Relief operation for Chechen refugees

The mild winter is about the only blessing in the lives of refugees from the Chechen war. This year it's often sunny and temperate and the snow stays on the slopes of the jagged Caucasus mountains. That means lots of thick mud in villages like Aki Yurt and Nazran, the city capital of Ingushetia. But mud is an inconvenience; cold can kill.
And many of the 175,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) have seen enough death. The two most common stories from those who fled Chechnya are about the bombing that drove them from their homes and the family members they left behind forever. Many of the dead or missing are men: fathers, sons and brothers.

The women, children and elderly have increased the population of Nazran by almost 60 per cent in three months. Since the second Chechen war began in September, almost 225,000 Chechens have run from home. About 175,000 stayed in Nazran which has a peacetime population of 300,000. These IDPs went to Ingushetia because they had nowhere else to go. Republics bordering Chechnya closed their doors. This pushed tens of thousands onto the inadequate infrastructure of Nazran, with people grabbing shelter wherever they could find four walls and a roof.

Near the village of Karabulak, about 15 kms from Nazran, 4,780 people, including 1,800 children, live in 78 abandoned train carriages. Nearby is the Bart tent camp, now home to 4,000 mothers, grandmothers and children. Just a kilometre from the Chechen border, the ramshackle village of Aki Yurt has several dozen IDPs crowded into a tiny mosque while in Plievo more than 100 are squashed into a cattle barn so run down it wouldn't pass animal health inspections in the west.

Heda Soslambekova and her four-month-old daughter Leila found shelter in a tiny basement room in Nazran, not far from the offices of The Salvation Army relief effort. Heda fled Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, in December. It was a bad time to leave since she was almost nine months pregnant. But the bombing that was destroying her neighbourhood and killing friends forced her to run.

On a roadside, near the border, Heda gave birth. When she arrived in Nazran, the only shelter she could find was a tiny basement room. It's a cold, damp space with concrete walls, floor and ceiling. A blanket covers the door to keep the wind out. In the corner is a creaky single bed and a table. In the middle is a baby's pram. A single, bare bulb lights the room.

'It's all I could find,' she says, pulling her coat around her in defence. 'They charge 1,500 roubles a month.' It's a huge sum, about the same amount as a police officer makes in a month. Heda's husband, Havash, one of the few Chechen men in Nazran, offered to work for the landlord to pay for the rent. He now labours 12 hours a day but earns no cash. This means no food except for the aid infrequently distributed by Emercom, the Russian government emergency relief organisation. The stress has caused Heda's milk to dry up, and infants don't live for long on bread and grain. In mid-January Heda took a kilogram of the grain she was given for emergency relief, sold it at the market at a reduced price and then bought baby food formula. For about a week Leila ate but Mom and Dad didn't. The baby food ran out, there was no additional money so Heda gathered leaves and brewed a weak tea for her daughter.

That's when The Salvation Army found her and provided Heda and Leila with breast milk replacement formula and baby food. This deed is part of a US$400,000 emergency relief effort in Ingushetia launched by the Army in January. The Army is concentrating on children, who are classified by the United Nations as the most vulnerable. Several times a week truckloads of children's food and vitamins arrive in Nazran to be stored in the Army warehouse. A team of 12 monitors, translators and administration staff coordinates the registration of IDPs and the distribution of the free food.

Much of it is destined for the Nazran Children's Hospital - a crowded, dark, cold facility hard-pressed to sustain treatment levels. Many refugees have TB, others are suffering malnutrition and the effects of war trauma and injury. Medicines, medical dressings and even food are available only to patients who can pay for them. Otherwise the sick, wounded children and their parents wait and hope that time will heal.

Captain Geoff Ryan, a regional officer of The Salvation Army and the leader of the relief operation for Chechen refugees in Ingushetia, says the need to concentrate on children was immediately apparent following an assessment trip to the area in early January. 'No other agency was looking after the needs of children. We decided that was the Army's top priority,' he says. Other agencies that usually care for children are not in Nazran because the area is considered exceptionally dangerous for foreign aid workers. The United Nations and UNICEF have a security ban on Ingushetia. Relief efforts must be undertaken by others.

The Salvation Army food distribution is scheduled to last until March. Captain Ryan, standing outside the SA offices in Nazran, acknowledges the enormity of the task. 'We have a short time to do a big work. A lot of people are depending on us. With God's help, we'll manage.'

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AUTHOR: Bramwell Ryan

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