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Operation Chechnya

By Erik Reumann

Chechnya was little known to the rest of the world before internal strife erupted into all-out conflict between Russian Federal forces and Chechen separatists in December 1994. Although unprepared for the scale and ferocity of the fighting, the ICRC made use of its already established network in the region to mount a wide-ranging operation to assist the people caught in the conflict.

The operation is beginning to reach cruising speed.” It is mid-April and, just back from the northern Caucasus, Thierry Meyrat, head of the ICRC’s regional delegation in Moscow, allows himself a rare moment of self-satisfaction: after three months of intensive effort, ICRC delegates are at last beginning to see the fruits of their labour in Chechnya. Assistance arrives and is distributed. The Red Cross message network is becoming known, and through it the inhabitants of Grozny exchange news with their relatives living in Russia and elsewhere. Water tankers arrive in the capital to deliver their cargo, so vital in a city whose water distribution system has been badly destroyed.

However, as with the start of every ICRC operation, its success was not a foregone conclusion. When war broke out in Chechnya, only a very small team was based in Nazran, capital of the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia, and in Nalchik, capital of the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria. “We had but one priority: medicines,” notes Verena Krebs, an ICRC nurse. “Before the conflict erupted, we did our utmost to make sure that every hospital in Chechnya had plenty of medical supplies.”

This strategy paid off when the Russian armed forces launched their offensive against the Chechen capital. The stocks built up enabled the hospitals to treat the dozens of wounded civilians and soldiers flooding in. By continuing to supply the hospitals of Staryi Atagi, Urus Martan and Shali, in spite of the dangers involved, the ICRC earned the trust of the local people. “The doctors said to us, ‘Thank God you came back, you have not abandoned us,’” Verena Krebs says. “For us it was praise of the highest order.”


A cruel war

At the beginning of the conflict, there reigned a sort of irrational euphoria: at last it seemed clear to all who was friend and who was foe. But, little by little, it began to dawn on people that the immense losses caused by the war could never be repaired, and the euphoria gave way to despair.

It became deep despair as the conflict proved itself to be particularly savage. “The situation is even worse than in the former Yugoslavia,” one war correspondent who earned his stripes covering that conflict confided to me at the ICRC office in Nazran. Reassigned to Moscow, he had hoped to catch his breath after Bosnia-Herzegovina, not reckoning on the Caucasian tinderbox flaring up in Russia’s backyard.

The journalist was right. This conflict has severely tested the nerves of all those who have worked here. “It was the air raids that scared me most,” says Verena Krebs, who has worked in other hot spots around the globe, such as Somalia, Nagorny-Karabakh and Liberia. She had every reason to be afraid. Two ICRC delegates witnessed the devastating effects of those air-raids in Shali, south of Grozny.

“When we arrived, the streets of the village were deserted,” recounts Paul Castella, delegate in charge of security. “In the market-place, a few cars were smouldering among overturned stalls. It was only when we reached the hospital that we realised what had happened.” Twenty people had been killed and more than 100 wounded, almost all of them civilians. It is moments like these that compel the ICRC to abandon its traditional reserve and to remind the combatants publicly of their duty to respect the provisions of the Geneva Conventions.

Spirit of solidarity

In the aftermath of such attacks the survivors swelled the ranks of those fleeing the beleaguered capital. The delegates who had come to lay the groundwork for an assistance programme quickly had to revise their initial estimates upwards. The numbers of displaced people rose to some 60,000 in Daghestan, around 100,000 in Ingushetia, 30,000 in North Ossetia and 200,000 in southern Chechnya.

In the short term, they were not facing starvation, thanks to the remarkable solidarity that unites the people of the northern Caucasus. All those who had been forced to leave their homes found food and shelter — here with a cousin, there with friends. Where normally six or eight people would be living, as many as 30 were crammed into dwellings in Nazran, Khasavyurt, Urus Martan and Staryi Atagi.

This tremendous spirit of mutual support made camps unnecessary and enabled the refugees to preserve their dignity. Yet it also made for a serious logistical problem for the ICRC. “To begin with we had no idea how to distribute our food parcels to displaced families,” explains Jean-Luc Bietenhader, one of the first to arrive on the scene. In each case they had to find reliable intermediaries who knew the local situation well and could ensure that those most in need would benefit from the assistance. Local refugee committees, Red Cross and Red Crescent branches, village representatives and councils of elders — every possible channel was used, and little by little, a distribution network fell into place.


Chechnya in brief

Population: 1.2 million inhabitants

Area: 13,000 km2

Capital: Grozny (400,000 inhabitants before the outbreak of hostilities)

Religion: Muslim, Russian Orthodox

Languages: Chechen, Russian


Grozny’s anguish

While the efforts of the ICRC in southern Chechnya and of the Russian authorities in the north of the republic met the most urgent needs of the popu-lation in those regions, the inhabitants of Grozny were deprived of all external aid until the Russian armed forces took full control of the city in mid-February. The first ICRC delegates to reach the capital were shocked by what they saw. “It was an apocalyptic vision,” recounts Yves Daccord, head of the ICRC’s mission in the northern Caucasus. “Tanks marked OMON and Spetznaz (Russian special forces) appeared out of nowhere amidst clouds of dust. Old people lined the streets, their few worldly goods piled onto makeshift carts, paying not the slightest attention to the sounds of shooting or to the soldiers.”

These old people were in desperate need of food, medical care and, above all, reassurance. The postal system in Chechnya having collapsed, the volume of Red Cross messages quickly gathered huge proportions in the battered city. Given the importance of these messages and to compensate for the slowness of the post in the rest of Russia, tracing delegates decided to use telegrams to inform people right away that a letter awaited them and to encourage them to come in and dictate a reply.
The results were immediate. Now, each time an ICRC vehicle arrives in town, dozens of inhabitants race over in the hope that their names will be on the list affixed to the car windows. Once in a while, a smile lights up a face bearing the marks of long days of suffering and deprivation: a loved one, living somewhere in Russia or abroad, has sent news. So, they go on their way with a lighter heart, many also carrying with them a brimming bucket of the precious water that ICRC tankers distribute at the same time as the messages arrive.

Erik Reumann, April 1995
Erik Reumann is an ICRC information officer based in Moscow.

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