Chechen refugees: The tracking of civilians
While Russian authorities announce a cease-fire for a few hours a day in Grozny and the setting up of 'humanitarian corridors' to allow civilians to 'safely' leave zones and cities that are under attack, the latest information gathered by Médecins Sans Frontières from Chechen refugees in Georgia refutes the reality of these measures.
It appears that the Russian announcements amount to little more than propaganda and do not correspond whatsoever to the reality of the situation. Chechnya is today a trap in which the civilian population wanders around desperately seeking shelter. The refugees' accounts show that:
- the Russians are continuously bombing the whole of Chechnya - no region is spared. The villages in the south of the country where thousands of displaced have fled to to escape the bombings of their own towns or region, are being bombed intensively at this very moment. Today, there is no region where civilians can shelter from Russian attack. Furthermore, the last interviews on December 11th and 12th describe the relentlessness attack of Russian troops on civilian targets.
- there is no safe exit for those people who wish to find refuge outside the Republic. The last people to arrive after the bombings in the region of Itum Khale on December 10th and 11th tell of the tracking of civilians that try to flee towards Chattili (Georgia) via the narrow Argoun valley : the last escape route for the populations in the south. They tell of the Russian air force bombing the road leading to Georgia and helicopter attacks on groups of refugees on this road.
The intensive bombings prevent any humanitarian action on Chechen territory, preventing assistance to the wounded, sick and most vulnerable. Despite the large movement of population towards Ingushetia, an estimated 500,000 people are still inside Chechnya.
The 'fight against terrorism' that Moscow claims to be leading against 'Chechen bandits' has every appearance of a collective punishment inflicted on the whole of the population. The intensity of the military operation in Chechenya denotes an internal armed conflict and is therefore under regulation of humanitarian law. Certain practices by the Russian military manifestly contravene these laws and could be qualified as war crimes or crimes against humanity.
- Indiscriminate bombings.
- Deliberate attacks of civilians or civilian targets.
- Acts or threats of violence to terrorise the population.
- Displacements of the population without all possible measures undertaken to ensure satisfactory conditions of food, shelter and security.
- The prevention of all medical and humanitarian assistance to the population.
These issues are the responsibility of the International Community. It is imperative that concrete actions be taken to qualify and stop or sanction the crimes committed against the Chechen population.
A small MSF team was sent to the region of Akhmeta in the north east of Georgia from November 24 to 29. There were two objectives: to evaluate the situation of the Chechen refugees who have fled to this region and to collect information from them on the situation of the civilian population within the Republic.
We organised interviews with 20 refugees and their families. We asked them about the bombings and/or violence by the Russian forces, the different ways in which they had managed to survive since the beginning of the Russian offensive, the circumstances of their flight to Georgia and their feelings regarding this new war.
Given the crowded conditions of both the collective centres and the families who have taken in the refugees, we were not able to conduct one-to-one interviews. Generally, people were interviewed in the presence of all their family and their relatives. Some of the interviews therefore turned into group discussions that prevented us from retracing the whole story of the person being interviewed. This explains why only parts of the interviews are included in this report.
In addition to these interviews, we have added the latest information that our team in Zinvali, Georgia, has sent us. This team has been providing medical care to the refugees transferred from the border by the High Commissioner for Refugees (HCR). On December 11th and 12th, nearly 400 people (mainly women and children) arrived in Georgia after fleeing the bombing of villages in the south of Chechnya by the Russian army. The state of the refugees on their arrival and their description of the conditions in which they left Chechnya indicates that conditions for civilians in the south of the country have seriously deteriorated.
Given that this document has been compiled using the accounts of refugees in Georgia, it does cover the question of refugees who have found refuge in Ingushetia.
- Location of the refugees Between 5,000 and 6,000 Chechen refugees live in the region of Akhmeta, mainly in the village of Duisi, but also in the neighbouring hamlets of Omalo, Birchiani and Djokhalo. They have been taken in by families or housed in collective centres that have been made available by the local authorities.
The region of Duisi is one of the poorest regions of Georgia; however there is a sizeable community of Georgians of Chechen descent (the Kistines) who live there. This explains why nearly all the Chechen refugees who arrive in Georgia go there to find refuge.
- The refugees' origins The refugees that we met came mainly from three regions: Grozny and its outskirts, Urus-Martan and Chatoi/Itum Kale in the south of the republic.
- An offensive targeting civilians All the individual and family witness accounts that we have collected confirm the indiscriminate, massive, and disproportionate nature of the Russian offensive using long range weapons.
- Indiscriminate bombings The immense majority of those we interviewed had experienced either directly (because they were there at the moment the events took place) or indirectly (through the loss of a relative, for example) the bombing of civilian targets. Maya, whose witness account is below, was at the market in Grozny on October 22nd when it was bombed. Saidan's two sons, who were also at the market that day, were killed along with dozens of other civilians. Other witness reports tell of indiscriminate bombings in the villages of Kakdoi, Bitchigui, etc. and the resulting deaths and wounded among the civilian population.
The witness reports, particularly those collected on December 11th and 12th, describe the systematic, relentless attack against civilian targets. The last refugees who arrived from the region of Itum Khale report that after the bombings, Russian helicopters came "and opened fire with machine guns on livestock, on the entrance of cellars used as shelters and on houses that had already been reduced to rubble".
These bombings have installed terror in the civilian population who all consider themselves to be potential targets: they live underground, in cellars or in forests (cf. Bitchigui); burials and displacements of the population towards the south and the crossing of the Georgian border take place at night.
Our team in Zinvali described the refugees they assisted as "terrorised, distraught and exhausted".
Each of these bombings results in a new wave of departures inside the Republic or towards Georgia.
- Massive bombings According to the witness accounts, no region of Chechnya has been spared by the bombings. The north and the south, villages and cities are all targets of the Russian bombings. The inhabitants of the north who have fled to the south of the republic to escape the bombing of Grozny, Urus Martan, Atchoi Martan, Cernovodsk and Samachki find themselves on the move again when the villages in the south are attacked by Russian aerial bombings or missiles. Saidan's, Jemale's and Almani's stories are all too eloquent: "There is nowhere to find shelter from the bombings. It's persecution"
The refugees also talk of 'carpet bombings' - when a particular area is targeted it is 'showered with bombs', said those interviewed.
- Disproportionate bombings The interviews highlight the disproportionate nature of the bombings in comparison to the objectives stated by Moscow (fight against terrorism). Everyone interviewed, without exception, expressed their incomprehension and anger at the use of particularly destructive weapons by the Russian forces (ground-to-ground missiles, etc). These weapons cause immense destruction and loss of human lives (cf the bombing of the market in Grozny, destruction of the village of Notrchkaloi, etc.).
- Long-range, unpredictable bombings The use (all over the territory) of ground-to- ground missiles from Russian bases is brought up again and again by all the refugees that were interviewed. It is not that they are ballistics specialists or have a particular fascination for military strategies, but the use of these weapons represents a step-up in the violence and indiscriminate nature of the Russian attacks. The refugees also talk of their helplessness faced with weapons that strike without warning: no sound of motors (as in aerial bombings), no warning shots. "They fall on you without any warning. You can't protect yourself" explains a refugee.
These four points characterise the military operation led by the Russian forces this autumn. All the refugees interviewed, without exception, underline the significant difference between the first war (1994-1996) and that of today which is more cruel and unjust to civilians. Some refugees go so far as to say that "the first war was a democratic war compared to this one" or that "the first war was paradise". These comments, although excessive, show the desperation and feelings of injustice that the refugees feel about this new wave of violence.
- The flight of the civilian population The departure to Georgia. The closing of the Ingushetian border and the fear of arrest It would have been more logical for the inhabitants of Grozny and Urus Martan to go to Ingushetia: however they explained that they had preferred to go to Georgia for two reasons:
- the haphazard closing of the border with Ingushetia by the Russian authorities;
- the young men's fear of being arrested by the Russian military, particularly as the border with Ingushetia has been under complete control of the Russian army since the end of October. One of the witnesses described the arrest and execution of four young men by Russian soldiers at the beginning of November in Atchoi Martan.
The 'filter' camps that were set up by the Russian authorities during the first war, renowned for their violence against prisoners, are still on everyone's mind. Although they have no proof, the men interviewed say that these camps are once again in operation.
For these reasons, the families that did not want to split up and leave their men (adolescents, young men or fathers) behind and therefore decided to cross the Georgian border.
- Within the borders of the republic The tracking of the displaced The inhabitants from the north of Chechnya who have family or relatives in the mountainous regions of the south have generally gone to find refuge in the villages to escape the bombings in Grozny. When the south is bombed they decide to cross the border with Georgia. " The intention of the Russian government is to empty Chechnya of its inhabitants " explains a refugee.
- The passage into Georgia The last hope, under enormous military pressure The Argoun/Shattili valley road is the only access to Georgia. For all those we met, and particularly for those from the south of Chechnya, this passage represents the single and last escape route.
The last refugees say that it is 'impossible to travel during the day because of the bombings and above all because of the helicopters that come down and fire on groups of fleeing refugees".
The military attacks on this route are more and more frequent and considerably limit the possibility of leaving to find refuge in Georgia. The refugees in Georgia live in fear for "those that are still on the other side".
- The conditions when crossing the border Only the healthy and well off can cross. The crossing of the border, as well as the arrival in the "refuge zone", are very difficult and limit the population's possibility of escape:
- the road that leads to the border is in very poor condition and refugees that do not have suitable vehicles have to finish the last kilometres on foot. For the latest arrivals, these last kilometres are spent in the cold and the snow. In Georgia the road is also in very bad condition and blocked by snow. According to the refugees interviewed only those in good health can reach Georgia. Many of them have left many members of their family and relatives (the elderly, weak and wounded) 'inside' and have no news of them.
Until recently, neither the Georgian authorities nor the HCR had made vehicles available so that the refugees could reach the refuge zone. The refugees therefore had to take private taxis that cost between $150 and $300. The HCR evacuated the last wave of refugees to arrive from the region of Itum Khale by helicopter to Zinvali where they were registered.
For these reasons the refugees arrive in Duisi exhausted, terrorised and penniless. Some of them, like Saidan and his family, took five days to reach Duisi.
Today, as for the past three months, the massive and indiscriminate bombing of civilians continues. The 'fight against terrorism' that Moscow claims to be leading against 'Chechen bandits' is in fact a collective punishment administered on the whole of the population.
The small republic is a trap around which the displaced people wander around endlessly, desperately seeking shelter from the bombings. However no 'sanctuary' zone can shelter the displaced people as no area is left untouched by the Russian military.
The only hope for the thousands of people, especially the men, is to cross into Georgia though the narrow valley of Argoun. But, this passage is only a small stream and is subject to Russian bombings and hazardous weather conditions.
The intensive bombings prevent any humanitarian action on Chechen territory, not allowing assistance to the wounded, the sick and the most vulnerable who have stayed 'inside'.
Caught in the intensive bombings carried out by the Russian forces, those interviewed said that they had no choice left but to "cross over to the other side".
The refugees are well aware of the fragility of this route. They know, through personal experience or second-hand information that military pressure is intense on the route (cf.the bombing of the valley of Argoun and Shattili) and that the military could close it completely.