During the Soviet
era, the remote districts of Vedeno and Nojai-Yurt, in the
south of Chechnya, were known for their peace and tranquillity.
The wooded slopes, crystal-clear rivers and fresh mountain
air in a landscape almost totally devoid of humans proved
an irresistible magnet for summer visitors who dreamed of
being at one with nature. Fifteen years ago, I was lucky enough
to spend a few days there with my family in the Spartan conditions
provided by a tourist resort near the village of Benoi. Some
people preferred to live in tents to experience the pleasures
of the rustic life to the full; others opted for sparsely
furnished log cabins: camp beds, sheets stamped with the name
of the establishment, a table and two chairs. But that was
all you needed, especially as you spent most of the day outdoors,
swimming in a mountain spring or picking berries and mushrooms.
At nightfall, we would gather round a wood fire. One of my
lasting memories of this adventure is of the matchless flavour
of tinned beef cooked over a camp fire.
I thought it unlikely I would ever return to this place.
We had left Grozny after the first armed conflict and did
not return after the second. I settled with my family in Ingushetia,
we built a house and started our lives from scratch. Years
have gone by, and now I am working for a humanitarian organization.
And that is how fate brought me back to Vedeno.
The war has not spared this region. Passing through the town
of Argoun, we note that rebuilding is in full swing. Along
the main street, construction workers are busy fixing roofs
and mending pavements. By contrast, in Serjen-yurt, you can
still see quite a few entrances riddled with bullet holes
and abandoned houses lying in ruins.
Our reason for going to Vedeno was to check on the progress
of an ICRC water project there. The ICRC has been implementing
a programme to improve the water supply and sanitation conditions
in Chechnya since 1995, but until recently it was mainly confined
to Grozny. It included installing a pumping station in Grozny
in 1995 supplying chlorinated drinking water to both the population
and the military. The ICRC’s 26 water tankers crisscrossed
the city, refilling household water tanks and wells.
“It was particularly hard work between 1999 and 2002.
Sometimes we would deliver more than 1,000 cubic metres of
water a day and dozens of water tankers would be waiting their
turn to fill up,” says Oumar Khamidov, a local ICRC
staff member. “Only once did the station stop working:
during the shelling in 1999, which lasted eight months. We
had spent this time in Ingushetia and, on our return, were
struck by the extent of the damage. Basically, we had to start
all over again.”
The pumping station is still in use, and from 2008, the ICRC
will hand the project over to the Grozny water board. Meanwhile,
joint water supply projects have been mounted in various Chechen
villages such as Aguichty and Tevzana. The ICRC provides all
the necessary materials and the local authorities undertake
Similar projects are under way in six other villages, one
of which is Vedeno. After passing a magnificent mosque flanked
by two minarets, we stop in front of the nearby school, where
the village administration has rented a few small rooms. The
head of the municipality, Mayrbek Younousov, shows us into
his office and offers us tea. As in the past, he teaches survival
techniques and Arabic in a secular school, while serving as
imam in the central mosque. His first collaboration with the
ICRC was for an educational programme designed to alert the
population living in mine-infested areas to the risks they
faced. “Near here, there is a section of the forest
where cows frequently stepped on mines, mainly what are known
as ‘petal’ mines. To avoid such accidents, we
have fenced off the most dangerous area,” says Younousov.
The ICRC has also created a playground in the village that
is clear of mines, so that children can play in total safety.
In Vedeno, the problem of access to drinking water is not
new. The water supply system, built in 1972, has long since
fallen into disrepair, but there are plenty of other sources
from which to get water for drinking or cooking. The ICRC
project consists of installing storage tanks to gather spring
water and of laying plastic conduits. The water is drawn from
several different springs and is then fed by gravity into
a large storage tank. From there it is delivered by pipe to
the village and accessed from taps lining the main streets.
“We have enjoyed the active support of both the local
administration and the residents,” says Constantin Mikhailov,
the ICRC delegate in charge of the water programme in Chechnya.
“We asked soldiers from a nearby military post to help
us make the trenches for the pipe work with their special
digger. I have to confess, though, that our precious narrow
piece of tubing looked rather humble in their metre-wide trench.”
Our journey is almost at an end and we are pleased with what
we have seen. The projects are progressing well. The local
authorities and the inhabitants are cooperating actively with
the ICRC. “You have no idea how the return of drinking
water has changed our daily life,” says Zarema, a mother
of three children.
The people in this region are hospitable and hard working:
hospitable because visitors are few and far between and hard
working because it is the only way for them to survive. At
present, the village does not have a gas supply and firewood
can be seen stacked by the houses.
I would love to go back to Vedenoa gain, this time not in
my professional capacity but just as a tourist, to drink the
spring water, cook over a camp fire and sleep in a tent. I
am sure that sooner or later that day will come.
Ibrahim Sultygov is ICRC communication field officer
in the northern Caucasus.
In order to prevent mine-related accidents, many safe playgrounds
have been opened in the northern Caucasus, such as this one
©BORIS HEGER / ICRC
Water and habitat
The ICRC is working to improve living conditions for
residents and internally displaced people in Chechnya,
Daghestan and Ingushetia, providing clear water, sanitation
and housing. In Chechnya, water supply improvement projects
began in summer 2007 in the villages of Tza-Vedeno,
Zamay-Yurt and Itum-Kale. According to an agreement,
the ICRC provides all the materials and village administration
oversees construction. The ICRC also supports community
activities such as maintenance of the water system in
the building that houses the Chechen branch of the All-Russian
Deaf People Society and in the nursery school located
in Gordali village, in the Gudermes region.
An ICRC Landover entering Vedeno, Chechnya, Russian Federation.