Violations of humanitarian law and human
rights; situation of civilians who have fled the conflict zone
O. Orlov, A. Cherkasov
Our report is based on the findings of a group of MHRC representatives (since the start of hostilities in the Northern Caucasus five MHRC groups have been working in Dagestan, Ingushetia and Chechnya; the last group returned from the region on 20 January). The group was part of an observer mission of public organizations, together with representatives of the Civil Assistance Committee and Amnesty International. We have worked closely with other human rights campaigners (for example Human Rights Watch) and with journalists. The material we gathered and collated during our visit has been posted on our internet site, www.memo.ru. In this report we shall deal mainly with the current situation, referring to information supplied by the last group, which returned on 20 January.
On the one hand, there is a catastrophic lack of OBJECTIVE information in the Russian Federation about what is happening in Chechnya. The news blackout is being maintained through a virtual reality of semi-official phrasemongering: "precision strikes", "humanitarian corridors", "safe area", "bogus humanitarian disaster" and "counter-terrorist operation".
Meanwhile, occasional glimpses of the reality of the conflict in the region and the violations of humanitarian law that have occurred in the last few months of fighting have already merged into a complete picture, although one or two points still perhaps require clarification. It is inaccurate even to speak of standards or laws being violated; the situation in Chechnya has moved far beyond any form of legality.
We intend to examine a number of issues that lie at the boundary of our world and the "virtual world" of semi-officialdom.
Part 1. Violations of human rights and standards of humanitarian law in the conflict zone
There is a widespread misconception in the Russian Federation that in war anything is permitted. The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols categorically prohibit the indiscriminate use of force. They also provide for the possibility of evacuating civilian populations from battle zones to safe areas. Arbitrary detention, torture, cruelty and summary execution are likewise expressly prohibited. The Russian leadership persists in calling the internal armed conflict in the Northern Caucasus a "counter-terrorist operation". How accurate is this description? After all, the label implies a more fine-tuned operation. The federal command claims that "precision strikes" have been launched against the "terrorists", and that the civilian population is escaping to "safe areas" through "humanitarian corridors". How true are these claims? Descriptions of this kind imply the existence of certain actions and restrictions to ensure the protection of the non-combatant population. The term "precision strikes" implies the selective use of highly accurate weaponry against military targets (possibly announced in advance, as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) did in the Balkans). The phrase "humanitarian corridors" conjures up an image of safe evacuation routes out of the battle zone. Such corridors are not at risk from shelling and should be indicated to civilians in advance, who should also be provided with transport if possible. The security of civilians is guaranteed in "safe areas", which should either be under the full and effective control of one of the sides or, if necessary, guaranteed by appropriate agreements between the warring parties. Finally, whereas in armed conflicts civilian casualties should not be "disproportionate", in "counter-terrorist operations" the conditions are more stringent: the first priority is to rescue the terrorists' hostages and then to carefully and selectively destroy or detain the terrorists themselves.
We have abundant testimony to the use in 1999 of indiscriminate missile, bomb and artillery strikes against inhabited localities and roads in Chechnya, as a result of which civilians and refugees alike have been killed. Especially notorious were the "precision strikes" against Grozny on 21 October by surface-to-surface missiles (in which some 150 people were killed, the vast majority of whom were civilians) and against Shamil Basaev's house on 27 October (the house was destroyed, as were the adjoining premises - at least five two-storey houses each containing 12 apartments, one five-storey building, and a number of single-storey private residences. Although many residents were killed or wounded, Basaev himself escaped injury). Similar strikes have occurred in the new year.
1.1 "Safe areas"
In the village of Shali, designated a "safe area" by the federal command, disbursement of pensions began on 8 January, and on the morning of the following day a crowd - composed mainly of old men - gathered in the central square. They were unaware that a detachment of Chechen fighters had just reached the centre of Shali and presented an ultimatum to the commandant of the detachment of Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs troops defending the village. The ultimatum gave the Russian troops one hour to leave. At precisely that moment a tactical missile, launched at the request of the blockaded Russian garrison, exploded overhead. A number of witnesses said that approximately 150 civilians were killed. Over 60 new graves appeared in one cemetery in Shali alone. Bombing and shelling continued until 12 January. The majority of Chechen territory is now considered to have been "liberated" by federal troops and incorporated into the "safe area". However, fighting occasionally flares up even here: Chechen detachments move around freely, entering inhabited localities, and federal forces launch artillery and missile strikes. Military personnel and officials of the Ministry of Internal Affairs engage in looting. Passport checks in villages and "mopping up" operations carried out by Ministry of Internal Affairs units are also accompanied by looting, murder and bullying of local people. In a few cases women have been raped by soldiers.
If this is what is meant by the term "safe area", what can possibly be said about the attitude of federal troops towards the population in areas which they do not control, i.e. Grozny and the mountains?
Some idea of the situation of Grozny's civilians can be gleaned from escaped residents and the reports of journalists working in the area.
Chechen detachments are putting up stiff resistance to federal troops, and it seems unlikely they will be dislodged in the near future. Federal troops have been attempting to take the city since December with practically every type of weapon at their disposal (the only option they have shied away from is carpet bombing by fuel-air explosives or "vacuum" bombs. The intention, it seems, was to use these weapons when the ultimatum of 6 December was presented, but the plan was aborted owing to international pressure). Similar weapons have nevertheless been available to the Russian ground forces since December (for example the 30-round TOS-1 "Pinocchio" heavy rocket launcher capable of projecting thermobaric (fuel-air) munitions up to 3 kilometres). Like the Grad and Uragan systems, which launch volleys of rockets, these are basically indiscriminate weapons and their use in inhabited areas is therefore absolutely prohibited. Other weapons deliver highly concentrated fire. On the whole, then, the Russian bombardment is indiscriminate and it is currently impossible to estimate the number of civilian casualties. Residents of Grozny are also suffering from cold, hunger and a lack of drinking water.
In reality there are no "humanitarian corridors" for the civilian population, since these too are liable to bombardment. Approximately 8,000 people have escaped from the city since the "corridors" were opened. However, many of the refugees we interviewed did not escape from Grozny via the advertised corridors, claiming that these were too dangerous.
1.3 The mountains
Federal forces have entered the mountains along the western border with Ingushetia (parallel to the border with Georgia) and from the eastern border with Dagestan (Shatoi, Vedeno and Nozhai-Yurt districts). In the north they have only approached the mountains and are currently skirmishing in the foothills in an attempt to press southwards through the Vedeno and Argun gorges. There are no independent reports of the fighting in the mountains; the only thing that may be confidently asserted is that federal forces are relying heavily on air power. Tu-22 bombers were deployed to the region back in December; each aircraft has the capability to destroy anything that moves in an area of 2.5 km2 with a single payload of fuel-air bombs. Air force command has not denied the reported use of such weapons.
According to refugees, Wahabi fighters in the villages have frequently opened fire on federal aircraft, whereupon the same inhabited localities have become targets for missile strikes and bombing raids - admittedly, only conventional weapons have been used.
In the autumn, when residents of the Chechen plains were fleeing into the mountains, the number of refugees in Shatoi and Itum-Kale districts significantly exceeded the number of local inhabitants, running into tens of thousands at least. People are now returning from the mountains, particularly along the Argun gorge. They claim that mountain villages crowded with refugees are being bombed; some villages have sustained extensive damage and there have been casualties. We have testimony from inhabitants of the villages of Day, Nokhchi-Kiloi, Sharo-Argun, Vashindaroi, Varandy, Dary-Borzoi, and others. Cars carrying food are being turned back at the checkpoint at the entrance to the gorge, and the shortage of provisions is being keenly felt in the mountain villages. These two factors are forcing people to return to the plain, but the road and the traffic moving along it are targets for air-launched missiles and bombs (just as the road leading south into Georgia, now closed, had been attacked earlier from the air). Refugees from a number of villages in the Argun gorge, the scene of fierce fighting between federal forces and Chechen detachments in mid-January, have reported that the federal forces issued civilians with an ultimatum to leave inhabited localities within 24 hours. Thus for the time being the "humanitarian corridor" for refugees fleeing hunger and shelling passes through a combat zone.
Generally speaking, the actions of the federal forces in Chechnya are not designed to protect the civilian population, whose existence has apparently been forgotten. Still less can they be called a "counter-terrorist" operation. And the "precision strikes", "humanitarian corridors" and "safety zone" exist only in official propaganda.
1.4 Detention and "filtering"
We have dealt above with matters that are reliably attested to, albeit on the basis of witness and victim accounts. But we know virtually nothing about detained persons or the conditions in which they are being held. Who is being detained at checkpoints, or during "mopping up" and passport-checking operations? Who issued the bloody-minded order to turn back males aged between 10 and 60 at checkpoints? The Russians' "bandit database" is obviously inadequate. Most of the case-files which now exist (like the information gathered by SMERSH towards the end of the second world war) had not even been compiled when hostilities broke out in Chechnya, and so-called "current operations" reports are incomplete and fragmentary. We know that persons who took part in the war of 1994-1996 are sometimes detained as "criminals", yet all these people were amnestied back in 1997. Suspicious-looking characters are also sporadically detained, for example clean-shaven men wearing trousers but no underwear, which indicates possible membership of the Wahibi sect. Although such persons must be released within 72 hours, most cases of detention are illegal because a state of emergency has not been introduced in the conflict zone.
Accordingly, no prior basis for the selective detention of "bandits and terrorists" has ever been established, and right now there is no guarantee that innocent people will not be deprived of their liberty. The military operation in Chechnya cannot be described as "counter-terrorist" in this sense either.
Five years ago, at the start of the previous war, we at least knew where detainees were being held. Today even this is shrouded in mystery. We have received fragmentary reports of confinement cells ("field remand cells"), former temporary remand prisons in Chechen territory, and special railway carriages (of the kind used to transport prisoners) at Mozdok.
According to some reports, persons detained at the "Caucasus-1" checkpoint are initially being sent to the Federal Security Service in Ingushetia and then on to neighbouring regions, possibly to a remand prison at Pyatigorsk.
The fact that detention centres are still completely sealed off is a matter of very serious concern. The basic method of "investigative work" at filtration points in the last war consisted of "third degree questioning", torture and beatings.
The international community must insist on "transparency" from the Russian Federation in the matter of detention centres, together with inspections by international and Russian observers. In the Russian Federation, deputies of the State Duma and various other categories of persons have the right to make visits to detention centres.
The lack of any information about detainees is another dangerous development. Because their names are not recorded in any kind of comprehensive register, they could immediately vanish without trace at the nearest military unit following "third degree questioning", as happened during the last war.
Part 2. The situation of forcibly displaced persons
Persons forcibly displaced from the Chechen Republic during the hostilities in 1999-2000 are not being given corresponding status by the Federal Migration Service, in contravention of the Forcibly Displaced Persons Act. This is because the special status imposes certain obligations on the Government. Officials cite the fact that there is no specific Government decision applying to this category of Russian citizens. The only registration of persons who have been forced to flee their homes in Chechnya is by means of a special document, namely, form 7. This document does not grant the holder any special status, but without it a person may not request accommodation in a camp for forcibly displaced persons or obtain certain foods free of charge on a regular basis, although neither of these entitlements is guaranteed. Holders of form 7 are further entitled to a free return journey to any region of the Russian Federation, and they may also request a transfer to a temporary accommodation centre for refugees or forcibly displaced persons in another area of the country (despite the fact that available places in such facilities are virtually non-existent). Eventual acquisition of forcibly displaced person status, and perhaps even compensation for destruction of property, depend solely on possession of form 7.
The following is an unofficial list of persons forcibly displaced from their homes in Chechnya.
As of 14 January 2000, according to figures supplied by the migration service in Ingushetia (and confirmed by the Federal Migration Service), 261,741 people in the republic were registered as having been forced to leave the Chechen Republic since 29 August 1999. Of this total:
- 613 people have moved to temporary accommodation centres in other areas of the Russian Federation (excluding Ingushetia and Chechnya);
- 43,118 people have returned to the Chechen Republic;
- 41,231 people have left for other areas of the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan and other destinations to stay with relatives and friends;
- 3,953 have moved to Georgia.
Consequently, in January, there were 172,826 forcibly displaced Chechens in Ingushetia, compared to 207,914 in mid-December.
The following reasons may account for the decrease in the overall number of forcibly displaced Chechens now in Ingushetia:
- Return to their homes in Chechnya or departure for other destinations;
- Removal to Chechnya, against their will, of some residents of camps for forcibly displaced persons;
- Refusal to issue form 7 to people fleeing so-called "safety zones" (see below);
- Accommodation of new forcibly displaced persons mainly in camps and temporary accommodation facilities in Chechen territory.
Most of the forcibly displaced Chechens now in Ingushetia have been lodged with local residents; some are paying for their board and lodging, but most are making no financial contribution.
About 10,000 people are living in assorted public or industrial buildings (mosques, workshops, farms, etc.)
About 20,000 people are divided between 5 camps. Two of these camps, where the residents are housed either in tents or railway carriages, are located in the settlement of Karabulak, and there are two others next to the station at Ordzhonikidzevskaya (Sleptsovskaya). There are 76 carriages at Karabulak and 82 at Ordzhonikidzevskaya. A tent city has also been established at the village of Aki-Yurt in Malgobek district.
Railway carriages for forcibly displaced persons have been brought to Ingushetia from other regions of the Russian Federation. Most of these carriages are extremely decrepit and in many cases they were already destined for the scrap heap. Ingushetia's Ministry of Emergencies has had to repair a number of the carriages to make them more or less fit for human habitation.
The tents have been erected over a single layer of planking laid directly on the ground, so they are fairly damp inside. Metal camp stoves have been provided. It often happens that the number of people living in the tents significantly exceeds the number of available places: tents designed for 20 people often house between 30 and 35, and tents with room for 10 sometimes contain between 15 and 25 people.
At the beginning of November, the problem of heating the carriages and tents was especially acute owing to the scarcity of coal or firewood. By the beginning of December this problem had been practically solved and it was tolerably warm in most of the carriages. The problem of providing forcibly displaced persons at Karabulak and Ordzhonikidzevskaya camps with basic necessities had more or less stabilized. The distribution of one hot meal a day had been organized. The bath-house had started to function normally. And medicines had been delivered to the medical centre (prior to December there were virtually no medicines at all).
A number of schools have been opened for forcibly displaced children, and Ingushetia's Ministry of Education has provided everything they need for their work.
The situation in the tent city at Aki-Yurt located more than 30 kilometres from the town of Malgobek is a complete contrast. It is rarely if ever visited by the delegations, missions and journalists who come to Ingushetia. There are not enough beds or mattresses in the tents. For as long as the camp has been in existence (since October 1999) there have been no bath-house facilities. There is no hot food. There is not enough bread or drinking water, and frequent recourse is had to industrial water for cooking purposes. There are just four gas cookers in the entire camp, which houses approximately 1,000 people.
In January the situation in all the camps in Ingushetia took another turn for the worse. The main problem is that fuel deliveries (coal and firewood) are once more very erratic and most of the residents are complaining of the cold. There is no heat at all in one in 10 of the railway carriages because the heating system has broken down. The bath-house facilities, which had only just opened, have stopped working again. Each resident has received just one cake of soap since the camps were set up, and consequently many people are plagued by lice.
There is just enough food to keep starvation at bay, but not enough to feel adequately fed. At camps where a centralized system of food distribution is in operation, residents receive a daily ration of two generous ladlefuls of a hearty soup containing meat, half a loaf of bread and a cup of tea.
Many camp dwellers are suffering from gastric complaints.
The complete unavailability of baby food has triggered a crisis. The situation is critical because many breast-feeding mothers have stopped lactating. Back in mid-December, V.A. Kalamanov, chief of the Federal Migration Service, announced that funds had been allocated for the purchase of baby food. But by mid-January the food had still not found its way to the camps.
Medical centres are hampered by a lack of even the most basic medicines. The medical centre in the largest camp, Severny, had stopped working altogether.
The fact that there has not been a "humanitarian disaster" in the strict sense, i.e. the fact that people are still alive, is attributable to the exceptionally mild winter which the Northern Caucasus has enjoyed up to mid-January 2000. It has taken just a few days of hard frost to bring people to the brink of extinction. This is precisely what is happening now. Severny camp is practically freezing to death: coal is in particularly short supply here. The onset of frosts has been accompanied by an increase in the number of catarrhal illnesses. Children and old people are suffering most of all. At night people move from the unheated railway carriages to those where the heating system is functioning more or less normally.
Camp residents regard the deteriorating situation as part of an overall effort to compel forcibly displaced persons to return to Chechnya. And it is true that the Russian authorities, especially the Ministry of Civil Defence, Emergencies and the Elimination of the Consequences of Natural Disasters and the Russian Government mission in the Republic of Chechnya, are anxious that the majority of the people forced to flee Chechnya should return there as soon as possible, and are willing to use any means to achieve this end. This desire is clearly dictated by political considerations rather than concern for people's well-being.
On 12 November 1999, the Russian Deputy Prime Minister and Government representative in Chechnya, Nikolai Koshman, announced at a press conference that by 25 December all forcibly displaced Chechens would be relocated from Ingushetia to Chechen territory, and that he had been instructed to oversee this operation by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Refugees have been invited to return to Chechnya.
First of all, they have been invited to return to inhabited localities occupied by federal forces. But some of these places, for example Samashki and Alkhan-Yurt, are very badly damaged. Second, sites are being prepared for dense resettlement by forcibly displaced persons. Such camps are currently located at Znamenskoe (Nadterechny district), Sernovodsk and Assinovskaya (Achkhoi-Martan district). They are receiving refugees from Grozny and the mountain areas, both of which are under attack.
MHRC representatives who visited these camps have ascertained that the two tent cities in Znamenskoe lack the space even to house the forcibly displaced people already in Nadterechny district. There are already 10,436 forcibly displaced people at Sernovodsk. Some 1,662 people are being housed in a temporary accommodation facility in the building of the former agricultural technical college (maximum capacity is 2,000). A shortage of beds limits capacity to accommodate new arrivals. Notwithstanding the considerable pressure on space, living conditions here are perfectly adequate - there is a gas and water supply, iron gas stoves were provided in January, and beds and mattresses have been delivered. However, all the residents have complaints about the scarcity and inferior quality of the food, and almost everyone is suffering from some kind of gastric disorder. The bath-house is not working.
At Assinovskaya, several hundred people are housed in a temporary accommodation facility consisting of two hostel wings and a kindergarten. Not everyone has the use of a stove, and there are not enough beds, mattresses or blankets; some people have to sleep on the floor. However, the vast majority of the forcibly displaced persons (several thousand people) are living with local residents or in barns and outhouses. The forcibly displaced persons living in the temporary accommodation facility and in private residences are catastrophically short of food. Bread supplies are inadequate - people often have to make do with less than the statutory daily allowance of 350 grams. For two months, these people (and by no means all of them) have received, in addition to bread, only a small quantity of canned goods and 2 or 3 kilograms of hulled or crushed grain.
In these circumstances it is entirely predictable that refugees living under canvas or in railway carriages should have no desire to move back to Chechnya from Ingushetia, even when the proposed destination is very close to the border. People are principally concerned about their personal safety. In the part of Chechnya already under the control of the Russian authorities, people cannot feel secure at the present time because a guerrilla war is being waged and because there is a very real danger of violence by military personnel: there have been more and more reports of looting, murder and other incidents. Access to Chechnya by independent observers (journalists, human rights workers, and representatives of various international organizations) is made extremely difficult by the military authorities. Consequently many people are afraid to lose contact with observers and journalists and fall entirely under the influence of military personnel, regardless of their rank.
Representatives of the authorities, seemingly dissatisfied with what they regard as the slow rate of return of forcibly displaced persons to Chechnya, have resorted to strong-arm methods. On 17 December 1999 at Severny camp near the station at Sleptsovskaya, it was announced that some of the railway carriages housing the refugees were being transferred to Sernovodsk in Chechnya. This announcement provoked a storm of protest from the camp residents. Nevertheless, 36 carriages were taken to Sernovodsk the following day. Many of the people living in these carriages refused to move back to Chechnya. But since they were left with nowhere to live, many were subsequently obliged to make their way to Sernovodsk on foot.
On 5 and 6 January 2000, another 11 carriages were forcibly removed to Sernovodsk. Further measures are being devised to force camp residents back into Chechnya. We have learned from reliable sources that yet another removal of carriages from Ingushetia to Chechnya is being planned in the near future. The authorities at Aki-Yurt camp have notified forcibly displaced persons from Nadterechny, Shelkovskaya, Naurskaya, and Achkhoi-Martan districts that they must return to their homes and that humanitarian assistance will only be made available to them at that location.
It is clear that the Ministry of Civil Defence, Emergencies and the Elimination of the Consequences of Natural Disasters, abetted by the Government, is continuing to exert pressure on forcibly displaced persons in Ingushetia to return to Chechnya as rapidly as possible. The highest officials at the Federal Migration Service have repeatedly assured MHRC that there will be no forced resettlement of refugees; the authorities intend to use persuasion and guarantee optimum living conditions. The chief of this service, V.A. Kalamanov, stated at a meeting of the standing human rights body of the political advisory council reporting to the President on 23 December that he firmly opposed any attempt to compel forcibly displaced persons to return to Chechnya. Moreover, he said, there were no plans to reduce funding for the camps in Ingushetia.
Yet the Federal Migration Service is blocking the exodus of new forcibly displaced persons out of Chechnya.
On 17 December 1999, the chief of the Federal Migration Service issued order No. 110 instructing the migration services of Ingushetia, Dagestan, North Ossetia-Alaniya, and Stavropol Territory to suspend form 7 registration of persons fleeing the inhabited localities of the Chechen Republic which had been declared "safe areas", namely:
- Shelkovskaya district (all localities);
- Naurskaya district (all localities);
- Nadterechny district (all localities);
- Grozny dist