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Displaced Chechens Forced Back to War Zone

Washington D.C., June 10, 2003 - In testimony delivered to the Helsinki Commission, the House and Senate's joint commission on security and cooperation in Europe, the independent medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) urged the United States government today to press Russian authorities to immediately stop all official and unofficial measures forcing thousands of displaced Chechens to return to war-torn Chechnya.

For months, authorities in Ingushetia have diminished assistance, shut-off electricity and water, threatened to close tent camps, and blocked independent organizations from providing aid to the thousands of displaced people. MSF built 180 alternative shelters, which stand empty because people are not allowed to move in. Military detachments have taken up positions near many camps, much as they did shortly before emptying the Aki Yurt camp in December 2002.

Even in the face of these pressures, nearly all of the 16,499 displaced people MSF interviewed this February said they would rather stay in these appalling conditions than return to Chechnya, with more than 90% saying they feared for their safety in Chechnya (see Left Without a Choice: Chechens Forced to Return to Chechnya, MSF, May 6, 2003 at www.doctorswithoutborders.org).

"These people are desperate. One man told our staff that if the camps were closed, he would simply dig a pit in the ground and sit there with his children," de Torrente said. "While Russian, Ingush, and Chechen administration authorities act with impunity toward civilians displaced by war, these families have been left without a choice and have to return to a war-zone. The United States must use all appropriate measures, whether political, diplomatic, or public, to help stop this abuse."

MSF has been present in the North Caucasus since 1999 providing assistance to civilians in Chechnya, Ingushetia, as well as Dagestan, where programs are currently suspended due to the kidnapping of Arjan Erkel. Arjan Erkel, MSF head of mission in Dagestan, was kidnapped in the capital Makhachkala on August 12, 2002, and MSF continues to call for his immediate and safe release.