More than 200 Christian fundamentalists who were supposed to inaugurate a new refugee system to America were trapped in a bureaucratic limbo at the airport on Wednesday, having sundered all ties to the Soviet Union after years of religious persecution, but then finding departure denied to them at literally the last exit. "I had said farewell to this place _ but now look at us," Pavel Boyko said desperately of the group camped in a tangle of baggage and sleeping babies at passport control.
He gestured to the customs control desk, baggage check-in and seat-assignment points that the group had cleared at Sheremetyevo Airport, only to be stymied at the last passport window of the Soviet bureaucracy.
Since Monday, the refugees from the Ukraine and Siberia have refused to retreat back into the Soviet Union, creating a potential embarrassment for the government of President Mikhail Gorbachev in its attempt to display a more open attitude on emigration.
Diplomats were reported hunting for a way to unclog the new system begun under the spirit of warmer Soviet-American ties to speed 1,000 Soviet immigrants a week directly to the United States from the full range of refugee categories.
The new system, which includes a new refugee processing center intended to streamline U.S. procedures and minimize the amount of time refugees linger homeless and in doubt at Moscow checkpoints, effectively replaces the old system in which approved refugees were flown to Rome and Vienna. There they awaited further processing and transport at considerable expense to the American government.
The problem Wednesday for the refugees, who are among several thousand Soviet fundamentalists expected to go to the United States, centered on the fact that thousands among the 50,000 refugees bound for the United States and scheduled to depart in the next year have Israel listed as their destination, a convenient Cold War fiction under earlier Soviet visa procedures.
But Soviet border guards insisted that those refugees should also have entry permits from Israel in their passports, a stipulation that surprised officials of the program and stunned the fundamentalists, who have spent a year groping through the paperwork maze refugees must navigate to leave this country.
"All of us have sold our belongings, we have given up our homes. We have no place to go," Andrew Levdonsky told the Associated Press.
The new program eventually is to specify the United States as the refugees' destination. But the first wave, perhaps as many as 25,000 refugees, have valid visas dated before the change.
Refugees said American officials were trying to arrange a solution in the form of fast rubber-stamp approval at the airport from an Israeli envoy. The U.S. Embassy said officials were working on the problem but had no immediate solution.
"Our God will help us," said one refugee, Nikolai Gudiyev. "But look at what the system still does to us."