Impressions from Ingushetia

I visited Ingushetia to meet with colleagues at the Centre for Peacemaking and Community Development, (CPCD), to see the problems faced by 215,000 refugees there for myself, and to help oversee our response. The overwhelming impression which I returned with was a sense that while people in Russia and the rest of the world debate the scale of the problem, the victims are quietly suffering from a chronic lack of help. For most, it is at least the second time that they have had to flee their homes in five years.
Whether or not what is happening in the North Caucasus is a 'humanitarian catastrophe', people in the refugee camps in Ingushetia seriously need food, water, medicines, adequate shelter and warm clothing. The majority of people living in the camps are ill and hungry. Most diseases are caused by the cold - flu, colds, etc. A baby boy, Islam, 1 year and 4 months old, died from cold during the night while I was there in one of the 120 railway carriages at the refugee camp 'Severny'. His mother was unaware until she found his cold body in the morning. Another child was rushed off to the main hospital in Nazran the same day after coughing blood - one of many cases of tuberculosis. The danger of epidemics is great and increasing in Ingushetia, as the number of refugees rises almost to equal the number of constant inhabitants in the republic. The local infrastructure is unable to withstand the strain.

We at CPCD are setting up a bakery to provide fresh bread daily for refugee families, as well as providing warm clothing, food and hygiene parcels, winter tents and stoves. If Russian forces across the border in the Chechen village of Sernovodsk allow us access to the grain mill which we set up during the last war, we will be able to grind flour for the refugees also. The village has been bombed for over a month, and ... a rehabilitation centre that we restored there last year has been totally destroyed in the recent bombings.

The majority of children in the camps are traumatized. We have worked since 1996 to offer psychological rehabilitation to children traumatized by war through our 'Little Star' programme in Grozny. Our team of psychologists and therapists fled Grozny themselves with their families two months ago. They now work in four of the refugee camps in Ingushetia. We have our own tents in the camps with wood stoves and electricity, where the children take part in simulation games and art and drama therapy activities. They are also offered individual consultations.

The children always look forward to these sessions, which are an opportunity for them to forget about the misery of their everyday lives, and play as children their age should. When I visited the sessions, the children were so absorbed that they didn't hear the bomb explosions across the border in Chechnya, nor the military planes flying overhead. Only once, on the final day of my visit, were they disturbed from their play, when explosions from Russian forces only 200 metres away from the camp shook the earth around us. The teachers at the tent-school where we hold the sessions ordered the children to run 'home' to their railway carriages. We also run sessions for the children and their parents together. We introduced these sessions at the request of the parents themselves, who strongly feel the need for help in dealing with the stress they are living through.

Children and adults from Chechnya are prone to developing a deeper level of trauma than victims of some other armed conflicts as the traumatic events have been occurring over such a long period of time. The war from 1994 to 1996 left many people traumatized. The post-war period since was also unstable with economic breakdown and rising crime and anarchy. The experience of fleeing for their lives from their homes once again this autumn and becoming refugees, almost neglected, only deepens and consolidates the stress and trauma.

As well as responding as best we can to the crisis in the North Caucasus, we have been working with NGOs from the region to focus on our visions, and how our work today may contribute to building a happier, more secure future. ...There is no shortage of enthusiasm and energy among local people working for peace and to relieve the suffering of victims in the North Caucasus. The process of standing back from the immediate pressing needs, sharing what the priorities of our work are, and how we can best work to achieve our aims was valuable, and we plan to continue it.

Consciousness of the scale of the problem in the North Caucasus and the need for help is beginning to be understood in the West, though Chechnya for most is a long way away and has had bad press over the last years with kidnappings and terrorist attacks. The vast majority of people in Chechnya are peace-loving, hospitable people with a strong zest for life and a love of freedom. Their land and their traditions and culture are rich, with the magnificent Caucasus mountains occupying most of their territory. Respect for older people plays a central part in their society's make-up, as well as a strong sense of dignity and pride. The Wahabi strains of Islam imported into Chechnya in recent years are alien to the Chechens, who are Suni Muslims, influenced strongly by Sufism.

The international community has been slow to condemn the destruction of thousands of human lives in Chechnya and the resulting exodus into Ingushetia, the only republic ready to accept refugees. We should not observe coldly as this inhumane situation continues, but encourage our governments to insist on an end to the bombing and a political solution through negotiations with the elected Chechen leadership. At the same time, we should work to support the victims of this conflict, and ensure that the help gets to those who need it.

Excerpts from a report by our partner in the region
November 1999