UNHCR helps returnees rebuild their lives as stability returns to Chechnya
GROZNY, Chechnya, September 5 (UNHCR) - Earlier this year, a twin-engined Tupolev 134 landed in Grozny. It was the first scheduled passenger flight to the capital of Chechnya since 1999 and the authorities heralded the plane's safe arrival on March 8 as proof that conflict in this republic of the Russian Federation had finally come to an end.
There are a few grounds for optimism - the security situation has improved, the economy is showing signs of recovery, and most of the ethnic Chechens who fled their homes during two wars have since returned. But despite the advances, serious challenges remain and the UN refugee agency is helping the returnees and those who remain displaced to face new hurdles.
"The humanitarian situation has improved significantly in the region. Stabilization of the situation has become a reality, tangible positive changes have happened, particularly in Chechnya," noted Jo Hegenauer, head of the UNHCR office in the neighbouring republic of North Ossetia.
"There have been big changes," agreed Marem Dikaeva,* a resident of a temporary accommodation centre for displaced people in Grozny. "We are not scared to go out of the house anymore. Before, I was afraid to let my children go out to visit their friends," she added.
The memories of terror and destruction remain vivid for those who went through the wars that started in 1994 and 1999. "The whole house and even the cellar [in our family home in Grozny] were shaking because of the bombs," recalled Lecha Abazov,* who has spent more than seven years in a camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) in neighbouring Ingushetia.
"I was shot at by a sniper who, fortunately, missed. Then some soldiers used me as a human shield. They forced me to go down into cellars where they suspected Chechen fighters were hiding," added the 68-year-old.
He was among hundreds of thousands of people who sought safety elsewhere in Chechnya, in other parts of the Russian Federation or overseas. But while Abazov remains in Ingushetia, most IDPs have returned home.
Today, there are some 15,000 Chechen IDPs in Ingushetia compared to 240,000 in January 2000 and some 30,000 within Chechnya itself compared to an estimated 170,000 seven years ago. There are also about 6,500 Chechen IDPs in the republic of Dagestan.
Despite the widespread material damage, there are clear signs of economic recovery. Aside from the return of displaced people, the pace of reconstruction is gathering pace with building sites all over Grozny. The authorities earlier this year announced plans to build housing for some 3,000 displaced families currently living in temporary accommodation centres.
UNHCR quick impact projects, meanwhile, are helping a few returnees in Chechnya, as well as displaced Chechens in the neighbouring republics, to start small businesses.
The refugee agency's partner organizations provide free legal advice and counselling services to the population - including returnees and people still displaced inside Chechnya - on issues ranging from documentation and compensation for lost housing and property, to representation in civil and criminal courts.
But significant problems remain in Chechnya and neighbouring republics. In April, UNHCR and other UN agencies withdrew from Ingushetia after a rocket attack on their joint compound in the town of Nazran. The offices remain closed and the incident showed that security remains an issue.
Human rights abuses and problems in implementing the rule of law - especially execution of court orders - are also causes of concern.
"Although statistics show that the number of human rights violations has dropped significantly in Chechnya, human rights violations are still widespread in the republic," said a representative of a human rights organization in Chechnya. These include torture, extrajudicial executions, abductions and forced disappearances.
"The development of a true system of law and order is the basis for more effective solutions to the problems of refugees and IDPs," UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres noted during a visit to Chechnya last year.
* Names changed for protection reasons
By William Spindler in Grozny, Chechnya, Russian Federation