Refugees Magazine Issue 99 (Regional solutions) - A volatile ethnic mix
Refugees (99, I - 1995)
The war in Chechnya underscores the urgency of international efforts to set out a comprehensive approach to the problems of refugees and displaced people in the former Soviet Union and the Baltic states.
(Editor's note: This issue of Refugees focuses on the growing international trend toward comprehensive or regional solutions to refugee problems. This topic is also examined in UNHCR's biennial report, The State of the World's Refugees: The Search for Solutions, published by Oxford University Press in November 1995.).
By Ron Redmond
Veteran UNHCR field officer Larry Hollingworth has seen it all - from brutal "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia to the plight of starving refugees in the Horn of Africa.
But even Hollingworth, part of a new UNHCR team in the North Caucasus, was deeply moved by his first look at displaced people fleeing the bloody conflict in Chechnya.
"Several Russian trucks arrived in freezing weather, carrying dozens of elderly people who had just been evacuated from Grozny," Hollingworth recalled of his first trip in mid-January to Ingushetia, Chechnya's neighbour republic to the west. "Most of them were elderly and had been living in dark, damp cellars for several weeks. They were so weak they had to be lifted off the trucks and literally carried into the reception centre. They said they hadn't eaten for four days."
Hollingworth was part of a 10-member UNHCR/Department of Humanitarian Affairs (DHA) mission sent to the North Caucasus on 11 January at the request of the Russian Federation and the U.N. Secretary-General. Their mission: to assess the needs of more than 160,000 people forced to flee Chechnya to the neighbouring autonomous republics of Ingushetia, North Ossetia and Daghestan.
As a result of the mission, the United Nations on 1 February issued an inter-agency "flash" appeal for nearly $24 million to cover a three-month aid programme in the region. Five days later, a 14-member UNHCR operations team arrived to take over from the assessment mission and begin actual implementation of the programme. UNHCR's portion of the appeal is $10 million. Other U.N. agencies involved are UNICEF, the World Food Programme and the World Health Organization.
Another member of the UNHCR assessment mission, Bohdan Nahaylo, says the conflict in Chechnya underscores the urgency of international efforts to find a comprehensive approach to the problems of refugees and displaced in the former Soviet Union and Baltic States. Nahaylo says this is especially true in the Caucasus, which he describes as "a volatile ethnic patchwork" stretching from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea.
"This confrontation is likely to exacerbate the already worrying situation as regards the large-scale population displacement problems in the region," said Nahaylo, UNHCR's senior adviser on the former Soviet Union. "Problems connected with population displacement in the Caucasus region are very interconnected and require a comprehensive approach."
UNHCR already had a presence in the southern Caucasus region, where some 1.5 million people have been forced to flee fighting in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. As plans move ahead to forge a consensus on a regional approach to all of these problems, UNHCR is carrying out its new three-month programme in the North Caucasus in coordination with Emercom, the Russian emergency agency, and the Federal Migration Service (FMS), which is registering the displaced. It is also coordinating with the International Committee of the Red Cross, which works inside Chechnya, and with the International Organization for Migration.
Despite initial problems with access, freedom of movement and coordination with central authorities, the UNHCR programme is beginning to make a difference. By early February, UNHCR had flown more than 130 metric tons of supplies to the region, and more was on the way.
Hashim Utkan, deputy director of UNHCR's Regional Bureau for Europe, said the plan is to bolster the existing Russian humanitarian system rather than create a new, parallel programme. Utkan noted that UNHCR has previously worked with Emercom in former Yugoslavia and in Africa, and is aware of its professionalism. However, its resources are being stretched in the Caucasus.
"We don't want to duplicate what they're already doing, but to strengthen the existing structures," Utkan said. "That way, it will be much easier for us to withdraw when the time is right."
To assist the Russian aid effort, UNHCR will provide more trucks for Emercom, and computer, communications and office equipment for FMS.
The U.N. programme is aimed at providing assistance to at least 90,000 displaced people in Chechnya, 65,000 in Daghestan and 5,000 in North Ossetia.
The assessment team noted that as many as 95 percent of the displaced have found at least temporary shelter with host families. But it is unlikely this hospitality can go on for long; some houses are crammed with as many as 50 people and host families are going to quickly run out of food and other essentials. Other displaced people are being temporarily housed in rail carriages, sports halls and other public buildings.
The percentage of women, children and elderly among the displaced is even higher than the 75 percent usually found in refugee populations. This has resulted in a particularly vulnerable population whose plight is made even worse by harsh winter weather. Moreover, many of the displaced fled with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and reported losing their homes and everything in them. The sense of loss and separation has left tens of thousands of people materially and psychologically destitute.
Food needs are particularly acute in Daghestan and Ingushetia, where each displaced family - averaging about four people - will receive three 20-kg food parcels over the three-month period. In Daghestan, regular supplies of food and other essentials began dwindling in December because the fighting in Chechnya severed the main rail and road links into the republic from the rest of Russia. And in Ingushetia, residents were already struggling to care for an earlier displaced population of nearly 50,000 people who fled there during the Ingush-Ossetian conflict of 1992. Thus, nearly half of the present population of Ingushetia are displaced people from North Ossetia or Chechnya.
Hollingworth, describing a recent visit to displaced people in Khasavyurt, Daghestan, says the needs are enormous. But despite all the horrors they left behind in Chechnya, nearly all of the displaced - Russians and ethnic Chechens - want to go home again.
"In most homes there was an average of 26 persons per room," Hollingworth said. "More than 60 percent of the displaced were children. The displaced all requested clothing and food. They told their stories with emotion and tears, but they all wished to return."
Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 99 (1995)