US Helsinki Commission Hearing: Internally Displaced Persons in The Caucasus Region and Southeastern Anatolia

White flag with red logo of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) against sunny blue sky

© Valérie Batselaere/MSF

Nicolas de Torrente, Executive Director MSF-USA

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Mr. Chairman, distinguished members, I thank you for the opportunity to address the Commission on the urgent matter of the fate of Chechen civilians affected by war, particularly displaced persons currently in Ingushetia and who are being forced to return to Chechnya against their will.

Gabriel Trujillo, our head of mission in Russia would have very much liked to be here today and to share with you his first-hand experience of working with this population. I regret that administrative delays have prevented him from testifying today.

Medecins Sans Frontieres, Doctors Without Borders, which I will shorthand MSF, is an international medical humanitarian organization. We deliver emergency aid to victims of armed conflict, epidemics and other disasters in more than 75 countries.

Since the resumption of the war in Chechnya in 1999, we have provided humanitarian assistance in Ingushetia, Chechnya and Daghestan.

In Ingushetia, MSF runs prenatal, gynecological, pediatric and general health clinics in Nazran, Karabulak, Sleptsovskaya and Malgobek. We provide medicines and medical supplies to the Ingush Government’s health structures throughout the republic.

We also continue to work to improve the basic living conditions of displaced Chechens in Ingushetia through the provision and repair of shelters, as well as through the provision of essential non-food items, water and sanitation facilities.

In Chechnya, MSF provides medicines and medical equipment and supplies to about 30 health structures. We have carried out small rehabilitation projects as well. However, since the kidnapping of MSF volunteer Arjan Erkel on August 12, 2002, by three unknown gunmen in Makhachkala, Daghestan, all activities have been suspended in Daghestan and only emergency donations are carried out in Chechnya.

So as the war in Chechnya continues and continues to generate massive suffering for the civilian population, particularly due to the extremely brutal way in which this war is being waged, I would like to turn now to the issue of the displaced, as this war has forced many people to leave their homes.

According to UNHCR, as of December 31, 2002, there were 142,000 internally displaced persons in Chechnya itself, 8,000 in Daghestan and 40,000 in other regions of the Russian Federation.

In addition, as of May 2003, there were approximately 89,000 displaced persons living in very deplorable conditions in Ingushetia.

Fifty-five percent of these Chechen IDPs in Ingushetia are staying in host families. Eighteen percent live in tented camps, and 27 percent are squatting in farms, abandoned factories, hangars and cellars and other collective settlements.

MSF is particularly concerned about this displaced population. They live in very harsh and squalid conditions, particularly those in tented and collective settlements. It is also increasingly difficult to provide them with even minimum assistance. I will come back to that later. We are also particularly concerned about their safety. Their right to be protected from violence and to enjoy safe refuge is increasingly under threat.

In February 2003, our teams conducted an extensive survey of Chechen displaced persons living in five official and three unofficial tented camps in Ingushetia. The main objective of this survey was to identify clearly which and how many families were in need of alternative shelters in Ingushetia, and then to select the most vulnerable families to benefit from a program of constructing alternative shelters. A total of 3,209 families, amounting to 16,499 people, were interviewed by MSF teams. Only 39 families were not interviewed, as they could not be found after repeated visits to the camps.

The results of the survey are a clear indication that the basic rights of displaced people to seek safe refuge, to be protected and assisted properly in a time of conflict, and to only return home voluntarily as guaranteed by international humanitarian law are not being respected. Only 50 families surveyed are planning to return home in the near future. More than 98 percent said that they did not want to go back to Chechnya in the near future. This represents 3,151 families out of the total of 3,209. Among them, 93 percent expressed fears for their safety as the main reason for wishing to remain in Ingushetia.

The following from displaced people are typical, and I quote, “My husband went through a filtration camp. His shoulder was broken, and he still has many scars from his detention”—end quote.

Quote, “Our son born in 1984 disappeared after being arrested at a checkpoint in Urs Martan.”

Another quote, “During the day, I am afraid of the Russian soldiers. At night, I am afraid of the rebels.”

The vast majority of the families who were interviewed continue to live in unacceptable conditions. More than half, 54 percent, live in tents that leak with no insulation and even no floors.

Eighty-eight percent of the families, in fact, do not consider humanitarian assistance when deciding whether to return to Chechnya or stay in Ingushetia. The very poor quality of aid in Ingushetia is definitely not an incentive for people to stay there.

This really contradicts statements made by Chechen, Ingush, and Russian authorities, who have argued that assistance in Ingushetia is preventing people from going back home. This reflects the reality that in 2003 authorities have significantly cut public assistance programs for the displaced in Ingushetia.

At the same time, assistance provided by international humanitarian organizations has been limited by increased administrative constraints applied by the authorities, as well as by insecurity.

As one interviewee told us, living conditions are worse than in Grozny, but at least here in Ingushetia we have less fear for the lives of our sons and husbands.

Another terrible finding of the survey is that families are being forced to choose between living in deplorable conditions in Ingushetia or returning to Chechnya and risking their lives and those of their family members.

If the flow of refugees returning to Chechnya is growing—and it is: More people are leaving Ingushetia to return to Chechnya, as I will explain later—it is because people are being left without a choice. What are they going to do if the camps are closed? Most people do not know where to stay.

As one man said, “If the camps are closed, I will dig a place in the ground and sit there with my children.”

Another said, “I think no reasonable man would go to Chechnya now.” “If you ask where do we expect to stay, you will hear only one answer: nowhere.” Do these desperately displaced Chechens have a real choice to stay in their current place of refuge? According to this survey, out of the 98 percent of the families who have not planned to go back home in the near future, 90 percent did not know about any alternative place to stay in Ingushetia, other than the camp in which they were currently living.

The MSF survey clearly shows that displaced Chechens do not want to return to Chechnya and that the authorities are not offering any real option to stay in Ingushetia. People do not return on a voluntary basis, but after several months of pressure by the authorities, they simply give up. They are forced to accept the unacceptable, the denial of their basic right to safe refuge.

Yet despite a deteriorating security situation in Chechnya, the forced return of IDPs from Ingushetia to Chechnya has already begun. U.N. estimates said up to 38,000 IDPs living in Ingushetia and 2,000 living in Daghestan have returned to Chechnya during the year 2002. Between January 1 and May 2003, UNHCR registered 5,768 returns from all over Ingushetia to Chechnya. Yet in a report published in February 2003, UNHCR, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, stated that the conditions to assure a voluntary return of the displaced, namely decent security and living conditions, have not been met.

So why are displaced Chechens leaving Ingushetia on a daily basis to return to Chechnya where continued insecurity and lack of services make life unbearable for them? Simply because in the past several months, Russian, Ingush, and Chechen authorities have begun implementing a systematic policy to force displaced Chechens back to Chechnya. They have employed many means that make it near impossible for Chechen IDPs to refuse returning.

This has been an incremental process. In mid-2002, Russian, Ingush and Chechen authorities adopted a 20-step action plan for the return of all displaced Chechens living in neighboring republics, including suspension of governmental aid for the displaced, some promised assistance— like aid packages for returning to Chechnya that have yet to materialize—and announcing a complete closure of all tented camps in Ingushetia.

At the present, authorities continue to state that all remaining camps will be closed in the coming months.

Following the adoption of the plan, authorities closed two tented camps in Znamenskoye, northern Chechnya, in July 2002.

In December 2002, authorities also closed the camp in Aki Yurt, Chechnya, which accommodated nearly 2,000 IDPs.

Since the election of the new Ingush president, in April of 2002, Russian federal troops have been positioned in Ingushetia. After the hostage crisis in Moscow in October 2002, these troops have also been positioned in the direct vicinity of camps for displaced Chechens. The presence of these troops has resulted in the dramatic increase in the psychological pressure on Chechen IDPs through aggressive control of identification papers, arrests of IDPs on false charges, disappearances, threats, intimidation and the deletion of names from the list of beneficiaries for government assistance programs.

In addition, Chechen authorities and FSB officials have increased visits to the IDP camps, further pressuring displaced Chechens to sign up for registration for return.

Officials have threatened to cut off assistance to those who refuse to leave, and tell IDPs that they will not get any financial compensation to rebuild their lives or to have access to temporary accommodations in Chechnya if they do not return immediately.

All of the IDPs have been told that the camps will be closed in the spring of 2003 with the closures of Aki Yurt and the Znamenskoye cited as examples.

In Ingushetia, provision of governmental assistance to displaced Chechens, such as food, non-food items, gas, electricity and water have been dramatically reduced in the signature of the 20-step repatriation plan of May 2002. At the same time, Ingush authorities have passed a number of orders directly limiting assistance programs from international humanitarian organizations.

They have banned the construction of new camps to accommodate displaced persons currently squatting in unsuitable locations, and they have also requested NGOs to stop replacing torn tents in camps or to extend the capacity of camps to improve living conditions. After the closure of the Aki Yurt camp, the need to build alternative shelters to accommodate displaced persons who might be evicted became alarmingly relevant and we received approval from President Ziazikov for the construction of alternative shelters, for those Chechens who did not want to return home.

As of January 2003, 180 alternative shelters constructed by MSF were ready to use.

However, on January 28, the government of Ingushetia passed an instruction declaring that all alternative shelters were illegal according to local construction codes.

Despite having obtained all of the required authorizations from relevant services, we received an ultimatum to start destroying the shelters. Our plans to build an additional 1,200 shelters, as well as plans by other organizations to build 1,500 more, have been indefinitely suspended. The claim by Ingush authorities that MSF has not conformed to administrative instructions is just the latest in a long series of political measures exercised against the Chechen displaced population, which leaves them with no other choice but to return to Chechnya against their will.

We must also emphasis that access by humanitarian organizations to populations in need has been hampered by security constraints, not only in Ingushetia and Daghestan, but also in Chechnya. And there is a whole list and series of problems that NGOs have faced in Chechnya.

In particular, the security situation for foreign aid workers in the northern Caucasus is a very alarming problem. Since the beginning of the second Chechen conflict in 1999, dozens of aid workers have been taken hostage. In January of 2001, MSF volunteer Kenny Gluck was abducted in Chechnya and released three weeks later.

In 2002 alone, four aid workers were kidnapped. Nina Davidovitch of the NGO Druzba was freed in January 2003, after more than six months in detention. In November 2002, two ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] drivers were abducted in Chechnya and released three days later. And MSF volunteer Arjan Erkel was abducted in Daghestan in August 2002, and he is still missing.

If present security conditions in Chechnya and the neighboring republics are not adequate for humanitarian workers to carry out assistance activities, why would they be considered adequate for civilian Chechens to return and resume their normal lives?

To conclude, I would like to turn to the role of the international community in what we feel has been a failure to uphold the rights of Chechen civilians, and in fact abandoning them to their fate.

With the exception of making obligatory statements at summit meetings, press conferences, and public forums, the international community, including the United States, has failed to alleviate the suffering of Chechen civilians.

For years the United States has made general statements that there must be accountability for human rights abuses in Chechnya, that humanitarian organizations must have unlimited access to people in need and that displaced Chechens should not be forcefully sent home. I believe this administration has also stated that it raises these points with their Russian counterparts at every possible occasion. Yet, the results are that the strategy has not had any positive impact on the lives of civilians in Chechnya and displaced Chechens in Ingushetia. On January 2003, after the closure of the Aki Yurt camp, the State Department spokesperson welcomed Russia’s repeated assurances that persons displaced in Chechnya would not be forced to return against their will.

These so-called assurances did not prevent the campaign of pressure on displaced Chechens to return. It seems clear that it is not enough for the United States and the international community to repeat the same empty diplomatic statements on their worries about the situation in the region.

The U.S.-led war on terror also should not be used as a pretext for Russia to continue violating fundamental rights. By linking incidents in Chechnya with the global war on terror, the Russian Government has written itself a blank check to continue its repressive campaign with impunity.

Quite simply put, the international community, including the United States, has abandoned Chechen civilians.

We welcome, however, the constant efforts of the members of the Helsinki Commission to raise the situation in Chechnya and neighboring republics to the U.S. administration and to Russian authorities. In particular, we appreciate the letters sent by the Helsinki Commission to Presidents Bush and Putin over the past year that raised the issue of forced repatriation and the humanitarian situation in the region. We’re also grateful for the letter sent to Ambassador Ushakov of Russia regarding Arjan Erkel’s fate.

To conclude, the recommendations that we’d like to make, MSF would urge the U.S. Government and the U.S. Congress, to take all appropriate measures, whether political, diplomatic or public to urgently press Russian, Ingush and Chechen authorities to immediately cease all official and unofficial measures currently forcing displaced Chechens to return to war-torn Chechyna, particularly from Ingushetia.

We also urge the United States to press Russia to respect displaced persons’ physical integrity and their basic rights to be adequately assisted and protected in a safe region in Ingushetia and elsewhere in the Russian Federation. To press Russia to respect its obligations according to international humanitarian law, to allow humanitarian organizations to fully exercise their rights to assist Chechens in the northern Caucasus, especially by lifting administration measures blocking the provision of the alternative shelters for displaced Chechens in Ingushetia. Press Russia to take all necessary steps to bring an end to the illegal detentions and other forms of violence affecting humanitarian workers in the northern Caucasus and assume their basic responsibilities, according to the international humanitarian law, is to provide safety, security and freedom of movement for humanitarian personnel.

Also, to urgently raise the case of kidnapped MSF volunteer Arjan Erkel to President Putin and other high-ranking Russian officials, particularly by asking them to give the highest political commitment and priority to assure the immediate, unconditional and safe release of our colleague and ask them to accept meetings with MSF representatives to discuss the investigation of the case.

Arjan Erkel has been missing now for 10 months. We have been informed by authorities that they have knowledge that he is still alive, but they have failed to provide us with any verifiable information on where he’s being kept, who has abducted him, for what reason, guarantees for his current safety, and the way to move forward to secure his safe release.

After 10 months, the lack of significant progress in this investigation points, in our view, to an obstruction of Arjan’s release, and raises concerns about the willingness of Russian authorities to really solve this case.

As of today, our repeated requests for a meeting with the presidential administration in Russia to discuss the case have been denied, even as we brought over 300,000 signatures from concerned citizens from around the world requesting this meeting.

So we urge President Putin to take all necessary means in his power to assure Arjan Erkel’s rapid and safe release. Thank you very much.