Refugees Magazine Issue 104 (UNHCR's World) - Displaced in Daghestan

Refugees Magazine, 1 June 1996

This Russian Federation republic is the base for UNHCR Field Officer Larry Hollingworth, who is helping displaced people from neighbouring Chechnya.

By Larry Hollingworth
UNHCR Field Officer Makhachkala, Daghestan

Dawn breaks at around five and the wind howls in off the Caspian Sea, rattling the windows of the flat where I live with the other international members of the UNHCR team. I get up at 6:30, wash and go to the office. We have two offices, one in the capital, Makhachkala, and another nearer to the Chechen border at Khasavayurt. We are assisting the local authorities to look after about 40,000 people, all displaced by the vicious war in Chechnya, which, thank God, seems to have paused if not ended.

Daghestan, known here as "The Country of Mountains," is an amazing place. The north is flat steppe land and the south chain after chain of mountain ranges. There are 34 main national groups, each with their own language, all living harmoniously. About 15 percent of marriages are mixed.

The Daghestani people are reknowned for their outstanding hospitality. That hospitality is reflected in the fact that the majority of the displaced are housed with host families. On average, families of five have taken in and cared for families totalling 17. Food, clothing and living space are all shared equally. The generosity of the hosts is, of course, now strained by the length of stay of their "guests." UNHCR receives more and more requests to help local Daghestani hosts who are now themselves suffering as a result of their generosity. We are funding small projects which will benefit the community both permanent and displaced. This includes boring wells, installing pipelines, opening water points. We have provided trucks for the collection of sewage and garbage. We have built a bakery and carried out repairs within the local hospital.

Ten per cent of our displaced are living in collective centres converted factories, schoolhalls, gymnasia. All are grim and overcrowded. UNHCR has managed to help provide a sense of privacy by partitioning the larger spaces into family sections. We have, with the cooperation of our partners MSF Belgium and Equilibre of France installed heating and cooking facilities, baths and toilets. Altogether we have completed 123 projects costing about $1 million.

We visit as many of the collective centres as we can on a daily basis. It is not as easy to get around the thousands of host homes. Jeon, our South Korean field officer, and Aida, his local field assistant, spend most of their day talking with the displaced. Jeon speaks Russian, as well as 11 other languages. Aida, a Daghestani, not only has Russian, English and German but most importantly she understands Chechen. Some of the displaced either cannot or will not speak Russian! I am a well known monoglot, but I am taking lessons in Russian. So far I have only managed to improve the English of my teacher!

One of the best of the collective centres is at Novoselskoye, where one room is occupied by the Sakazov family; Shirvan, his wife Rosa and what he calls his football team their 12 children. They left Gudermes in March 1995 and have lived in the centre for 15 months so far. There is a super little school near the centre but none of the displaced children attend it. Their parents do not have the small sum to pay the fees. We are negotiating on this. It is a tragedy upon a tragedy that the children lose a year out of school when one is so close.

At the moment we have a visiting U.S. delegation assessing how we spent the money they gave us last year and how much they will give us this year. In truth, it is a chore escorting delegations, they distract from our daily job. But if they bring gifts from afar and keep the programme running, then we have all the time in the world for them. This delegation is good on talking to the displaced. This pleases me. Surely they will leave with far more compassion and sympathy than if they had spent their time looking at latrines and wells and heating pipes. In one centre they found a girl who was about to get married as the war began. Tradition demands that she has a wedding dress. She had one but it was left behind in the rush away from the bombing. The wedding is delayed until she can find a dress.

We get excellent cooperation from the government and local authorities, which makes our professional life so much easier. It also helps our social life. We are considered to be part of the community and we get invitations to many local events. Today, we are taking the U.S. delegation to the presentation of a "Hero of the Russian Federation" decoration to an old soldier who lives in the village of Chagar-otar, which is hosting some of our internally displaced people. The hero, Hakim Isakovic, had carried out his great deed of raising the Soviet flag on the Reichstag building in Berlin in 1945. But it had taken 51 years for his brave act to be acknowledged. He is now a fit 80-year-old. He has a grand day and so do we.

We motor back 150 kms to Makhachkala to meet with the government. They leave the U.S. delegation in no doubt that funds are needed.

We put the Americans up in a local hotel for the night. Later, Aida tells me that they really do have their hearts in the right place. They asked her how much a wedding dress costs and have given her the money to buy one for the girl in the collective centre. All they want in return is a wedding photo. I am really impressed. I will get a photo of the wedding and try to have it published in a later edition of this magazine.

The bride got her funds. I hope we get ours. If we do, the programme will run until the end of the year. WFP will provide food until next March. I hope that we can get everybody back in their own houses before the winter. It can be bitterly cold here. And no matter what we do, collective centres can never be home. The peace talks seem to be going well but few of our IDP's are optimistic.

If they do all return, we will leave. I will miss Daghestan. The people have been great hosts to both the displaced and to us. "Nazdarovye," or "cheers" as my Russian teacher now says!

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 104 (1996)