ECHO News No. 11
State of emergency in Chechnya
More than a year after Russian troops entered Chechnya for what they thought was going to be a quick clean-up in the so-called bandit republic, the situation escalated into a full-scale emergency again. After a lull last summer, Russian forces resumed bombardments throughout the country. Civilians inevitably got caught up in the fighting. Those who managed to escape headed in their thousands for the neighbouring republics of Ingushetia, Dagestan and, to a lesser extent, North Ossetia. All of them felt the strain as they tried to absorb refugees.
When the crisis first erupted at the end of 1994, ECHO became one of the first donors to respond to the needs of those affected by the war. As the situation evolved, ECHO has stepped up its aid. This year, ECHO has continued to provide support to organisations working in Chechnya, as well as in neighbouring republics.
There are now very few organisations involved, because of the dangers they face. It is no longer safe for them to operate effectively within Chechnya. As a result, many organisations are currently on standby in the neighbouring republics.
Besides facing the ever-present threat of bombardment, humanitarian workers have come under fire on several occasions. They have been exposed to intimidation and armed hold-ups carried out by unidentified gangs. Medecins sans Frontieres-Belgium, one of the only organisations to have stayed in the country, was forced to suspend operations when one of its team was taken hostage. The courage humanitarian workers are showing in the circumstances deserves to be highlighted here.
The risks and abrupt changes in the situation underline how difficult it is to plan aid operations in Chechnya. As well as facing dangers in day-to-day operations, organisations have a struggle getting access to places where the fighting is taking place. Convoys are regularly blocked at checkpoints and borders with neighbouring republics. The situation in the field changes from hour to hour. NGOs are constantly obliged to review their objectives. ECHO is monitoring developments very closely so that it can be as flexible as possible in its capacity as donor.
Food aid and support for hospitals
In Chechnya, medical and food aid are the priorities, as well as providing safe drinking water, a major problem in the capital, Grozny, for example. The escalation of fighting in recent weeks has made it very hard to supply drinking water in most areas of the city. For many civilians, leaving home to look for food and water has become very risky. Where possible, ECHO also supports programmes to revive hospitals and dispensaries treating the many wounded across the country.
Aid for displaced person in neighbouring republics
Renewed fighting has led to new mass movements of people towards the neighbouring republics. In Ingushetia, most refugees are sheltered in families. Others have sought refuge in public buildings, abandoned farms, train carriages and camps, where living conditions are appalling. ECHO is funding the operations of MSF-France, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the International Red Cross Committee (ICRC). These organisations are the ones with the best track record in Ingushetia.
Chechens who took refuge in Dagestan have gathered around Khassavyurt. Their numbers put a strain on relations with the locals, whose living conditions have already deteriorated severely because of the blocking of supply routes. ECHO is supporting MSF-Belgium, WFP and the ICRC, the most experienced organisations in this republic.
The recent escalation of fighting has deterred people from returning to Chechnya. Peace in still seems very far off, particularly since Chechen factions are, in the words of one of their leaders, preparing for "real war, which will begin when the Russians have finally gone". Humanitarian organisations dread the implications for civilians.
Since the start of the crisis, ECHO has been the main supporter of humanitarian operations in the Northern Caucasus. In 1994 and 1995, it provided 26 million ECU in grants. This year, ECHO has earmarked at least 8 million ECU of aid for victims of the war in Chechnya, to be used in line with the situation on the ground.
Southern Caucasus: neither war nor peace
The ceasefire in Karabakh agreed in May 1994, under pressure from Russia, put an end to fighting between Armenian and Azeri forces. But from the diplomatic viewpoint, the two sides have yet to work out a framework for a political solution to this seven-year-old conflict.
As a result, the region is still in an unstable and dangerous situation -- between war and peace.
Essential survival programmes
The republics of the Southern Caucasus are suffering a profound recession in the wake of the collapse of the former Soviet Union.
As a result, the impoverished populations of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia are having to endure very difficult living conditions. What is more, all of them are having to take in many refugees and displaced persons. Survival programmes, which will remain vital for the foreseeable future, continue to receive support from ECHO in all three republics.
The priorities are food and medical aid, supplies of energy in winter and basic repairs to infrastructure. Nonetheless, food aid is structured so as to reduce dependence on humanitarian aid in the longer term. NGOs distribute seed and tools, and supply water to irrigate vegetable gardens. As for medical aid, the focus is on hygiene and vaccination, as well as making available free medical care for those unable to afford to pay.
Humanitarian organisations are carrying out basic repairs to the infrastructure so as to reduce public health risks. For instance, they are working on repairs to the drinking water system.
ECHO recently granted further support for the region's humanitarian aid programmes, totalling 19 million ECU, making the European Union the biggest donor in this highly unstable region.
Now ECHO is looking into ways of linking implementing the Commission's new strategy of linking emergency action, resettlement and development. This will involve coordination among the relevant Directorates General on support to be provided.
ECHO News No 11. (quarterly) June, 1996
A publication of the European Community Humanitarian office (ECHO)
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