in Northern Caucasus
by Eric Reumann
The recent war in the Russian republic of Chechnya devastated
much of the region and wreaked havoc on the lives of the
people caught in the crossfire. The Movement strengthened its
action in response to the conflict with the ICRC leading the
way. But how do you reach the victims in such dangerous areas?
Following the murder of six ICRC delegates in 1996 and the
kidnapping of another last year, a new working method was
established: assistance from a distance made possible by local
"After the Novi Atagi tragedy and
the abduction of our medical delegate, Geraldo, some people
wanted us to pull out from the northern Caucasus definitively.
We had to fight to stay on," says Pierre Reichel with
passion. First as a translator and then as an ICRC delegate,
he has worked for most of his career in conflict zones in
the former Soviet Union. On 17 December 1996, a band of gunmen
slipped into the grounds of the hospital run by the ICRC in
Novi Atagi - a village some 30 kilometres south of Grozny
- and murdered six delegates while they slept and injured
a seventh. Reichel was on his first mission in the northern
Caucasus at the time. Previously, he had been in Tajikistan
and Nagorny-Karabakh. A sad new stage began for him and the
rest of the ICRC staff in the region: "after Novi Atagi".
Deeply shocked by the murders, the ICRC decided to withdraw
all of its delegates from Chechnya, Ingushetia and Daghestan
to Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, a republic
situated more than 100 kilometres east of Chechnya. Inevitably,
all assistance programmes came to a standstill. A painful
debate followed over what to do next. Should they abandon
the victims of Chechnya's war? And if not, how could they
assist them without taking disproportionate risks? "Some
of us volunteered to stay," recounts Pierre Reichel.
"We had to be firm to bring everyone round. We were convinced
that, even at a distance, we could still do something."
Little by little, they managed to overcome the initial reluctance.
The small group based in Nalchik began to construct the basis
for a 'remote-controlled' assistance operation.
A different approach
An alternative working method, seriously restricting the
movement of the delegates, was set up after the murders. Delegates
could no longer travel to the field to identify the obstacles
and problems; they had to rely on some 200 local staff members
employed by the ICRC in the region.
Assistance programmes in the area became the responsibility
of the ICRC's local employees based in Grozny, Nazran and
Khasavyurt, as well as regional sections of the Russian Red
Cross. Despite the difficulties that this situation presented,
hospitals Nos. 4 and 9 in the Chechen capital were re-equipped
and supplied and a blood bank set up. Until fighting broke
out again in 1999, pumping station No. 1, maintained by the
ICRC, remained Grozny's main source of drinking water, providing
1,600 cubic metres of water daily for more than 20,000 residents.
Twenty bakeries run by the Russian Red Cross, with the support
of the ICRC, were able to ensure the most vulnerable inhabitants
of Chechnya's main towns - essentially invalids and retired
Russians with no family support network - received a daily
loaf of bread. A similar system was developed in Ingushetia,
where the Russian Red Cross continues to distribute bread
to displaced people. Until last September when the conflict
erupted, the Russian Red Cross's visiting nurses were able
to work. Hundreds of sick or disabled people benefited from
competent medical care in their homes.
In the absence of expatriate delegates, it fell to local employees
to explain the new role of the ICRC in the region. They are
justifiably proud of undertaking this difficult task, but
admit that it is a heavy responsibility. "When the delegates
were on the spot, it was easier," says Tamerlan Tsougaev,
who looks after the Grozny office's vehicle fleet. "We
could always refer back to them, and people didn't challenge
their decisions so easily. Personally, I would welcome the
return of the delegates." Most of the local staff in
the region are inclined to agree.
ICRC activities on the increase
On 30 March, ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger was the first
foreign guest received by the newly elected president of the
Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin. This meeting has paved
the way for an extension of ICRC activities in Chechnya, in
cooperation with the Russian Red Cross. Since then, several
surveys have taken place in Chechnya, namely in Gudermes and
in Grozny, followed by medical assistance and relief distribution.
At the same time, a programme of visits to people detained
due to the conflict is under way.
A huge dilemma
The abduction of Geraldo Cruz Ribeiro, ICRC medical delegate,
in May 1999 once again shattered any illusions of security.
The expatriate staff was drastically reduced. The incident
re-ignited the debate of whether to continue working in the
northern Caucasus, where different groups had not the slightest
respect for humanitarian workers.
At the same time, the increasingly marked deterioration of
the situation in the region signalled an imminent return to
hostilities. This made a humanitarian presence all the more
vital. Once again, the desire to bring assistance to the victims
overrode any initiative to pull out. It meant, though, that
the delegates in Nalchik had to submit to draconian security
measures. Staff was once again restricted severely to only
six expatriates working in the northern Caucasus. Local police
officers accompany them wherever they go. Their movements
are strictly limited to travelling between the office and
their residences and, of course, to making the indispensable
trips to the field. Gone are the evenings spent with friends
or acquaintances in the region.
Home care in Kabardino-Balkaria
Three sharp knocks on the door. Then: "Philippa Antonina,
Philippa Antonina, you have guests." A long silence,
furtive footsteps, the door half opens. A wizened face with
a tuft of silver hair appears. Nurse Zoya Pavlova enters and
immediately takes hold of the fragile old lady's arm to help
her back into the single room that makes up the little apartment.
In a corner, a metal bed. Near the window, a table and chair.
It is more than humble, almost spartan. This is the home of
Philippa Serebakova, a 90-year-old retired biologist, whom
Zoya Pavlova visits and cares for regularly as part of the
visiting-nurses programme of the Red Cross of Kabardino-Balkaria,
a republic in the northern Caucasus, a little more than 100
kilometres east of Chechnya. A dozen nurses take care of 15
patients each. The programme is financed by the ICRC, but
it is run by Nina Lisenko, president of the local branch of
the Russian Red Cross. "The social and economic crisis
has meant that many elderly people can no longer turn to their
families," explains Zoya. This shortcoming says a lot
about the state of decay in the northern Caucasus, where the
family support system is a sacred tradition.
Without Zoya, the old lady would not be able to live alone.
She did try to go and live with her brother and his family
in Stavropolski Kraļ, but her brother is blind and the toilets
at the end of the garden. So she preferred to come back to
Nalchik and let herself be cared for by Zoya. Lidya Antchekova,
the head nurse who is accompanying Zoya on this visit, questions
the old lady on the quality of the services provided. "Vsio
kharacho. Everything is great. I am very happy with Zoya
Dimitrievna's visits," enthuses Philippa. For the old
lady confined to her room, having someone to talk to is visibly
as important as the physical care she receives from the nurse.
While chatting to her, Zoya has taken hold of her patient's
left arm. "This side is paralysed. I try to make it better
through massage." When it is time to leave, Zoya gently
strokes the old lady's face and her hair, which seems a little
ruffled. "I washed it yesterday," says the nurse
proudly. Then Zoya and Lidya head off to visit their other
patients, among whom are 87-year-old Tatiana Ignatenko and
her son Vladimir, whose feet have been partially amputated
owing to frostbite.
The rapid deterioration of the situation in the northern Caucasus, first
in Daghestan in August and then in Chechnya at the beginning
of September 1999, radically altered the priorities, although
security concerns are ever present. The arrival of 250,000
civilians in Ingushetia created a humanitarian emergency requiring
an immediate response. At the end of October, the conflict's
brutality and the looting of its Grozny office obliged the
ICRC to evacuate its Chechen staff to Nazran. On one of the
trips to the Ingush border, two staff members of the local
Chechen branch of the Russian Red Cross were attacked and
killed and a third wounded as they travelled in cars bearing
Despite the enormous difficulties posed by the conflict, the
ICRC rapidly mounted a relief operation for 100,000 displaced
people. In addition, from October, five hospitals in the region
were supplied with medical materials to treat nearly 1,000
wounded. Paradoxically, the decision to resort to armed guards
prompted by Geraldo's abduction gives the delegates greater
freedom of movement in the region and enables them to be present
in Ingushetia. Pierre Reichel and his colleagues go to Nazran
several times a week to meet the Chechen and Ingush staff.
He has even become accustomed to the presence of the policemen.
"It took me a while to get used to the idea that it was
not up to me to watch what they were doing, but up to them
never to lose sight of me," explains Pierre.
Indeed, as he inspects the water distribution points installed
beside the railway carriages sheltering displaced people near
Karaboulak, he doesn't spare a glance for his guardian angels.
The only thing that interests him is to find a good location
for the showers that he plans to build close to the camp.
As the conflict dragged on, the issue of hygiene became more
and more pressing.
The Chechens, who come up to talk to him, are unfazed by the
proximity of the armed men. Too long they have been used to
the presence of all kinds of militias. What's more, they well
know that foreigners are under threat and that they have to
protect themselves. The Ingush authorities make it a point
of honour to intercept all foreigners arriving on their territory,
whether journalists or aid workers, to place a bodyguard at
their sides. Despite the risks, an international presence
Fortunately the humanitarian catastrophe that the Ingush authorities
predicted when faced by the flood of Chechen civilians arriving
at the republic's border checkpoints did not happen. But the
problems are still many and serious. Large numbers of refugees
are now suffering from pneumonia and tuberculosis.
To escape their lot and the miserable conditions in the temporary and overcrowded
shelters, more and more displaced people in Ingushetia are
moving in with family members living in other regions of Russia.
The Stavropol region, in particular, is receiving a growing
number of Chechens, creating new problems. In order to assist
displaced and dispersed Chechens, the Russian Red Cross and
the Federation have set up a network of distribution points
in the areas adjoining the conflict zone. The programme falls
within the Federation's existing operation for populations
returning to Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Although the worst of the fighting appears to have ended,
the remaining Chechens in Ingushetia do not seem in a hurry
to return. One family member returns from time to time to
find out what has become of their houses, but the fear and
uncertainty are still too great to risk going home permanently.
Clearly, only when these fears have been overcome will the
real challenge for humanitarian organizations working in the
One way or another, assistance must be brought to the devastated republic.
For the time being, the local staff of the Grozny office,
currently based in Nazran, have begun to carry out assessment
missions and to distribute medical assistance. It is a first
step. The priority is to develop a medical and water and sanitation
programme that takes into account the bitter experiences of
the past three years. Meanwhile home visiting nurses and bakery
programmes have resumed in Chechnya.
Living with the reality of the security issues, the team of
ICRC expatriates working in the northern Caucausus will probably
remain small and, despite their reservations and expectations,
the local staff will have to continue to assume the majority
of the operation. As one of them called out following an interview,
"Whatever happens, we will continue. After all, it's
our country, not yours."
Erik Reumann is an information delegate for the ICRC in Moscow.
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