Offering relief in Chechnya

News and Press Release
Originally published
by Naila Francis
Jim White of Warrington, working for Mercy Corps International, helped residents of the war-torn region find food and shelter.
[Editor's Note: Orginally published in the Doylestown Intelligencer on Tuesday, February 29, 2000.]

WARRINGTON -On the borders of Chechnya, near the Republic of Ingushetia, thousands of women, children and the elderly reside in makeshift camps.

They have fled the bombings, brutal slayings and other atrocities of the six-month war between the separatist Chechen rebels and Russian military to confront other unspeakable conditions: starvation; the spread of typhus, cholera and tuberculosis; and living conditions that often consist of box-sized hovels with no heat, no water and no sanitation.

They call them Internally Displaced Persons. And as they fled their homes in war-ravaged Chechnya, anything from gas stations to old factories to the haphazard camps they pitched alongside the border was better than living amidst the rubble and debris they left behind.

"Anything that could provide shelter was used. These people escaped with virtually nothing," said Jim White. "It's ironic because they're actually a very wealthy and proud people, and in this century, they've suffered from severe racism. The rest of Russia does not understand them. Nor do they care."

Only two weeks ago, the Warrington resident was in Chechnya, providing much-needed relief to the thousands of civilians displaced from their homes. Even as Alvaro Gil-Robles, human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe, called Monday for the rebuilding of Grozny, Chechnya's capital, and a quick end to the war, White remained skeptical that an end to the fighting is near.

White, 35, is the country director of Tajikistan for Mercy Corps International, a nonprofit relief and development organization that provides emergency relief services to people afflicted by poverty, conflict and oppression in 24 countries around the world. White was also in Chechnya with another group, the International Organization for Migration, during the 1994-96 war, helping civilians evacuate their homes. Although he said that experience prepared him for what he would find in Chechnya the second time around, he never expected to have to return.

"To have all these people displaced again, suffering again -it just doesn't make sense. This needs international attention. It's not just an internal Russian problem," he said.

Earlier this month, White was in the Chechen villages of Assinovskaya and Sernovodsk for two days, distributing medical and hygiene kits as well as food and other supplies to the 25,000 IDPs who have doubled the populations of those villages. Before that, he spent seven days in neighboring Ingushetia, where thousands of Chechen refugees are struggling to recover from the months of bombing and street warfare that have left them homeless.

Despite the reluctance of many humanitarian organizations to enter Chechnya at the start of the second war due to reports of numerous killings and kidnappings, White thought he and his colleagues had a better chance of providing assistance because he had worked in Chechnya before. This time, however, he found security tighter and access to much of the devastated area limited. Although Mercy Corps International had permission to be there, he could only make his way to Assinovskaya and Sernovodsk, which had escaped most of the bombing.

"It was a hell of a lot harder this time in terms of security and incredibly risky," White said. "People in a war don't pay attention to permission slips."

During his time in both Chechnya and Ingushetia, he found people setting up house like squatters anywhere they could. One family made a bed for its children on a bench in the sauna room of a bathhouse to keep them warm. Hundreds turned an old, humid sausage factory into a crude apartment building, striving for some privacy with tattered curtains to shield them from other families. Around the camps, children played with toy guns roughly fashioned out of wood, having known nothing but fighting for the past five years. School is no longer an option, since many of their schools have been destroyed.

What White saw in Chechnya and what he will see when he travels to Kosovo next week might be enough for him to reconsider his job with Mercy Corps International. But he is determined to make a difference. Although White graduated from Temple University in 1987 with an engineering degree, a year spent in Hungary in a special science program after his graduation convinced him that his work was elsewhere. At the time, Hungary and neighboring Romania were just beginning to feel the strain of the dissolving Soviet Union. Since then, White has worked with various nongovernmental agencies to provide relief efforts around the world.

"At the end of the day, you really see the impact of what you have done. You see that kids have a warm meal in their stomach or somebody has medicine to ease their suffering. It's very fulfilling," he said. "I might also be a little selfish because in this kind of work, you always get something back."