Dispatches from Chechnya No. 13

Chechen Refugees in Ingushetia

NAZRAN, June 15, 2001 – The humanitarian situation for Chechen refugees remains very troubling. The tent camps organized in the fall of 1999 were intended to last 2 or 3 months, the length of time the Russian government then asserted the war would last. It will soon be two years that people who have lost their homes, property, and loved ones, and who have serious psychological problems have been living in inhuman conditions. The refugees have lost all hope for the future.

The tents, especially in the Bart and Sputnik camps, have deteriorated beyond all hope. Most of them leak during heavy rainstorms, which are common in Ingushetia. Designed for 10 people, each tent now houses 25 or 30 people. In the winter they are frigid, in the summer they are stuffy. In general, this type of housing does not offer even minimal conveniences and is not meant for long-term residence, especially for women, children and old people.

Some refugees live on former collective farms, and their lot is no better – they live in cattle sheds, workshops and warehouses that are not fit for human habitation and are completely unsanitary.

The majority of refugees in the tent camps have no clothes, especially winter clothes, and they lack the money to buy clothes or shoes. For the first year or so, they wore whatever they had brought from Chechnya, but now these clothes have turned to rags. The refugees urgently need both winter and mid-season clothing.

The situation with food is no better. It became especially bad in April 2001, when the provision of hot food was stopped, and at the same time, humanitarian organizations stopped providing food items after Ministry of Emergency Situations officials announced that humanitarian organizations would no longer work in refugee camps.  Camp residents lived for almost two months without any food aid. In late May, the Russian government began distributing 400 grams of bread per person, per day, along with buckwheat, rice, sunflower oil, canned soup and dried fruit.

In late May, V. P. Kuksa, the Minister of Emergency Situations of Ingushetia, asked humanitarian organizations to resume their work in distributing food in the refugee camps.

Today the Danish Refugee Council, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Islamic Relief are active in the refugee camps in Ingushetia. These organizations primarily provide food aid. Medical services are provided by Medecins du Monde (France), the Agency for Rehabilitation and Development, Islamic Relief, and doctors from the European Union. The Salvation Army and the Austrian Hilfswerk organization assist in organizing schools and providing teachers.

The Bart camp was established at the very beginning of the war.  Official records list the camp’s population at 5,042, but camp the administration claims that more than 6,000 refugees live there. The tents are dilapidated and the majority of them are overcrowded. For some three months the camp’s residents have not been provided with hot meals or with baby food. According to the director of the camp, on May 3rd each resident began receiving 400 grams of bread a day. Now the camp receives daily shipments of 2520 loaves of bread – half a loaf (about 400 grams) for each resident. In the second half of May the Russian government began giving out so-called dry rations – cereal, oil, sugar, tea, dried milk and canned soup. In May the Danish Refugee Council also gave out a supply of groceries, and they plan to continue providing shipments of food once a month. In late June the Red Cross will begin providing food aid as well. The Christian Mission of South Ossetia gave a one time donation of food and secondhand clothes. But in any case, according to camp residents, the aid they receive is just barely enough to live on.

There is one government-run first aid station in the Bart camp. It consists of a single nurse working in a small tent. According to camp residents, necessary medicines are never available. Medecins du Monde operates a first aid station, and the Helping Hands organization is building a separate station, which already has a staff of doctors, including doctors from among the refugees.

There is also an elementary school (1st through 8th grades) in the camp, which has 258 students. There are problems with a lack of teachers and textbooks, but there is assistance from Ministry of Education of Ingushetia, the Salvation Army and other humanitarian organizations.

According to the camp administration, the number of residents has not only not declining, it is still increasing, and the camp is becoming seriously overpopulated. For this reason no more refugees are allowed to settle in the Bart camp.

The Sputnik camp, in the town of Slepovskaya, is home to more than 10,000 refugees, mostly from the Sunzhen, Achkhoi-Martan, Naur, Shelk and Nadterech regions of Chechnya. There are more than 400 tents in the camp, of which 200 are fairly new. The other half of the tents are in very poor condition. The residents have not received hot food since the end of March.  Bread and other food products from the Russian government have been provided only since late April. The types of food given out are the same as in other camps. Since late May Islamic Relief has provided two shipments of food. Now camp residents receive bread from both the Russian government and the Red Cross, usually about 800 grams per person per day. Despite the fact that there are more than 1000 children under six living in the camp, for nearly a year there have been no shipments of baby food.

The camp has its own wells, but spring water is also brought in on trucks for the residents’ use. There are two bathhouses in the camp, one made from a former laundry. There are also two shower houses, one built by the Austrian Hilfswerk organization with 18 stalls and the second built by the Red Cross with 24. The camp has gas service and there are no problems with gas supply or with heating the tents. There are cuts in electricity service, but they are caused by planned power outages that effect all of Ingushetia.

There is a school in the Sputnik camp as well. It takes up 11 tents – four for elementary school students, 6 for high school students and one functions as a gymnasium. The level of education in the school, however, is rather poor. There are shortages of teachers and textbooks despite assistance from the Ministry of Education of Ingushetia and UNICEF.

There is also a first aid station operated by the Ministry of Emergency Situations, which is supplied with medicines by the Sleposkaya regional clinic.  Additionally, since January Islamic Relief has operated a mini-clinic with five doctors: a pediatrician, a psychotherapist, a surgeon, a gynecologist and a therapist. Medecins du Monde operates a mental health center in two tents. In spite of all of this, camp residents complain that the availability of both medical care and necessary medicines is very poor.

The refugee camp in the city of Karabulak, as of the middle of May, had about 3,500 registered residents. This camp is located on a former dairy farm, and the refugees live in cattle sheds, workshops and other buildings not intended for human habitation.

Provision of food is the same as in other camps. Hot food has not been available since April 1st. Bread and other food aid from the Russian government and from humanitarian organizations began in the middle of May. The type of food is the same – cereals, dried fruit, oil, sugar, canned soup. The refugees, however, complain about the very poor quality of the food they receive – many of the items have already passed their expiration dates. Baby food has not been available in the camp since November of last year.

Despite promises from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to improve the camp’s buildings, so far there has been no repair work. The camp finally got gas service at the beginning of March and water in April.

There is one shower house with 13 stalls in the camp, built by the Red Cross. It can only be used in the mornings, however, because water is supplied to the tank only in the mornings, and runs out by lunchtime.

There is no first aid station, but every Wednesday and Thursday doctors from the European Union visit the camp. They have a mobile laboratory, and the refugees can come and have any type of test or consultation done.

Doctors from the Agency of Rehabilitation and Development also come to the camp once a week, but according to the residents, they never have necessary medications. If a resident needs emergency care, he must be taken to the nearest town.

The camp has one school, which receives direct support from the Ministry of Education of Ingushetia and the Salvation Army. Like other schools for refugees, this one faces shortages of textbooks, school supplies and teachers. According to camp administration, the school has 358 students in 1st through 8th grades.

A similar situation exists in the other refugee camps in Ingushetia.

For almost two months, from the beginning of April to the middle of May, people were deprived of any sort of food aid, even of bread. Representatives of the government of Ingushetia claim that this stoppage was caused by a lack of funding from the Russian government. Many refugees, however, saw the stoppage of food aid as a means to force them back to Chechnya.
Russian government sources claimed that no attempt was made to force Chechen refugees out of Ingushetia.  The problems were caused by the transfer of responsibility for the camps from the authority of the Ministry of Emergency Situations to the Ministry of the Federation, a process which created difficulties that resulted in the temporary stoppage of food aid.

The government claims that there was no official order to resettle Chechen refugees in Chechnya. More than 100,000 places for returning refugees were prepared in Chechnya, however, and the Ministry of the Federation created a committee on the return of refugees, as well as a public committee for returning refugees. Resettlement, according to Ministry officials is, however, entirely voluntary.

In sum, the humanitarian situation in refugee camps is very troubling. The majority of refugees have a very low standard of living and are deprived of the most basic conveniences. The food aid that refugees receive from the Russian government and from humanitarian organizations is just barely enough to prevent starvation. The schools where refugee children study make a mockery of education.

Serious illnesses, resulting from poor living conditions and stress, are common among refugees. Such illnesses include tuberculosis, type II diabetes, cancer and asthma. No one is making any serious attempts to either treat or prevent these illnesses. Such a long period of enforced idleness degrades people’s moral values, and alcohol, drug abuse and petty crime have become common in the refugee camps.

Refugees from Chechnya are beginning to understand that the situation will change only when the war comes to an end.  They are increasingly supportive of anti-war activities. On June 14 around 2000 people participated in an anti-war demonstration in the town of Slepovskaya. The meeting participants demanded that the Russian government immediately stop the violence in Chechnya and begin negotiations with president Aslan Maskhadov. On June 15th several people began a hunger strike in protest. Their major demand was that Russia end the war in Chechnya.