August 12, 2003
The notion that people in crisis have right to take refuge from the violence of war is one that is widely shared. Governments put their official stamp on the idea and pledge in law and speech to defend it. It is enshrined in religion and custom. It is sad then to see how poorly defended this idea is, even when it is so grossly challenged.
It has now been a full year since unknown gunmen in Dagestan abducted Arjan Erkel, the head of mission for Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Arjan had come to the Caucasus with the simple aim of providing assistance to people affected by the conflict in Chechnya and Dagestan. His continued absence is an affront to the rights of civilians in crisis and the ability to provide assistance to them.
Our hearts go out to Arjan and his family. From our own experience we know the pain and trauma this must cause. As former hostages we know the sight of basement walls and the terror of not knowing why or by whom you are held. We know the hopelessness and desperation that family and friends suffer when one of theirs has disappeared without a trace.
Aid workers like Arjan are largely defenseless against these abuses. We don't use weapons. We don't travel in armor. When we seek to provide aid to people in need, our only true defense is the acceptance of the idea that people in crisis have a right to assistance - the acceptance of people who see and appreciate the assistance that we provide. We survive on the trust that the powerful of the world - those with armies and guns - will leave us out of their equations of violence. We survive on the trust that they will observe the laws that provide some space for humanity in the midst of war.
Arjan's disappearance is a violation of this trust. It is a violence that not only harms him and his family but tears at the notion of preserving humanity in times of crisis. If this trust is violated then the rights of civilians to assistance and protection in the midst of war is thrown into question.
We cannot, unfortunately, look at Arjan's disappearance in isolation. The kidnappings and attacks against aid workers come against a backdrop of hostility to humanitarian action in the Caucasus and constant abuses against other civilians. Russian and Chechen officials have at times spread baseless insinuation about aid agencies' involvement in spying. Humanitarian assistance to people in Chechnya and Ingushetia has frequently been blocked. The authorities have even destroyed shelters, constructed by MSF, of families who have fled violence in Chechnya. Rebel groups have robbed aid agency vehicles and stocks.
The killings and kidnapping of aid workers is a particularly heinous crime. It not only hurts the individual and their family, but it undermines the ability to provide assistance to people in need. The attacks in the Caucasus against aid workers have left people in Chechnya and surrounding republics without vital assistance.
Arjan's kidnapping is part of a long chain of abuses against aid workers in the Caucasus. There have been more than 27 aid workers kidnapped in the region over the last seven years of tragedy in the Caucasus. Neither the Russian government nor the Chechen rebels have shown much will to stop the kidnapping and violence against aid workers.
Arjan's kidnapping and continued detention is an insult to the guarantees and promises of safety for civilians in war and for aid workers. It should be an affront to all of the states and societies that claim to stand by them as well. It pains us to see that killing after killing, kidnapping after kidnapping, there is still a lack of will on the part of states, and in particular the Russian state, to act clearly and forcefully to end this type of abuse against aid workers and other civilians. They can start now with doing everything possible to free Arjan.
Kenny Gluck is the Director of Operations for Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Holland. He was held hostage in Chechnya from January 9, 2001 - February 4, 2001.
© 2013 Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)