ICRC Update No. 00/01 Northern Caucasus conflict

SN 00/009
I. General situation

Military operations of wide-ranging impact are continuing in the Northern Caucasus, prolonging the humanitarian crisis in the region. After a brief interruption during the orthodox Christmas holidays and the end of Ramadan in January, the battle over the city of Grozny and other regions in the southern part of the Republic has resumed with full force. Some 20-40,000 civilians remain trapped in Grozny amid ferocious fighting, while thousands of people are reported wounded or dead.

Impact in humanitarian terms

The ICRC is deeply worried about the consequences for the population. The overwhelming concern is for the safety of civilians who have been unable to leave conflict zones in Chechnya because of the fighting, especially Grozny. The city's remaining inhabitants are facing perilous conditions and have extremely limited access to food, water, medical care, electricity or gas. The ICRC fears for the situation of the 8,000 mainly elderly and vulnerable beneficiaries of its assistance programme, carried out until last October with the support of the Chechen branch of the Russian Red Cross. The same precarious situation is likely to prevail in other conflict zones. In addition, numerous captured persons are in need of protection.

To date, over a quarter of a million people have fled Chechnya. Their need for assistance remains critical, despite all relief efforts undertaken so far. Most of the displaced people are in Ingushetia. More people keep arriving, while others cross back into Chechnya. Meanwhile, EMERCOM (the Russian Ministry for Emergencies) has announced the return of tens of thousands of people to areas controlled by the Russian authorities. It remains difficult to keep track of their numbers and movements. Other people have fled to Dagestan and elsewhere in the Northern Caucasus, and even as far afield as Georgia, where over 5,000 Chechen refugees have sought shelter. Their plight should not be forgotten.

Concerns in terms of International Humanitarian Law

In view of the fresh military operations underway since August 1999, the ICRC has reminded the authorities concerned of their obligations under international humanitarian law, notably to spare civilians and their property during military operations and refrain from using the threat of violence. The ICRC's immediate concern is to find solutions allowing people in conflict zones to receive the minimum assistance needed for their survival, or leave for safer areas. As a matter of priority, it wishes to pursue its direct dialogue with the Russian authorities regarding respect for humanitarian law and access to detainees, which to date has not been granted. The ICRC has also expressed these concerns to the Chechen authorities, notably through contacts with their representatives in Baku and Tbilisi.

In view of the present situation, the ICRC stands ready to meet basic humanitarian needs in Chechnya, despite the hazardous security conditions. Discussion are under way with all those involved in the fighting regarding sufficient assurances for assistance activities to be conducted throughout Chechen territory.

II. Response of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement

In its Plan of Action launched on 1 November 1999 and covering the five winter months until March 2000, the Movement, led by the ICRC, requested more than 18 million Swiss francs enabling it to step up relief operations for 150,000 war-affected people. The plan incorporates not only ICRC and Russian Red Cross (RRC) activities in the Northern Caucasus but also assistance programmes on behalf of internally displaced persons from the Northern Caucasus, carried out by the RRC outside the region with support through the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (International Federation).

a. Operational set-up

The Northern Caucasus relief operation is directed by a team of 6 ICRC expatriate staff based in Nalchik (Kabardino-Balkaria), supported by the ICRC delegation in Moscow and medical, relief, water and sanitation and logistics experts from Geneva headquarters. They work with a team of 185 permanent national staff in the following republics and regions: Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia and Stavropol Krai. The ICRC remains one of the few international humanitarian organizations staffed by both national and international workers in the Northern Caucasus, where widespread insecurity poses serious hazards and limits free movement. Previously Grozny-based staff who had to leave Chechnya on 6 November 1999 because of the drastically increased security risk have been redeployed in Ingushetia.

The RRC has a network of 89 active local and regional branches throughout the Russian Federation, with 45 permanent staff involved in the operation in the Northern Caucasus. The International Federation, through its Moscow delegation, has supported the Russian Red Cross, particularly in strengthening the Population Movement Programme which assists displaced people from Chechnya outside the Northern Caucasus.

In addition, the ICRC continues to support social welfare programmes for vulnerable people run by RRC local branches elsewhere in the Northern Caucasus republics, and pursues its assistance to people displaced as a result of the previous Chechen conflict and of the Ingush/North Ossetian conflict.

b. Assistance


Relief: despite the constraints imposed by the security situation in the region, the ICRC has so far managed to provide basic food (family parcels, wheat flour and dry biscuits) and other supplies (hygiene kits, blankets, candles, plastic sheeting, cooking tools plus gas and wood stoves) to more than 173,000 displaced people in some 130 distribution points in Ingushetia. The RRC, through its Ingush branch, daily distributes 10,000 bread loaves and serves 3,000 cooked meals at three soup kitchens. Additionally, over 22,300 displaced people have received warm shoes and clothes.

Medical and water/habitat: the virtually resourceless medical system is struggling to cope with the sharp rise in the number of patients with war injuries and urgently requires help to cover major needs. The ICRC is providing monthly deliveries of medicines and medical supplies to five hospitals treating patients with war injuries, enabling more than 700 to be treated by mid-January. The RRC has opened a medical post at the Republican hospital in Nazran and set up two mobile health posts. The ICRC is also running an operation to deliver drinking water regularly to displaced people living in camps and settlements.

Aid for Chechen displaced people and refugees elsewhere in the Northern Caucasus and Georgia

In Dagestan, the ICRC together with the local RRC branch is distributing food and non-food assistance to people displaced as a result of the fighting in August 1999 and recently displaced people from Chechnya (mainly in the Khasavyurt region). Since August, some 50,000 people have received food and non-food assistance. Some 7,500 people have been provided with shoes and clothes. At the end of December, a special assistance operation was carried out for 6,800 returnees in the Botlikh mountains close to the Chechen border. Medical assistance has been delivered to three hospitals, enabling them to treat more than 300 patients with war injuries since August.

In North Ossetia and Kabardino-Balkaria, the ICRC together with the local RRC branches have distributed assistance to some 7,000 displaced people from Chechnya, including many displaced as a result of the first conflict. Since last December three military hospitals have received sufficient emergency and surgical materials to treat up to 800 war-wounded.

In Georgia, in coordination with the UNHCR, the International Federation and the Georgian Red Cross, assistance has been delivered to some 5,000 Chechen refugees.

c. Coordination with other organizations

To ensure efficient planning, exchange of information and an effective response to humanitarian needs, the Movement, under ICRC leadership, is coordinating its operations with the mere handful of other humanitarian and government agencies working in the Northern Caucasus.

For further information please contact the External Resources Division.