In November 2000, Médecins Sans Frontières testified before the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe as to the grave humanitarian situation in Chechnya. At the time, we denounced the policy of terror conducted by the Russian and pro-Russian authorities following the resumption of war in 1999, and the difficulties encountered by civilians seeking access to vital health care. Testimony gathered in the field by our staff illustrates the arbitrary and violent nature of treatment meted out to civilians.
Today, it is harder than ever to deliver humanitarian aid inside Chechnya, because of the deterioration in security conditions for aid workers and the increasingly obstructive bureaucracy. In fear of their lives, and without access to assistance in their home country, civilians continue to flee in massive numbers to neighbouring Ingushetia. There they are forced to live in inhumane conditions.
- Civilians in Chechnya live under a reign of terror, in a prison-like environment characterized by arbitrary rules and daily violence. In the last two years, there has been no independent international inquiry into the large-scale violations of human rights and international humanitarian law that are perpetrated on a daily basis in Chechnya.
- Now in its third year, the war in Chechnya is still causing large numbers of civilians to arrive, seeking refuge, in Ingushetia. These new arrivals are 'clandestine' and are not officially registered. Between 20,000 and 50,000 persons have not been officially recorded.
- Once they have arrived in Ingushetia, the IDPs (internally displaced persons) are housed in squalid and inhumane conditions, a fact even recognized by the Russian authorities. The paucity of assistance offered, combined with threats against them, are intended to drive these undesired persons back to Chechnya. Médecins Sans Frontières wishes to point out that relocation may only take place on a voluntary basis and if the conditions in the territory of origin permit it.
These observations are based on testimonies heard by MSF staff working in Ingushetia whilst providing assistance to the displaced, and on a study concerning the beneficiaries of aid there, conducted by MSF.
A Strategy of Minimal Assistance
According to official sources, about 200,000 Chechens have fled to Ingushetia, Georgia and Daghestan. However, the Chechen exodus has been continuing long since the registration lists were closed in spring 2001, and thus these official figures are no longer accurate, as they include neither new arrivals nor newborns. In the course of their daily work in Ingushetia (medical consultations and rehabilitation of shelters), MSF staff have observed the appalling conditions in which the vast majority of the displaced are intentionally kept.
Survival conditions well below standard
Unsanitary cellars with no light or ventilation, windowless tiny farmhouses with several families squeezed in together, excessive rents demanded by private individuals, leaky tents, etc. As they prepare to spend a third winter in Ingushetia, the IDPs are surviving in deplorable conditions that are humiliating and often damaging to their health.
There are housing options for the displaced: those Chechens who still have some money rent rooms in private homes or are taken in by families in Ingushetia; those who were unable to obtain places live in tent camps, and the least fortunate are reduced to squatting in public buildings.
- The 'squats' ('kompaknikis'), are invisible dumps where people are forced to live in the most squalid of conditions. The kompaknikis can be all kinds of places: abandoned or working factories, active or deserted state farms, warehouses, vacant schools, cellars, hangars, etc., where more than 40,000 people are living. However there are no official figures available and assessment of these sites is neither official nor exhaustive. It is in these many kompaknikis that conditions are the hardest. Some of these locations house up to 1000 people each, despite that they are infested with rats and cockroaches, lack heating and ventilation, and are certainly unfit for human habitation. Many of the residents of such kompaknikis, even those that are regularly inspected by some Non Governmental Organisations1, have not received any help with their vital water and sanitation needs or with protection from cold and rain. For the past year, MSF has been responding to emergencies with the following priorities: getting families out of unsanitary dwellings (e.g. cellars), constructing small shelters to lodge these families, providing insulation materials to families that have built their own shelters, providing decent sanitary installations (construction of latrines and showers, installation of water distribution points, etc.). But this work is far from complete: just one month ago we found a new location where seven families were living in cellars. According to a study of the displaced population conducted by MSF, 55% of them live with leaking roofs and holes in the walls2. Given the severity of winter conditions in Ingushetia, MSF believes that such conditions constitute a veritable public health emergency, as they endanger the health and lives of these displaced persons.
- In the tented camps, where around 30,000 people live, the tents are worn out and there is serious overcrowding. The major problems are the worn-out condition of most of the tents, which do not protect people from cold and rain, and overpopulation, with military tents designed to house 20 people sometimes being used to shelter twice or even three times that number. Sanitary conditions are deplorable: there are not enough latrines, many of the existing ones are full and therefore useless, there are problems with access to potable water and there is overpopulation.
- According to an MSF survey of 440 heads-of-family at 70 different sites, more than 80% of the tents are punctured or torn, letting in the rain, snow and cold air. The same survey revealed that displaced people living in collective sites - camps or kompaknikis - have their crucial shelter problems compounded by lack of access to decent sanitary facilities: more than 80% shared a latrine with more than 20 people, and of those, 20% shared a latrine with over 100 people. In some locations, there was less than one latrine for 200 persons. As for showers, more than half the displaced living in collective centres shared a shower with more than 200 people.
- The private sector. Between 80,000 and 100,000 Chechens rent rooms from local people, often at high prices, or are staying at friends or families' homes.3 These people are generally considered better off than the rest, as long as they can pay rent, or the goodwill of their hosts doesn't run out. An MSF study showed that more than half the IDPs placed in the private sector have moved at least once since their arrival because they were unable to pay the rent. At that point, they often become homeless and are reduced to seeking room in kompaknikis. This trend (with some cases of outright eviction) is accelerating with the arrival of winter as the Ingush inhabitants are unable to pay gas and electricity bills.
- Cramped conditions, not even good enough for prisoners.
- In addition to their other problems, over half of these IDPs have less than 3 square metres per person. We wish to point out that the international standards for refugees and prisoners stipulate an allowance of at least 3.5 to 4.5 m2 per person.
Statements on Shelters
Khouda, in charge of the Logovaz camp: For lack of space, we take turns sleeping
Well-hidden in the centre of the Ingush capital Nazran, the Logovaz camp is set up on the site of a market. Sixteen army tents have been erected in an empty area, surrounded by about 200 small huts. 1870 people live here, along with an indeterminate number of rats, cockroaches, mice, cats and dogs. Khouda takes us into a tent measuring 7 x 8 meters. Five families, a total of 45 people, of which 13 are children, occupy half the space. One of the five families has two disabled children. Only 50 cm separates the space between the platform beds and the cooking area. The children burn themselves frequently.
In this "dormitory", the residents must take turns sleeping. At night, the men sit in a corner and wait, smoking. During the day, when the children are at school and the women at the market, they can sleep for a few hours. The tent is falling apart. Its occupants have done what they can to repair the torn sections with cardboard or blankets. But despite their efforts, water seeps in when it rains. It is damp and cold. Cats and dogs enter, though not by the door. Huge cockroaches can be seen everywhere. Outside, worrying whistling sounds come from the gas pipes that lay on the bare ground.
"All we're asking for are some extra tents or materials to build little sheds, like you've done at Tanzila Kafe. We just want to ease the frightful crowding in these places. In the last two years, the children have gotten bigger and there are new babies. We've got to get rid of the ruined tents. They're falling apart, so the cats and dogs come and go as they please! The HCR said they were going to replace half of them but at the last meeting, they said, "Fix them yourselves." In the summer, people turn up the bottoms of the tents to dry them out. But now it's raining and cold. When it rains, it's a swamp in here. We've got to spread gravel everywhere."
Alek, 37 - Bogatyr: Not even one blanket per person
"How do we live here? The jackets hanging on the wall, those are our pillows. We don't have sheets, we don't even have a blanket for each person. Some neighbours lent us the two mattresses for our girls. Zargan and I sleep right on the wood. I bought one of the beds for 50 rubles in one of the camps and fixed it up. People here gave us two more beds. We don't have any sheets. The people here gave us all the dishes we have. I traded one of the stoves that Emercom4 handed out for this gas cooker, which is in lousy shape. You can't use a stove here because there's no vent and no window.
It's very damp here. When it rains outside, the walls are wet inside. There are roaches and rats everywhere. The little one has asthma and it's getting worse. Her eyes are always red and watery. She gets every allergy. My wife has blood pressure problems. We've already had to call the emergency medical services twice. When the medics got here, they said it wasn't surprising that her blood pressure would be bad. As for me, I'm more or less cured of my tuberculosis."
Louisa, 39 - Altievo: the roof leaks
This is another farm converted into a living space for the displaced: three long earthen buildings, roofs in need of repair, rickety rooms built along the sides, walls made of cardboard, blankets, plywood and plastic. There is no privacy here, either. The noise - a neighbour's radio, the children's cries, a television turned up somewhere - reverberates from one end of the building to another.
"This is our third winter here. There was nothing when we arrived. We did everything ourselves. But the roof still leaks. The toilets are disgusting, completely full. They've been that way since we got here and there are only seven for the entire camp. The humanitarian aid organisations parade through, one after the other, make promises and never come back. Before, Emercom brought us hot meals but that ended in the spring. We get food from DRC and the ICRC handed out buckets and stoves. But we don't have enough blankets and mattresses."
With-holding assistance as a deliberate strategy
Last November 19th, the Russian President's Representative for Human Rights in Chechnya, Vladimir Kalamanov, joined other European deputies in deploring the IDPs' living conditions - saying that the situation of the Chechen IDPs was "reaching a critical stage" (source: Itar-Tass agency): torn tents had not been replaced, provisions and meager rations had dropped to a critical level... The indecent level of this "assistance", according to him, is the result of a ministerial game of tag: the Federal Ministry which had previously taken charge of the displaced had been closed down, and responsibility had been given to the Interior Ministry, which "needed time" to assume caring for them. However MSF is skeptical that simple bureaucratic and organisational problems are the real cause of the delay in providing assistance to the Chechen IDPs.
In March 2001, the Russian and pro-Russian authorities and major UN agencies asserted that most of the displaced would return home during the summer of 2001. For example, Emercom began work on restoring homes in Chechnya. At the same time, these same agencies stopped most of their activities in Ingushetia, continuing only their food distributions. And even the food distributions became erratic. Without warning, Emercom suspended the distribution of hot meals, replacing them with rations of which the quantities and quality have not been evaluated according to international standards (which stipulate that the daily minimum ration should be 2100 calories per person). Canned meat is distributed, a year beyond its use-by date. Non-food items indispensable for survival, such as blankets, mattresses, cooking utensils and heating systems, have not been distributed to everyone. In the absence of any aid coordination, those distributions which do take place are patchy and as a result do not help the most needy.
The High Commissioner for Refugees now recognises that there are more Chechens arriving than departing, and that we must prepare for another winter in Ingushetia. According to Peter Mantz, UNHCR's officer in charge of shelter, "Very few IDPs are returning to Chechnya. For example, last week there were 150 who returned, but 250 more arrived in Ingushetia. This summer, we were willing to provide return packages, with a tent and everything needed - but very few were distributed.5" But the UNHCR has still not replaced the most damaged tents (a total of 670) in the six camps6, or provided new tents (about 400 are called for). Meanwhile, the planned construction of small houses in some "spontaneous settlements" has still not happened.
Reception in Ingushetia
The officer in charge of Migration Services for the Republic of Ingushetia was interviewed for this report by an MSF staff member in November 2001.
Q: What are the major problems facing the displaced in Ingushetia?
A: The first problem is living space. There are around 30,000 people in the camps, more than 30,000 in the "kompaknikis" and from 80,000 to 90,000 in the private sector. Today, after two years, homeowners are evicting the displaced from their homes because it is hard for them too. Unfortunately, we are not going to build new tent camps. As agreed with the HCR, we will only build a few more spaces in some of the kompaknikis, for one or two thousand people.
Q: Why can't new camps be built now?
A: It's a political and financial matter. If it were to accept such a project, the federal government would be showing its weakness and inability to improve living conditions in Chechnya. And nobody can build a new camp quickly - it took the United Nations four months to build their two camps.
The second problem is preparing for winter. Half of the tents are in very bad condition and they urgently need to be replaced. The third problem concerns the Ministry of Health - there is a lack of doctors and medicine. Food supplies are more or less adequate, thanks to the NGOs, even if it is always the same thing. But people manage to exchange it at the market.
Q: Some homeowners are evicting their tenants - why?
A: The Ingush don't receive anything. There was a Swiss organisation that gave each host family 100 dollars and the DRC also gave something. The main problem is the increasing water, gas and electricity bills, which are not covered by the rent. The Republic buys all of these things from Russia and if the bills aren't paid, everything will be shut off. There has been a lot of discussion about this, but no results.
Denying the Existence of New IDPs
The needs of tens of thousands of new IDPs from Chechnya, many of whom are living in 'squats' with little or no assistance, are far from recognised. These people have fled daily perils and are simply looking for the means to survive. The deplorable conditions for displaced persons, the suspension of registrations which give them a right to minimal assistance, and the threats they receive limit the number of people who, despite all the obstacles, seek refuge in Ingushetia.
The exodus continues
Although some predicted the displaced would start to return to Chechnya, the reverse is actually occurring. Chechen civilians continue to arrive in Ingushetia seeking refuge, fleeing the fighting and hoping to find the means for them and their families to survive. This migration started again with the zachistkas in July 2001(Sernovodsk/Assinovskaya) and kept increasing, especially since the renewal of bombing in the mountainous areas (Vedeno, Shali, Itum-Kale, Argun) in mid-September.
For these newcomers, who number as many as 1200 per week (according to the figures of the Ingush Migration service), settling in Ingushetia is a tough venture. Even ignoring the complex problem of registrations (see below), the first priority is to find a safe place for one's family. With a little money, it's possible to find a room with the inhabitants, at a high cost (between 1000 and 3000 rubles, or US$ 35 - 100, compared to the cost of a small apartment in Moscow for US $200 to 250) or, with some luck, space in half a tent, sold by someone who has found better lodgings. Some of the displaced returning to Chechnya sell their room or tent to new arrivals.
If the IPDs have no money, they'd better hope for luck through family connections in Ingushetia. Perhaps, after a while, they will be able to find space in a 'kompaknik', or build their own dwelling in a recognised campsite. Often, however, there is nothing available. Many Chechens cross the border, stay with relatives for a short while and leave again because they can't find anywhere to stay.
Instructions have been handed down from authorities to prevent the construction of a new camp for IDPs (see the interview with the officer in charge of the Ingush Migration Service). There are several factors at work: the Chechen government wants the displaced to return in order to receive humanitarian aid subsidies; Russian authorities also want them to return to demonstrate that the situation within Chechnya is calm; and Ingush authorities impose restrictions on any new project (for example, they don't want any additional tents or rooms in the cities of Malgobek, Nazran or Sleptsovskaya), as they claim that the number of IDPs has begun to create tensions.
Invisible New Exiles - Statements
The officer in charge of the Migrations Service for the Republic of Ingushetia
"The official number of IDPs is 150,000. But registrations were halted six months ago and there are clearly more of them now. Registrations were suspended because the Chechen government told us it had the means and the resources to take charge of the IDPs. They believe the displaced persons are going to come back and they say they will improve their living conditions there."
Question: What are the tangible consequences for those who are not registered?
Answer: "They can receive humanitarian aid from the NGOs but not from the government, meaning the bread every other day and 15 rubles a day that are distributed by our services."
Natasha, 43 - Sleptsovskaya
Her husband died from an illness last April. She has five adolescent children to feed - three sons, 16, 18 and 19; and two daughters, 12 and 15. Previously poor, the family is now completely destitute and must rely entirely on help from neighbours, the camp director, and others nearby. Currently staying in a tent at the Rassvet camp in Sleptsovskaya, Natasha fears she could become homeless at any moment.
"I don't even have a bed for my two daughters. Since we arrived from Alkhan Kala in September, I have been everywhere, to Alina, Sputnik, Satsita. But there, you have to pay for an empty tent. Here, I go begging to each tent. One man who went back to Chechnya for a while lent me half his tent, just until I find a place. I'm not registered anywhere. I don't know what you're supposed to do. I'm lost. I don't know how we're going to manage to live here."
Sultan, 45 - Karabulak
Newly-arrived from Chechnya, Sultan and his family are destitute, even if lucky to have found this place to live. They must borrow flour from neighbours. They will return the flour if and when they get their first package of humanitarian aid. A neighbour who arrived before they did explains: "People have to wait at the DRC and ICRC offices for two or three months before they decide to put the new arrivals on their lists. And meanwhile, how are people supposed to live?"
"We're not registered on any lists so for now we're not getting any help," says Sultan. "It's very difficult because our money is already gone. The Migration Service took our names. The people who lived here before got bread from Emercom. We tried to explain and take their place on the list but Emercom refused. Today my two sons and I went to the fields to gather potatoes."
"We've had some strange experiences. In Dechny-Vedeno, we received aid from the DRC. When I got to Ingushetia, I went to explain our situation to the DRC office so they would take our names off the lists in Chechnya and add us to the lists here. They did take our names off the first list. As for the second step, we're still waiting. Luckily, the neighbours help us as best they can. Yesterday, someone gave us some rice."
"We have no choice, we must stay here and live in these humiliating conditions. As long as we can stay here, as long as the authorities don't force us to go back telling us that the war is over, we'll stay here."
Khouzimat, 101 - Sleptsovskaya
She lives in the corner of a barn at Bogatyr. Her tiny room is windowless. The walls and floor are covered with threadbare carpets. There are two metal beds because she is afraid to sleep alone. Plastic and cardboard cover the ceiling. She has no dishes or stove, only a little electric heater.
"I usually get help from the Danes (the DRC), but they've already taken me off their list three times. I haven't gotten anything for three months. Fortunately, the neighbours bring me a dish of food at night. And I bake bread outside."
Suspended registrations - invisible IDPs
Registrations have been officially suspended since February-March 2001. New arrivals are therefore "invisible", since they do not appear on the lists. Women at MSF's clinics speak of authorities refusing to register children born on Ingush territory.
The absence of official registration of displaced persons obviously makes the number of daily arrivals difficult to assess and seriously handicaps any humanitarian assistance program. Indeed, without a complete census of this population, the existence of some 20,000 to 50,000 people is being ignored. Official registrations counted 150,000 displaced persons, while the passport and propiska services counted 170,000 and the Ingush authorities estimate they have 200,000 IDPs.
Without registration on these official lists, the IDPs cannot claim any aid delivered by Emercom - which is primarily responsible for the general distribution of provisions. Although each NGO has some of its own recipient records, the fact remains that in the absence of a complete census, the NGOs have to plan their assistance programs on the basis of incomplete lists.
A population under pressure to go home
During 2001 the Russian authorities increased the direct pressure on the IDPs in Ingushetia and published false reports about the amounts of aid offered in Chechnya. Throughout the spring and summer of 2001, representatives of the Internally Displaced Persons Committee of the Chechen Government came to the camps and the kompaknikis to incite the IDPs to return to Chechnya. According to gathered accounts, the promises varied: a place in a shelter, construction materials, a tent, food, money (2000 rubles total, 50 rubles a day), compensation for destroyed homes, etc.
Pressure was exerted on the IDPs to return: in Bart Camp, Taïssa, 32 years old, recounts that men came in the spring of 2001 to tell them to return as fast as possible before they were "kicked out with their tents and sent back to Chechnya." In Nassir-Kort, Luiza, 34 years old, told of local administration representatives who came and threatened to cut off the gas and electricity if they didn't leave.
Some of the buildings restored for those who do return are located in the Chechen town of Argun, the scene of very heavy fighting over recent months. According to witnesses, most of the families who returned to Argun came back to Ingushetia within a few months.
The Russian government wishes to relocate the IDPs, but a number of factors including the resumption of large-scale fighting, the continued zachistkas (clean-up operations) and the onset of winter, all render this impossible at the current time. Chechens questioned by MSF staff stated that their most significant worry about returning home was the safety of their family members, as violence is felt to be indiscriminate. The other main concern was that they would not be able to get the most basic things they needed to survive. In response to the question, "Would you like to return to Chechnya?" all of the IDPs questioned (about 80) give a version of one of these two answers: "Yes, we would really like to return, but it is impossible for now," or "No, it is impossible to live in Chechnya now because it isn't safe."
Pressures to Return - Interview
Representative of the Internally Displaced Persons Committee of the Chechen Government
"The return of the IDPs is a priority for the Chechen government. Buildings that were not too damaged have been restored in Grozny, Gudermes, Urus-Martan, Achkhoi- Martan and Argun. In Argun, three places are already finished, two kindergartens for 355 people and a shelter for 500. There are already 474 who have moved in. We are also setting up tent camps - two in Znamenskoye - and we are restoring the kompaknikis in Sernovodsk et Assinovskaya."
"The Committee has a special department 'for the return and resettlement of displaced Chechens.' There are five people who share the administrative regions, meeting with people and explaining the situation and the options available to them. Depending on what people want, they are added to the list of return candidates and asked to write a letter requesting return. We already have 4000 volunteers and 1800 of them wish to return to Grozny. Most of the people living in the camps, like Alina, Bella, Bart, etc., do not want to spend another winter there, out in the cold wind. Once a week, a convoy leaves for Argun with a military escort. There have already been twelve of these in three months."
Question: According to what the displaced say, there is still a slight security problem...
Answer: Indeed, I don't claim to be able to guarantee security in Chechnya - I can't even be sure of my own safety.
Q: How can you help people return when you know that it's dangerous?
A: 400,000 school children have returned to school in the last few days. People live their lives in Chechnya, and here people are fed up with staying in tents, they are ready, they want to go back. We are not forcing anyone.
Q: Just the same, isn't it dangerous to return people under these conditions?
A: The whole Chechen people must return home. We have to resolve our own problems.
Q: Wouldn't it be better to wait until the war is over?
A: When do you think that will be? I think it will happen when people return home, when the NGOs are working in Chechnya, when foreigners will be able to see and testify to what is going on here."
Statements: Empty Promises
Lida, 57 years old, Bella Camp in Sleptsovskaya: "They have promised mountains of gold! A house, food, materials, everything we could hope for! But those are only words." Zelimkhan, 15 years old, who we met in Bart Camp (Karabulak), was among the few families that returned in June to Argun, where a shelter for returnees had been prepared. He came back to Ingushetia in September: "Yes, they had promised to help us and in four months we got nothing, no money or materials to rebuild our house, just a little food three times a month."
Chechnya: An Open Air Prison
Every day innocent men and women in Chechnya are killed by bombs or crossfire, while others "disappear" or are wounded during clean-up operations. The war, described as an "anti-terrorist operation" by Moscow, continues to oppress a civilian population deprived of any rights, assistance or recognition.
Simply surviving from day to day is becoming harder - every excursion outside is risky and residential areas are the target of bombings and zachistkas. The inhabitants spend most of their time in cellars. In addition to direct violence, they are also subjected to lootings of their few belongings by ill-paid or unpaid soldiers, who help themselves with total impunity.
Escaping war crimes and crimes against humanity
The war in Chechnya has been raging for over two years now. Since the end of the conquest phase and most intensive bombings, Russian forces have been present in the territory, behaving like a particularly brutal and undisciplined occupying army. After the loss of Grozny, the Chechen fighters retreated to the mountains in the south, from which they launch guerrilla operations into the towns and cities, harassing the federal troops and the pro-Russian administration. The attack, in broad daylight, on Akhmad Kadyrov in his Grozny office in September 2001, shows the degree of insecurity, even in areas controlled by Russian troops. The violence of the conflict, the Russian repression, and the assimilation of the general population with the actions of rebel groups make every civilian a potential victim. Men from 15 (and sometimes younger) to 50 years of age are particularly threatened. The random violence and risks to which they are exposed often oblige them to flee, or lead others to join ranks with the fighters. Far from improving, this situation has continued to deteriorate.
Though planned for early 2001, the reduction of Russian troops on the ground in Chechnya has not yet taken place. The only actual change has been a transfer of a part of the military prerogatives to the FSB (the Russian Federal Security Service). Since this change, the massive violations of human rights and of humanitarian law have continued. Last July, the attacks against Sernovodsk - previously considered a secure location for the IDPs because of its proximity with the border - and Assinovskaya demonstrated extreme violence towards the Chechens including the rape of men, disappearances and torture. In addition to those events reported in the international press, the systematic pillaging and daily humiliations, MSF's medical staff have heard stories of the same kind in their daily practice. Through the use of zachistkas, arbitrary arrests, filtering camps and systematic torture, the Russian authorities have made Chechnya into an open air prison, a ghetto ruled by random terror.
Since September 2001, the resumption of bombing, rocket fire and the danger of stray bullets have forced many Chechens to spend most of their time seeking safety in their cellars, like rats. In Chechnya, horror is a part of daily life.
Violence in Chechnya - Statements
Sultan, 45 - Karabulak:
"We arrived three weeks ago from the Vedeno region. We didn't come sooner because we didn't have enough money for the trip and to settle here. But we couldn't stay there any longer, especially with the children. In two weeks, my daughters (8 and 11) only went to school for one or two days. And the little one, she's 2 ½, when she sees the trucks and the APCs [armored personnel carriers], she cries out, "The Russians are here, the Russians are here!" When she sees planes, it's she who yells, "Get to the cellar, to the cellar!" Since the summer it's gotten really unbearable. Any day, a bomb could fall on our house. One of my sons could disappear. We were already spending a lot of time in the cellar, but it got worse every day. The children were more and more terrified, traumatized...I'm an ambulance driver for the Vedeno hospital's emergency department. I kept working, but there's no pay and the vehicles are falling apart. One of the two hospital buildings is nothing more than a pile of ruins... The other is still standing and the doctors are still working in spite of everything, without gas, with electricity blackouts that sometimes last two weeks. People don't want to stay in the hospital. Women who've given birth go right back home for fear of bombings. The doctors do their best. They get a little bit of humanitarian aid, medicines, from time to time."
Khava, 38 - Sleptsovskaya
"Last week, I went back there to collect the children's benefit payments. I went to my building to see my neighbour and friend. That's the second building I lived in Grozny because the first one was totally destroyed. Half of this one is still standing. She greeted me and began to cry. She told me that two nights earlier, five masked men came to her place. They spoke Russian. They forced her to open the door, began beating her husband, took her jewelry and finally put a gun to his head so that she would tell them which apartments still had people living in them. She had to go with them, floor by floor, lie to her neighbours so they would open the door in the middle of the night, and then be a witness to terrible violence each time someone opened up. They wanted money, jewelry and valuables. In one apartment, the woman had nothing to give so they beat the man who was there, her cousin. She was crying and begging, but they said, "You'd better figure something out! Find money!"
This war is big business for the Russians. Why would they leave? It will never end. They're making too much money here. Like at the checkpoints, they collect 30, 50 or 100 rubles from every car. And you, with your work, what difference will that make? None, because no one believes us anyway."
Noura, 45 - Sleptsovskaya
"My son left on a Friday. On Saturday they brought him back. It was Saturday, September 15th. In the morning he was outside, tending the cows, and they started bombing. His back was seriously injured. Three others from the village were wounded on the same day - two women and one man. A cousin brought him here, he spent three weeks in the hospital and they removed the pieces of shrapnel from his back (she shows a piece of metal the size of an egg). He was getting better, he could speak again, then he started refusing to eat, he felt bad all the time and he died. His backbone was broken but I didn't think he would die. I thought he would be an invalid, but live."
Aminat, 23 - Logobaz, Nazran
She is six months pregnant and tells us her story: "I have been here for a week and I'm sick! There were terrible bombings on Argun, on October 8th and 9th, so I came here. I couldn't stand it there anymore, my husband was taken in a cleansing operation seven months ago, he had no papers, and I haven't heard from him since. There was a column of armored personnel carriers, my husband and a friend were outside, they got scared and went into the nearest house. Then the Russians went into the house, smashed everything and took everyone away.
I stayed because I didn't want to abandon my mother-in-law, who refuses to leave. But it's getting worse and worse and I couldn't stay any more.
Go home? Yes, when the Russian army, the FSB [Russian Federal Security Service] and the GRU [Russian Military Intelligence], etc., have all gone."
Rosa, 21 - Bart Camp, in Karabulak
Seven months pregnant, she arrived here a few days before from the Chechen mountains.
"I live in Dichny-Vedeno, a very tiny village in the mountains near Vedeno. On Monday (October 15th), the militia building (editor's note: Chechen, pro-Russian) burned down, then on Tuesday, they bombed the village. I was afraid, I ran and I fell down. I was afraid for my baby, so I went by car with my father to see Zarieta (the obstetrician-gynecologist at the MSF clinic). I had already come the month before. This time, Zarieta told me I had to be hospitalized because my baby's heartbeat was very weak. With the first child, I had a caesarian.
I don't know how or where I am going to give birth. I don't want to go to the hospital in Vedeno, nobody dares to stay there because it's too dangerous with the bombings. I went to Grozny two weeks ago, with my sister, to see the doctor who delivered my first baby. I looked for her, but she's not there anymore, in Grozny. So I won't be going in for an operation as planned on December 5th at the central maternity. I'm going to talk it over with my family, to decide where to go."
How do you live there? "Most of the time, in the cellar. There is no aid, except a little flour and sugar from the Danes (DRC), for the children. There are lots of soldiers in the village, the have settled in on the market place and they are shooting every day. People are afraid to go to the bazaar, though it's the only way to exchange things or find a little money, the only way to survive. They speed by in their APCs and scare everyone. Then they come into houses in the evenings, asking for food and drink. There are zachistkas all the time: the come in APCs, blockade the village and search all the houses one by one, taking the young men - the ones they take never come back."
Chirvan, 21 - Karabulak
Chirvan is spending some time at the 'home' of his aunt Assiat, a little room put together in one of the large stables. Usually, there are five people living here: Assiat, her husband and their three children. At the moment, there are eight people here, with Chirvan, his mother Kamieta and one of his sisters. The latter three will be returning to Chechnya in a few days. Chirvan jokes, "I remember a time when, after working, we would go to rest for a few days in the mountains or at the seaside. Now, this is our 'sanatorium'!" The "sanatorium" is a room of a few square meters with plastic tacked to the ceiling, a concrete floor they poured themselves on the hard ground, a bunk over half the space where everyone sleeps side by side, blankets that barely manage to cover the stone walls. Cattle can be heard mooing very close by and the corridor is filled with an odor of fresh milk and cow manure.
"I live in the suburbs of Gudermes, a small village. About a month ago, there were still zachistkas in the area, so this time, my mother cried so much and begged so hard that I agreed to leave for awhile. A few days before, they had taken young people from the village, they even take children, 13 or 14 years old. I didn't want to leave, I'm innocent and I'm a free man, I never fought against the Russians, so why should I flee my home?"
"Gudermes is between a forest and a main road. Even when there are no rebel attacks (and the last so-called attack followed by a major battle as the Russian media say, I can tell you it was nothing, they just say it to destabilize the region and launch their cleansing campaigns), the Russians bomb the forest because they say the rebels are hiding there. It happens every day! The problem is that the bombs regularly fall on the village or on civilians in the countryside. Old people and children are terrified."
The obstacles to the presence of relief workers and to humanitarian efforts: Security threats and increasingly obstructive bureaucracy
Humanitarian Actions Hampered by Insecurity
There have been regular and disturbing 'incidents' in which members of humanitarian organisations were injured or harassed: an ICRC driver was wounded by a gunshot, the PINF offices in Grozny were searched, ICRC personnel were arrested and brutally interrogated at a military blockade, etc. Whether they originate with the Russian forces or with various Chechen groups, they are a constant danger to humanitarian organisations. Although the various leaders of independent groups have condemned the attacks in the United States, the prevailing climate since September 11th has both opened a window for all sorts of irregularities aimed at foreigners and given a blanket approval to anything that can be construed as an anti-terrorist measure, with no regard for the Geneva Conventions. As a result, few organisations can send expatriate workers into the field and we have to submit the Chechen personnel to restrictions on their freedom of movement and circulation.
Is there a double standard? As it enters its third year, the conflict in Chechnya has yet to be described as what it is: an extremely brutal war with devastating consequences on civilians. The international indignation that ought to be aroused by this war being waged against the Chechen civilians in the name of an anti-terrorist campaign led by Moscow, seems to have disappeared in the face of more pressing international political interests.
Seeking refuge in Ingushetia has been a matter of survival for thousands of displaced persons. Yet for many of them, this refuge is only a cold cellar where they are forced to live like rats.
Clearly, the strategy of providing no assistance to these IDPs in the hope that this will force them to go home, has failed. Maintaining these displaced persons in such deplorable, inhuman and humiliating conditions has not halted the exodus. Nor will it push these exiles to return to Chechnya and to a prison-like environment rife with arbitrary violence and lootings.
The reality of this exodus and the true number of IDPS present in Ingushetia must be acknowledged, so that sufficient quantities of decent aid may be provided to this population.