RUSSIAN OFFICIALS AND WESTERN SPOKESMEN WARN OF INCREASING THREATS TO WELL-BEING OF CHECHEN REFUGEES.
Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 3 Issue: 1
During the past several weeks, there have echoed serious warnings concerning the rapidly worsening condition of Chechen refugees located both in their home republic and in the adjacent republic of Ingushetia. On December 13 Lord Russell-Johnston, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, commenting on a recent inspection trip to Chechnya performed by a joint PACE-Russian Duma delegation headed by Lord Judd of Britain, warned: “The Assembly delegation which recently visited Chechnya reported on the alarming conditions in the refugee camps in the area. Winter has barely begun, and the humanitarian situation will inevitably worsen if nothing is done about it quickly.” Russell-Johnston then appealed both to the Russian authorities and to Council of Europe governments “to urgently provide sufficient humanitarian assistance to all those affected by the conflict and to take all necessary measures to guarantee that this assistance is properly distributed…. For many of the refugees and displaced persons, this will be the third winter in the camps. They urgently need help to live through it… The world cannot afford to forget Chechnya, and Chechens do not deserve to be forgotten. They have suffered too much, and they continue to suffer” (Council of Europe Press Service, December 13).
In the aftermath of Lord Russell-Johnston’s warning, Vladimir Kalamanov, the special representative of the President of the Russian Federation for issues of ensuring the rights and freedoms of man and the citizen in Chechnya, conducted his own inspection visit to the refugee camps in Chechnya and then declared conditions in them to be unacceptable, inflicting, as he put it, “colossal damage” on the prospects for stability in the war-torn republic. Kalamanov said that food supplies in the refugee camps located in the north of Chechnya, where more than 30,000 people are living, were “critically low” and that the tents in these camps were “absolutely unfit,” noting that official promises to relocate camp residents to dormitories had not in fact been carried out. (Associated Press, 20 December) Kalamanov also mentioned a “sharp upsurge” in the number of refugee appeals and complaints arriving at his office. While Russian officials promise much, Kalamanov said, the results to date have been “derisory.” One problem which Kalamanov alluded to was that “following the abolition of the Ministry of the Federation all of its functions, including aiding refugees, were transferred to the Ministry of Internal Affairs,” and the MVD has not to date been able to cope with these new responsibilities. Kalamanov did not rule out the possibility that the issue of the refugees would be raised at the next session of the pro-Moscow government of the Chechen Republic, which was to be chaired by the minister of the Russian Federation for restoring Chechnya, Vladimir Elagin (Presscenter.ru, December 19; Strana.ru, December 20).
The December 27 issue of the New York Times carried an account by correspondent Michael Wines concerning a visit made by him to a refugee camp located in Znamenskoe in northern Chechnya which had also recently been visited by Lord Judd of Britain and a Council of Europe delegation. Wines noted that this camp represents “something of a model refugee center,” since it has been repeatedly visited by European delegations. A total of 3,021 refugees live in the camp in eighty-five tents. The camp registrar informed him: “Many tents are worn out. We were promised new ones, but nothing’s happened. The bottoms are rotten.” Up to twenty-eight people live in a single tent. One in 300 camp dwellers has tuberculosis. Last year a hepatitis epidemic closed the camp school. The Russian administrators of the camp say that the camp has received no federal aid since the fall. The Danish Refugee Council distributes food once a month.
According to Michel Hoffman, who directs the Russian mission of the French humanitarian agency Doctors without Borders, who was interviewed by Wines, the condition of the estimated 150,000 Chechen refugees living in Ingushetia (160,000 more live in Chechnya) is extremely worrisome. “His charity recently surveyed 408 families at forty-one different locations in Ingushetia, half of them living in tent camps. Nearly two-thirds said their roofs leaked. Another two-thirds had holes in their walls. Half shared a latrine with at least 100 other people; likewise, half shared a single shower with more than 200 others.” Cardiovascular diseases among the refugees in Ingushetia were “triple Russia’s already astronomical average;” diabetes rates were four and a half times as high, and anemia almost five times greater.
The December 28 issue of the Moscow Times likewise featured a report by journalist Tara FitzGerald concerning the Chechen refugee camps in Ingushetia. Some of the refugees have been living in the crowded tent camps for two or even three years. According to Philippe Genoud, the technical coordinator of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “Many of the tents are sufficient for summertime, but not for the wintertime. They need supplementary protection against the cold, and especially against the damp.” “People need more blankets and even more beds,” Genoud stressed. “They need stoves and more coal, because gas supplies don’t always get through. Also the kids often have no shoes or jackets or adequate head coverings, so it’s not only a question of shelter.” The greatest health risks are tuberculosis and influenza, while AIDS is a growing concern. The women refugees insist that, despite the severity of conditions in the camps, they will not return to Chechnya until they are sure “their menfolk will be safe there.” “Here it is calmer than in Chechnya,” one woman refugee said, “here we are not afraid to go to sleep. When I am sure that we can be guaranteed a peaceful life there, only then will we return.”
The pro-separatist website Chechenpress.com wrote on December 29 that many Chechen refugees living in Ingushetia are acutely concerned over the ramifications of Ruslan Aushev’s ceasing to be the Ingush president. “Thanks to [Aushev’s] personal courage, Chechen refugees, on Ingush territory for a third year already, were not subjected to [mopping up operations] carried out by Russian soldiers…The contingent of Chechen refugees, who number many thousands, are awaiting developments with great alarm.” Indeed, one must wonder what the effect of Aushev’s removal will be on the vulnerable refugees. A tough former Soviet general, Aushev had the strength of character and the political skills necessary to protect his Vainakh brethren, the Chechen refugees. It is unclear whether his successor, who will be merely a temporary president, will be able or will want to emulate his stance. The already grim prospects for the refugees living in Ingushetia appear to be worsening.