Dispatches from Chechnya No. 18

The Humanitarian Situation in Shatoi

GROZNY, October 12, 2001 – Like the rest of Chechnya, the Argun gorge has been devastated by the war. All of the villages in the gorge, which includes the mountainous regions of Shatoi and Itum-Kalinski, as well as the road to Georgia, have been destroyed. The many architectural monuments in the gorge have been subjected to inexplicable acts of vandalism. During the previous war, missiles destroyed 4 historic defensive and residential towers in Sharoi and Heldakh, 2 towers in Makazhoi, 2 religious buildings in Makazhoi and Etkali, 5 mausoleums in Maiste and Melkhiste, and a semi-military tower in Kerete village.

The current war, which began in the fall of 1999, has proved truly devastating for these ancient architectural monuments. The historic preserve is subject to systematic artillery fire, missile and bomb strikes. Multi-ton bombs are dropped, with unforeseen consequences. Tens of thousands of hectares of forest burn out of control, causing severe damage to the environment.

Russian troops fire at the architectural monuments, tear down the stone towers and use the stones to build walls and other military fortifications and use the architectural monuments as warehouses and bunkers.
During the current war a number of monuments have been damaged by artillery shelling, including a battle tower in the settlement of Der, a unique tower from the Ushkalaia settlement, and a recently restored battle tower in the city of Shatoi.  A battle tower in Sharoi was reduced to its foundation and a battle tower in Satto was damaged.

The city of Shatoi is located in the Argun gorge and it is the center of the Shatoi region, which includes a number of mountain villages. Prior to the war this city was the largest settlement in the mountains and the center of cultural and intellectual life for the entire mountainous region. There was a theater, one of the best dance troupes in  the Caucasus, a TV station, a newspaper, two schools, a vocational school, a clinic and a hospital.

During the 1994-1996 war the city center was destroyed, including many administrative buildings. During the current war Shatoi was completely destroyed: municipal buildings, private houses, and industrial buildings were all leveled. Only one third of the pre-war population remains in the city. These people live in inhumane conditions deprived of virtually all rights. There is no law in this city except that of military force. All power is in the hands of the Russian military, and the life and well being of the civilian population is often completely dependent on the mood of the Russian soldiers.

Residential areas in the city are completely destroyed. People try to create some kind of shelter from whatever materials they can find. These “houses” lack water, heat, or electricity. The federal government provides almost no funding for the restoration of homes. Residents are forced to spend the winter almost without a roof over their heads, and winter in this mountainous region is extremely cold. In September some residents received tents from the federal ministry of emergency situations, but most of the tents were sold by the Russian-backed local administration. Residents complain that construction materials provided to the local administration by humanitarian aid organizations are also plundered and sold at market prices. It does not make sense to restore houses anyway, because there is frequent artillery and mortar fire on the city. Every night Russian soldiers fire on the suburbs and the forest around the city. The land around the city has been mined by federal troops. Mines regularly explode, killing local residents and farm animals.

During the war the majority of residents left the city because of the constant bombardments, and virtually all houses were looted, leaving residents without even basic things like cooking pots and dishes.
Residents of Shatoi do not have access to medical services. Neither the clinic nor the hospital are operating. The clinic was destroyed in the bombing, while the hospital building was taken over by the Russian military and security services. There is no pharmacy in the city, so people can not receive free medicines. All medications brought to the city by humanitarian organizations are sold in the market at commercial prices. As a result, there are many sick people who are unable to recover. When urgent medical care is required, people must be taken to a village 40 km away. There is a curfew, and residents are only allowed to travel between 8am and 10pm, so if people become ill during the night, they may die because they can not receive medical care in time.

Travel around Chechnya, particularly in the mountainous regions, is restricted. All roads have been damaged by bombardment and tank treads. There are Russian check-points every 500 meters. Everything depends on the decency of the soldiers. If they are "normal people," which is rare, they allow local civilian vehicles to pass without difficulty. In most cases, cases, however, Russian soldiers detain travelers and use various pretexts to demand money. For enough money you can bring anything past the check-points, including military vehicles. Often Russian soldiers who are not assigned to checkpoints set up road blocks on their own initiative to extort money from civilian travelers.
The majority of Shatoi residents are unemployed and have no source of income. Only two humanitarian aid organizations work here: The Danish Refugee Council and the French Movement against Hunger. The Danish Refugee Council provides food supplies once every three months, and the Movement Against Hunger once a month. They provide flour, vegetable oil, and salt. Most local residents eat only bread and drink tea. Those who have farm animals also have access to milk and diary products, although it is very difficult to raise livestock in war conditions. The lands is mined, and Russian planes often fire on people tending cattle in the forest.

The clothing situation is also very difficult. Residents go barefoot and are  practically naked. Most people do not have any sources of income and cannot buy cloths for themselves or their families. There are no humanitarian aid agencies providing clothing here.
One school building remains standing in the city, but it has been occupied by  Russian troops. Children study in tents. As is the case throughout Chechnya,  there are not enough teachers or textbooks. The quality of education is very low, in fact what takes place is almost a mockery of education. The Russian military promised to build a new school, but construction never progressed beyond the basement. The tents are hot and stuffy in summer and bitter cold in the winter.

The ecological situation in the city is very bad. The shelling and mortar strikes frequently cause forest fires in the mountains surrounding the city. Broken military vehicles lie everywhere. The Russian forces litter everyday trash everywhere, and no one cleans it up. The Russians dump oil, gasoline, and diesel fuel into the mountain streams, and no one can hold them accountable for this. If the local administration protests, the Russian forces respond with threats or empty promises.