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Refugees Magazine Issue 106 (Focus : 1996 in review) - Assistance to internally displaced persons from Chechnya

Refugees Magazine Issue 106 (Focus : 1996 in review) - Assistance to internally displaced persons from Chechnya
Refugees (106, IV - 1996)

1 December 1996
As a result of the fighting in Chechnya, it is estimated that some 400,000 persons have had to leave the country for locations throughout the Russian Federation. Many of these persons have been displaced several times during the 20 months of conflict.

As a result of the fighting in Chechnya, it is estimated that some 400,000 persons have had to leave the country for locations throughout the Russian Federation. Many of these persons have been displaced several times during the 20 months of conflict.

By Vera Soboleva

The North Caucasus has seen the worst population displacement in the Russian Federation since the breakup of the Soviet Union. In addition to a short but bitter ethnic conflict which took place in 1991 between Ingushetia and North Ossetia - and which resulted in the displacement of several tens of thousands of people - the conflict in Chechnya has had an enormous impact on the civilian population. Countless numbers of persons have died as a result of the fighting, and it is estimated that some 400,000 persons have had to leave Chechnya for locations throughout the Russian Federation. A large number of these persons are Russian-speaking former residents of Grozny who may never have the opportunity to return home. Others, mainly of Chechen origin have remained in the neighbouring republics of Ingushetia and Daghestan. Many of these persons have been displaced once, twice, or even three times during the 20 months of conflict.

In 1995, the United Nations was requested by the Russian authorities to provide humanitarian assistance; in 1996, it was asked to extend its programme. In April 1996 an inter-agency appeal for emergency assistance was issued to cover the needs of some 92,000 persons - down from the original figure of 220,000 assisted the previous year. UNHCR's component of the appeal in 1996 amounted to US $ 6.5 million.

In January 1996 the Chechnya conflict spilled over for the first time into Daghestan when Chechen separatists attacked the town of Kyzlyar and seized several hundred hostages in that village and in the village of Pervomayskoye near the Chechen-Daghestan border. The UNHCR sub-office in Makhachkala provided material assistance to Daghestan authorities to help those Daghestanis who were displaced from the village of Pervomayskoe by the heavy fighting which then took place.

Heavy fighting also took place the following March in Sernovodsk and Samashki on the Ingushetia-Chechnya border. As a result, 15,500 new arrivals were registered in Ingushetia, joining the 40,000 people already being sheltered in various community centres and private housing. UNHCR staff working out of the field offices in Vladikavkaz and Nazran - and operating in close coordination with WFP, the ICRC and various non-governmental organizations who could no longer operate in Chechnya - distributed a large amount of food and non-food items, including electric hot plates, blankets and mattresses. Most of the affected population were women and children; many had been severely traumatized by the fighting, which was taking place in the midst of the cruel North Caucasus winter.

But by July 1996, intensive fighting had resumed, with separatist forces becoming heavily engaged with federal troops for control over Grozny. Major fighting in the city streets was accompanied by ultimatums for the civilian population to leave the city. Some 150,000 persons fled Grozny within a matter of days. The vast majority remained with families and friends on the outskirts of Grozny, or in neighbouring villages, waiting to see what would occur. A relatively small proportion travelled by car, by bus and on foot to Ingushetia or other outlying areas for greater safety. During this period some 17,500 persons arrived in Ingushetia, 3,000 in Daghestan and 1,000 in North Ossetia, all areas where UNHCR teams were operating. Contingency plans swung into action. Within three days, UNHCR had chartered a cargo plane to airlift urgently needed relief supplies from warehouses in Belgium. The World Food Programme also airlifted food rations while the International Committee of the Red Cross brought in a fully equipped field hospital for use in Chechnya.

At the end of August a new cease-fire agreement was signed with the Chechen leadership, which became known as a the Khasavyurt Agreement. The following cease-fire seemed to have real hope of holding, with a firm commitment on both sides to withdrawal of forces, and monitoring through joint patrols. A Joint Commission was established to oversee the administration of Chechnya until a new government could be agreed upon.

At the time of writing the cease- fire negotiated in Khasavyurt is still holding. Still, the situation remains fragile, and many people do not want to return home. UNHCR teams stress that any returns must be voluntary. "UNHCR should not decide for the refugees and the IDPs on the solution to their problems, but should rather help them to implement the solutions that they require," Vincent Cochetel, Head of the UNHCR Sub Office in Vladikavkaz, explained. "It should also be clearly kept in mind that many displaced persons have experienced such trauma that they are not likely to return to their former place of residence. You can see the suffering etched on their faces. Assistance will have to be provided even if return movements do not take place in optimal circumstances."

UNHCR assistance throughout the Chechnya emergency has concentrated on community-based activities and the rehabilitation of social infrastructure - measures aimed at benefiting both the internally displaced and the local communities that give them shelter. Distribution of emergency relief supplies - including food parcels donated by Saudi Arabia - has been limited to the most vulnerable.

Now, with the apparent cessation of hostilities in Chechnya, the agency is in addition beginning to focus more attention on facilitating voluntary return to Chechnya. Work has begun on the small-scale repair of communal facilities in some of the border villages within Chechnya, although it is expected that most of the current population will remain where they are during the 1996-1997 winter.

In Daghestan, said Larry Hollingworth, head of the UNHCR field office in Makhachkala, "There are two pillars in the programme. The first is to support the displaced living in Daghestan. The second is to assist in the creation of an environment within Chechnya which can encourage the displaced to return to their home areas there. Already, UNHCR has refurbished three village schools, a village clinic, and, in the city of Gudermes, a maternity clinic. It is hoped that the repair of such facilities will encourage and assist the decision to return should the current climate of peace continue."

In view of the history of the conflict in Chechnya, and the fact that the underlying political issues have not yet been addressed, it is difficult to predict the future with any degree of certainty. A United Nations inter-agency mission visited the North Caucasus region in October 1996 to review the current programme and to make recommendations for the coming year. The extent of the U.N.'s involvement will depend on the outcome of this mission. Whatever recommendations emerge, UNHCR will clearly have to remain in the area for most of 1997, assisting some to return and others to integrate where they are.

Following the brutal killing of six international Red Cross staff on 17 December in a hospital in Chechnya, UNHCR has put on hold its programmes for the delivery of assistance inside the country. However, its operations in the neighbouring republics will continue. "This incident will dramatically affect prospects for bringing badly needed humanitarian relief to this war torn society," said UNHCR High Commissioner Sadako Ogata in a message of condolence to the President of the ICRC Cornelio Sommaruga.

As the emergency - hopefully - phases down, UNHCR must also turn its attention to the large numbers of Russian-speaking Chechens in other parts of the Russian Federation. Some are in need; virtually none has received international assistance. A case in point is the situation in Stavropol Krai, which is host to some 56,000 displaced persons from Chechnya. UNHCR recently visited this group and is now preparing to provide some $100,000 in much-needed humanitarian relief. Many of these people may have little chance of returning home, given the current political climate in Chechnya. Others will only be able to return after significant rebuilding. And, most vital of all, the return of Chechnya's exiles will only be possible if there is peace.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 106 (1996)