North Caucasus Update
High Commissioner Sadako Ogata on Monday (Dec. 6) reiterated concern about the fate of Chechnya's civilian population trapped in Grozny, during a telephone conversation with Russia's Federal Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu. Mr. Shoigu telephoned Mrs. Ogata to tell her that Russia has taken steps to improve security of aid workers in the Northern Caucasus and decided to exempt U.N. agencies from VAT tax on local purchases. Mrs. Ogata spoke to Mr. Shoigu hours after Russian media reported that the Russian military commanders issued an ultimatum to Grozny's non-combatants, telling them to leave the city or be destroyed. She used the telephone conversation to express UNHCR's concern about protection of civilians in Chechnya. She said the fate of Chechnya's civilians was UNHCR's top concern.
Very little information is available on the humanitarian situation inside of Chechnya. Tens of thousands of people are believed to be trapped in Grozny and other areas under heavy Russian bombardment. Many are hiding in cellars without electricity and adequate supply of food and water.
It is extremely difficult to give a precise figure of civilians remaining in Chechnya. The last population census, carried out in Soviet times (1989), put the population of the republic at one million. But most experts in Russia agree that no more than 400,000 people remained in Chechnya at the onset of this latest round of fighting, after hundreds of thousands had already left during and after the 1994-95 Chechnya war. This means that most of Chechnya's remaining civilian population has now fled and only about 150,000 people remain inside the republic today. Some reports put the number of people remaining in Grozny at 50,000.
Russia's worst humanitarian crisis since 1995
The Russian military offensive against Chechen rebels has driven a quarter million people into the neighbouring republics, since the fighting erupted last September. This has caused Russia's worst humanitarian crisis since the 1994-95 war in Chechnya. Ingushetia, which now hosts more than 230,000 people, is worst affected. A UNHCR-led relief operation has been marred by logistical difficulties, red tape, and an extremely difficult security situation in all of the Northern Caucasus. The Ingush authorities struggle to accommodate those displaced from Chechnya. Most live with host families but more than 20,000 people live in tents and railway cars, braving harsh winter conditions.
Relief operation gathers momentum
Since last September, UNHCR has sent more than 1800 tons of food and 700 tons of tents, blankets, wood stoves and other winter supplies, primarily to Ingushetia, but also to North Ossetia and Dagestan. The aid operation intensified after Ogata visited Russia in late November.
UNHCR has since boosted its staff in Stavropol - the logistical base for relief operations in the Northern Caucasus. More international staff have been deployed in Stavropol on stand-by for deployment in Ingushetia and North Ossetia. Their possible deployment is linked to adequate security guarantees from Russia. Other UN agencies also started deploying staff in Stavropol. A World Health Organisation official arrived in Stavropol on Monday. UNHCR is co-ordinating the aid operation with other UN agencies and the ICRC.
UNHCR has had no international staff in the Northern Caucasus since the 1998 kidnapping of UNHCR's official in North Ossetia who was held for more than ten months before being released by Russian commandos. At the moment, a handful of local UNHCR local staff keep the operations in the Northern Caucasus running.
During the telephone conversation with Russian Minister Shoigu on Monday, the High Commissioner was told that the Russians would enhance security in the Northern Caucasus to enable UNHCR international staff to work in the area in reasonable safety. The Russian Foreign Ministry told UNHCR that Russia's prime minister has already signed two executive orders on the security improvement and tax exemptions (VAT). The details of the new security arrangements and tax exemption were no immediately clear. The Russians said they would also open airports in Vladikavkaz and Makhachkala to international aid flights.
Following the High Commissioner's trip to Russia on the Secretary-General's behalf and subsequent discussions between the Secretary-General and heads of U.N. humanitarian agencies in Geneva, the U.N. last month launched a joint emergency funding appeal for $16,187,000, with UNHCR asking for the largest share - $8,300,000. Out of that amount, more than $2,000,000 has already been spent or committed.