the campaign to bring the republic to heel began two months ago. Until then, the powerful Russian contingent, estimated at up to 100,000 troops with massive artillery and air support, had met little rebel resistance during its two-month advance through the North Caucasus province. Russian troops have seized most of northern and central Chechnya and surrounded Grozny. Army leaders have repeatedly said they were not planning to storm Grozny, where thousands of troops died in street fighting in the previous war of 1994-96. What prompted Moscow to return to Chechnya, where heavy losses in its first war against Islamic rebels signaled defeat and led to Moscow's loss of control of the semi-autonomous republic just three years ago? The official justification for the Chechen offensive is an urban bombing campaign and the invasion of nearby Dagestan by Chechen rebels. A series of apartment bombings in Moscow and other cities claimed more than 300 lives in August and September. Officials were quick to link the bombings to Chechens and to rebel groups reportedly affiliated with fugitive terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. Both Russian and U.S. intelligence agencies say Mr. bin Laden, who faces an arrest warrant in the United States for the bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, has trained and financed Chechen rebels. But the Russian government launched a retaliatory attack to stamp out terrorist strongholds and "bandits" in Chechnya without offering any evidence that the allegations were true, and then expanded it into a massive military offensive before the evidence was in. According to a late November report, the CIA confirmed that the mixture of chemicals found in some of the apartment bombs matched mixtures found at Mr. bin Laden's terrorist training camp in Afghanistan. But as late as last week, Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) said it had not yet received a direct message from the CIA saying that the chemical formulas were the same. So why the itchy trigger finger? Politics, according to sources. The apartment bombings ignited frustrations and the already simmering anti-Caucasian prejudice of the Russian public, prompting a green light for a military crackdown on terrorism in the region. Politically, the mess could not have come at a better time. Newly appointed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin acted decisively, declaring war on the terrorists and "bandits." Mr. Putin, a protégé to ailing President Boris Yeltsin, watched his popularity skyrocket. Today he holds the No. 1 spot in public opinion polls as Russia's next presidential choice. Aleksei Malashenko, a specialist on Islamic affairs in Russia for the Carnegie Moscow Center, says that while Mr. bin Laden likely has been a force behind Chechen rebel strength, the notorious terrorist's role in the present situation is "exaggerated." He says the real reason for launching the war in Chechnya is to help the Kremlin fortify its own weak position domestically. European allies and the United States have criticized the offensive, and former Eastern bloc nations Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia have condemned its heavy civilian toll. And, in spite of seemingly unstoppable support in Russia, some lawmakers warn that the "Chechnya trap" is an excuse for power-grabbing. "If the second Caucasus war continues, all that's left of freedom in Russia will disappear," warned Sergei Kovalyov, a member of the State Duma. "Some officials have threatened to prosecute civilian organizations that circulate petitions calling for an end to military conscription. And human-rights activists in the provinces are being labeled CIA agents. For the first time since August 1991, some Russian leaders are openly saying the military-industrial complex should be restored to its former status." Meanwhile, the Russian Orthodox Church has gone out of its way to support the offensive. "It has become evident today that the political settlement of the Chechen problem is impossible without restoration of law and order," reads a November statement from the Moscow Patriarchate. "The hand of murders, perpetrators of violence, and terrorists should be stopped." Support for the offensive comes after eight Orthodox clergy were abducted in the region by Chechen rebels. The condition of two of them remains unknown. The most recent incident, on July 17 in Grozny, occurred when armed men took rector Hieromonk Zechariah, who had been in Chechnya only three months. He was kidnapped along with the acting parish warden, Yakov Ryaschin, and another church worker. The abduction again left Chechnya without an Orthodox priest. The Chechen parish was active, mainly with ethnic Russians, up until the early 1990s. But attempts to make Chechnya an Islamic state caused ethnic Russians over the past several years to depart. That leaves only the elderly and others who are unable to move, according to Vsevolod Chaplin, spokesman for the church's Moscow office. The Grozny Baptist Church fared no better. Its pastor, Alexei Sitnikov, was kidnapped last year. Since then, two other church leaders, Vitaly Korotun and Alexander Kulakov, who pastored the few who remained in the once 100-strong congregation, were abducted. Both Mr. Sitnikov and Mr. Kulakov were later found beheaded. Another Grozny deacon, now relocated to Vladikovkos, has organized a mission to relocated displaced Chechens, with support from Russia's Baptist Union and American dollars. Russia has kept a clamp on Chechnya's borders, making it difficult for outsiders to assess both the fighting and the situation for civilians. Geoff Ryan, a Canadian who is regional officer for The Salvation Army in Rostov-on-Don, told WORLD that border guards are keeping even humanitarian workers out of Chechnya. Mr. Ryan has made three trips to the Ingushetia border with Chechnya during the conflict. The most recent was last week: "I stood there along with various reporters and other aid workers as we were threatened with arrest if we so much as put one foot on the other side of the barrier." Mr. Ryan said he did not believe any Christian or church-affiliated workers had been allowed in to assist families who have been forced to leave homes because of the fighting. Nor have the normal array of relief agencies shown up to assist refugees at the border camps. The Salvation Army is the only evangelical Christian group believed to be ministering to Chechens. "Chechens are a tough, proud people with a Muslim heritage. And there are elements of Islamic fundamentalism in the current conflict," Mr. Ryan said. His office, however, put to use a $10,000 donation from the United States to purchase winter clothes for 1,500 refugees in one camp. Along with the clothes, he said, the organization distributed a booklet titled, When Your Whole World Falls Apart. He said the group intends to couple that kind of low-key evangelism with long-term relief projects-once they gain access to those in need.