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Letter to Dr. Condoleezza Rice
July 15, 2003
Dr. Condoleezza Rice
Dear Dr. Rice,
On behalf of the international medical humanitarian organization Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors without Borders (MSF), I am writing to express our alarming concern over the fate of the Chechen civilians affected by the ongoing conflict, especially the approximately 155,000 people who have sought refuge in neighboring Ingushetia, Dagestan and Georgia. I also want to share with you our deep preoccupation over the fate of Arjan Erkel, the Head of Mission of MSF in Dagestan who was abducted by three unknown gunmen on August 12, 2002, in Makhachkala, and is still missing.
Medecins sans Frontieres/Doctors without Borders first came to the former Soviet Union in December 1988, and is currently assisting vulnerable populations in nine CIS countries. Since 1999, MSF has provided humanitarian assistance to Chechen civilian victims of war in Ingushetia, Chechnya, Dagestan and Georgia. Since the kidnapping of Mr. Erkel, our programs in Dagestan have been suspended while in Chechnya, our activities our currently limited to the provision of medical material through our national staff
Despite the deteriorating security situation in Chechnya over the past months, MSF teams in the North Caucasus have been witnessing an alarming intensification in the pressure being exerted by the authorities on Chechen displaced persons, leaving them with no other option than to go back to a war zone. This population is thus denied the rights provided for under international humanitarian law which stipulates that civilians exposed to violence may seek a safe refuge where they can be protected and assisted adequately, and return home voluntarily when they feel that it safe to do so. Although conditions for a safe return are not present, Russian, Chechens and Ingush authorities are making repatriation inevitable against the will of the overwhelming majority of the displaced population. On July 4, 2003, Chechen Administrator Kadyrov stated after a meeting with President Putin that all Chechen displaced living in Ingushetia will have to return home by September 2003. At the same meeting, President Putin stated that he gave orders to help refugees in Georgia return home in time for the October 5 2003 Presidential elections in Chechnya.
In Ingushetia, the authorities are using a wide range of means to implement their policy of forced repatriation, exercising constant psychological pressure on the displaced: raids in the camps and villages to control identification papers such as the ones on June 3, 2003, where a total of 7 displaced were arbitrarily arrested in two camps in Nazran and Nesterovskaya; shooting in the air at night by Russian troops positioned at the vicinity of the camps; disappearances, intimidation, deletion of names on official registration lists of IDPs and suspension of the registration of the newly arrived; cessation of critical governmental assistance including distribution of food and non-food items, as well as provision of water and gas in the camps. In the past weeks, Ingush, Chechen and Russian authorities have increased visits in the tented camps, further pressuring displaced Chechens to sign off for repatriation, threatening to shut down the camps and telling the IDPs that they will not get compensation to rebuild their lives in Chechnya unless they go back immediately.
Furthermore, Ingush authorities are imposing unacceptable restrictions on humanitarian organizations, thus blocking the provision of much-needed assistance to improve the currently unacceptable living conditions of the displaced Chechens, such as the extension of camp capacity, the replacement of spoiled tents, and the provision of sanitation facilities. After the closure by the authorities of the Aki Yurt camp, Ingushetia, in December 2002, MSF build 180 alternative shelters to accommodate those Chechens who might be evicted from the remaining camps. However on January 28, Ingush authorities declared the MSF constructions illegal. Our plans to provide a total of 1,380 shelters to the Chechen displaced have been indefinitely suspended.
The result of this broad and refined policy is that displaced and refugees are obliged to go back to Chechnya on a daily basis, even if no tented camp has been closed since last December. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that up to approximately 44,000 IDPs living in Ingushetia and 2,000 in Dagestan returned to Chechnya from January 2002 to May 2003, and that camp population in Ingushetia has dropped from 22,254 in August 2002 to 14,594 in March 2003. In Georgia, police controls of Chechen refugees have been significantly reinforced. Russian authorities visited the refugees on June 10, 2003, pressing them to go back home now since the repatriation process was inevitable. The UNHCR estimates that 3,600 Chechen refugees are currently in Georgia, down from 4,100 in April 2002 and 8,000 in 2001.
Despite the untenable situation in Ingushetia and in other regions of asylum, Chechen displaced and refugees are not willing to go home at this time. In a February 2003 survey of 3.209 Chechen families (16,499 people) living in eight tented camps in Ingushetia, MSF found that 98% did not want to return to Chechnya in a near future, and 93% among them expressed fear for their lives as the reason for wishing to remain in Ingushetia.
Despite repeated statements by United States government officials concerning the assurances of senior Russian officials to alleviate the situation in Chechnya and to avoid forcing persons displaced from Chechnya to return against their will, the violence against Chechen civilians and the process of forced repatriation continues with impunity. The current situation in the Northern Caucasus presents itself in harsh contrast with the hopes expressed by US officials at the 59th session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights concerning the positive progress linked to the March 23 referendum in Chechnya.
We must also emphasize that over the past years, access to the civilian victims of war by independent and impartial humanitarian organizations to assist them according to their needs and bear witness to their plight has been drastically hampered by security constraints in Chechnya, but also in Ingushetia and Dagestan. There is an alarming pattern of violence directed against humanitarian workers in the Northern Caucasus, as dozens of them have been taken hostage since the resumption of the war in Chechnya. In 2002 alone, four aid workers were kidnapped, from which only MSF volunteer Arjan Erkel remains missing. As of today, there is not a single international humanitarian worker based in Chechnya. If present security conditions in Chechnya are not adequate for humanitarian workers to carry out assistance activities, why would they be considered adequate for civilian Chechens to return?
We would like to reemphasize that according to international humanitarian law, the responsibility for the safety and security of humanitarian personnel and the responsibility to grant their access to civilians in need of assistance rest primarily with the authorities of the host country. Since the kidnapping of MSF volunteer Arjan Erkel in August 2002, the Russian authorities responsible for investigating his abduction and securing his release have failed to achieve any significant result, which raises serious concerns about their political willingness to actually resolve the case. After more than 11 months of detention, it is unacceptable that the Russian government has not made the immediate and safe release of Arjan Erkel a matter of high priority.
During the third week of June 2003, the MSF Head of Mission in Russia, Gabriel Trujillo, visited the United States, and we had extensive briefings on the above issues with several officials from the Department of State and the National Security Council. On June 10th, I presented his testimony at a Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe hearing on "Internally displaced persons in the Caucasus region and Southeastern Anatolia".
Considering the urgency of the situation, MSF calls upon you and the President to take all appropriate measures to:
I thank you for your attention to this urgent matter, and remain at your disposal for any further information that you may require.
Nicolas de Torrente