The situation of civilians in Chechnya: Oct - Nov 1999

Originally published
by Lecha Ilyasov, Member of the Chechen NGO LAM
November 11, 1999 - The events this fall, which began with large-scale bombing of Chechen districts next to Dagestan and then became a creeping war along the entire Russian-Chechen frontier, have led to the exodus of a significant part of the population from Chechnya. Most of the displaced persons found asylum in Ingushetia; some in Dagestan and other regions of the Russian Federation; and a few in Georgia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

Many civilians, however, still remain in Chechnya, some in the war zone itself and others in rear areas which are targets of continual bombing by Russian aircraft. In fact, civilians, including women, children and the elderly, have borne the brunt of the conflict. Those who remain in Grozny -- for the most part, elderly Russians and Chechens without relatives to look after them, handicapped persons, members of very poor families, men guarding their homes from looters, as well as vagrants and drug addicts -- are in the worst situation.

Social services in Grozny were in very poor shape to begin with. Shortly before the outbreak of war, electricity and gas had been cut off, the water-supply system stopped working, public transportation was breaking down, and the food supply was hindered by the blockade of the border with Russia. Because of the lack of electricity and continual threat of air raids, clinics were closed and outpatient medical services halted. Since late September, schools and colleges have been closed, and also many government agencies. A major crime wave accompanied all this. In short, life in Grozny was practically paralyzed even before real combat began. People began to leave Grozny as early as August since any kind of normal existence had become impossible.

The flight of refugees markedly increased after many civilians were killed in the October 21 rocket attack on Grozny. People were so terrorized by the indiscriminate destruction caused by the rockets that literally tens of thousands left Grozny on October 22. The population of Grozny now is little more than a tenth of its prewar size, and most who remain are old, ill or disabled. The most serious problems they face, besides the bombing and the rocket attacks, are the onset of cold weather, the difficulty of obtaining water and food, and the lack of qualified medical care.

Food supply to Grozny, at least for the civilian population, has been almost completely suspended because the roads into the city are being so heavily shelled. It is still possible to buy bread, matches and cigarets, but during daylight hours the markets are empty because of frequent bombing and shelling. Those who remain in Grozny are faced with the choice of leaving the city and heading for unknown destinations, without any means of subsistence during their flight, or staying in the city and risking death from hunger, cold, bombs, or rockets. Grozny has no bombshelters, and the basements of most of its multistory buildings are flooded.

People living in the villages south of Grozny, which lie outside the current war zone, also have their problems. Despite their distance from the front lines, they have been hit several times by air raids and rocket attacks, which mostly killed women and other civilians. Since the war began, the populations of a number of towns and villages in the foothills of the Caucasus range, among them Shali, Starye Atagi, Goity, Shatoi and Benoi, have almost doubled with refugees fleeing Grozny, Urus-Martan, and other exposed regions of Chechnya.

The larger towns, dependent on gas to heat homes and other buildings, find themselves without fuel in the face of an unseasonable cold snap which has raised the demand for and price of firewood. To heat their homes and to cook food, people are driven to cutting down trees which have served as windbreaks along the roads and fields. The cutting of firewood in forests farther from populated areas is too dangerous because of attacks by Russian aircraft. In the course of a single week, over a dozen civilians from Starye Atagi, Duga-Yurt, and Ulus-Kert were killed or wounded while cutting firewood, and on the Shatoi-Grozny road several trucks and tractors were destroyed while hauling wood.

The water-supply system for rural areas -- just as for towns -- is no longer working. People have to draw water for drinking and cooking from rivers and canals which is extremely dangerous since there is no sanitary inspection or control. Moreover, the canals often run alongside roads which are subject to frequent bomb and rocket attacks.

Food becomes scarcer with every passing day. Even in peacetime the ordinary daily ration of many Chechens living in rural areas consisted of bread and tea. But now, because of the blockade and the influx of refugees, most of whom arrive without money or supplies, the situation has become critical.

Medical services are an equal problem. The hospitals in Shali and Starye Atagi have more or less acceptable facilities for treating limited numbers of sick and wounded, but they cannot cope with all those who now need assistance. There is a shortage of medical supplies, and the price of medicines has risen sharply. Frequent air raids make the transfer of patients from Grozny and its environs to functioning hospitals dangerous and difficult. The situation is further complicated by the many refugees who are seriously ill. Children and the elderly are now especially prone to disease due to their dire living conditions. Those infected with tuberculosis are a serious threat to people living near them, and themselves are doomed to death since there is no possibility of their getting effective treatment in current circumstances.

The war has brought other indirect casualties. The flight of Russian fighter planes at low altitudes over towns and villages has sometimes caused heart attacks and even the death of persons suffering from cardiac conditions or high blood pressure. Quite a few adults and children suffer from psychological disturbance, extreme nervousness, and sleeplessness because of the stress of facing the constant threat of death. Many aren terrified by any loud noise.

In summary, in Chechnya today all the signs of an imminent humanitarian catastrophe are present. It will definitely come to pass if the Russian campaign continues for any length of time and if preventive measures are not taken.

1. A mutual agreement must be concluded between the Russian authorities and Maskhadov's administration which defines those Chechen localities where refugees have gathered in great numbers as Safety Zones or Non-defended Localities, in which Chechen fighters will not be harbored and which will not be subject to attack by Russian warplanes, rockets or artillery. Shali, Starye Atagi, Shatoi, Goity and Benoi are examples of towns that should be designated such Safety Zones.

2. Provision of humanitarian assistance for refugees and people living in rural areas -- in the first place food and medical supplies-- must be organized quickly. The Red Cross, together with other international and Russian humanitarian organizations, could accept responsibility for this.

3. Free-fall bombing and rocket attacks which are not aimed at specific military targets should be ended immediately, as such indiscriminate attacks kill mainly women, children and other civilians.

4. The prompt evacuation from Chechnya of seriously ill persons should be organized. They should be taken care of by international humanitarian organizations.

5. The sale of electricity and gas -- at least in Shali, Starye Atagi and Goity v should be arranged in order to improve the situation for refugees there.

Since the government of the Russian Federation and Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov have both declared that everything they are doing is for the welfare of the Chechen people, it should not be difficult for them to agree at least on the steps needed to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in Chechnya. For the moment, however, one can only recall the proverb: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.