MSF first started working in the North
Caucasus in the early 1990s and reinforced its presence during the first
Chechen war (1994-1996). However MSF teams withdrew at the end of December
1997 following several kidnappings of aid workers.
In August 1999, Chechen fighters invaded Dagestan. It took at least six weeks for them to be pushed back by Russian forces. During this time, there were bombings in Russian cities which the government blamed on Chechen "terrorists". By September 1999, the Russians started their "anti-terrorist" campaign in Chechnya. Quite quickly, the outside world expressed horror at the Russian's disproportionate and indiscriminate attacks on the capital Grozny. The second Chechen war had begun.
MSF has no aid programme in Chechnya itself and it is currently impossible for teams to enter the republic as the border is closed. This happened following the arrival of more than 250,000 Chechens in Ingushetia, Dagestan and Georgia. the last in mid-December 1999. MSF has started some aid programmes for the displaced and the refugees and is envisaging to relaunch operations in Chechnya when the possibility arises. The attacks on Grozny and other known strongholds of the separatists have intensified over the last twenty-four hours.
Aid programme in Ingushetia
Close to 250,000 newly arrived Chechens are living in Ingushetia, either with families or in public buildings or railway carriages. A smaller proportion are located in several camps near the border.
MSF has launched an aid programme for the displaced in Nazran, the capital of Ingushetia. They arrived in relatively good health although many have been traumatised by their experience. Convoys of blankets, stoves, winter clothing and warm socks as well as medicine (basic drug kits and supplementary kits for existing hospitals and the displaced camps) are being sent in. Their distribution is being supervised by MSF.
Owing to very poor security, the international team has not been able to set up a permanent presence in the autonomous republic. A local team of eight health care workers who worked for MSF during the first war are also being trained to work on this programme This additional team should be fully operational by the end of January and will be closely supervised by an expat team in Moscow. This is what MSF terms a "remote-control mission.
Aid programme in Georgia
International staff: 9
An MSF team made up of doctors, nurses and translators is also providing aid for 6,000 refugees who arrived during the weeks leading up to the middle of December in Georgia, the border presently being blocked. The vast majority are living with ethnic Chechens of Georgian nationality, known as the Kistins, in the Pankisi Valley near Akhmeta.
Hundreds have camped out in public buildings, while the majority has been taken in by the local population in private housing. Physically they are in good condition but they have been traumatised by war. MSF is working in partnership with the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC). The IFRC is in charge of medical distribution in the two dispensaries of the valley and MSF is monitoring the health care and providing medical support in the dispensaries.
A vaccination programme implemented by MSF in partnership with the ministry of health will soon be underway. It is likely that the MSF international team will only spend a few days a week on site because of poor security in Akhmeta region.
In a recent letter to the US president Bill Clinton and the secretary of state Madeleine Albright, MSF has condemned the Russian attacks on civilian targets in Grozny saying that they amount to war crimes. MSF asks that the US administration take what is happening in Chechnya as seriously as it took the events of this spring in Kosovo.
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