At Christmas a year ago, six International Committee of the Red Cross workers were assassinated in an ICRC hospital in Chechnya. Aid organizations temporarily withdrew their expatriates in an act of solidarity and self-preservation. Many continued to provide scaled-back aid through local staff from what were thought to be safer locations in neighboring republics within Russia.
Since then, a rash of kidnappings has spilled over into these areas surrounding Chechnya. Sixteen aid workers have been taken hostage since last summer, including five from Polish Caritas two weeks ago. At least 10 are still being held, some after more than five months. Like Chechnya itself, neighboring Ingushetia and Daghestan are now virtually off-limits to foreigners, even to those whose mandate and mission is to relieve widespread civilian distress.
The impunity of the violence against aid workers is as troubling as its brutality and scale. A year has passed without progress in bringing the murderers of the ICRC workers to justice.
More recently, efforts through official channels to secure the release of the aid workers have proved ineffectual, arousing suspicions that some Chechen politicians profit from the payment of six-figure ransoms. Most aid agencies have cut their losses and left. The few who remain concede that they are not as resilient as they once were.
Even seasoned humanitarians find the very idea of helping sorely tested in the face of constant threats to their safety. Solidarity with victims of conflict - the impulse that animates risk-taking - becomes more difficult when aid personnel are separated by a lack of security from the people they want to help.
Problems also mount for donors, who reluctantly ask whether their aid dollars could be more cost-effectively spent elsewhere. Aid to Chechens is a hard sell in Moscow, where authorities prefer to see assistance given to republics where needs are less acute and secessionist stirrings less of an issue. The provision of aid in insecure environments is markedly more expensive than in other, more welcoming settings, and results are much harder to gauge.
Increasingly, Chechens and others in the north Caucasus are perceived to be either unappreciative of humanitarian assistance or simply not in need of it. That is not the case. Immediately following the ICRC murders and the more recent kidnapping of two Hungarian aid workers, spontaneous demonstrations of several hundred grieving friends, neighbors, and beneficiaries gathered in solidarity with the aid agencies. It has become painfully clear to many Chechens and others in the region - if not yet to their governments - that when insecurity reaches a critical mass, they pay the price when the aid stops.
The few organizations left in the area continue to adapt - a tribute to dedicated Chechen, Ingush, and other local staff backed by a special breed of international aid worker willing to treat security as a full-time preoccupation. Experience in Chechnya shows that consummate professionalism and a high degree of sophistication in humanitarian action are preconditions for responding successfully and safely to human need. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Medical Emergency Relief International (Merlin), and ICRC deserve commendation for doing what they can from a reasonably safe distance by remote control. But pressures to pull out are mounting.
Donors may be tempted to opt for a form of collective punishment, withholding aid from those in need to send a message to those who target aid operations. However, further curtailing assistance would have serious humanitarian and other consequences.
Scarce housing and sub-zero temperatures have forced many Chechens into overcrowded communal shelters. Badly damaged health, water, and sanitation systems pose a threat of epidemics. Unknown numbers of land mines litter the countryside.
As the political situation in the north Caucasus unravels, the remaining aid agencies represent an indispensable emergency capacity to respond to the effects of possible renewed conflict. New or returning organizations would have to navigate myriad political, bureaucratic, and logistical obstacles.
Further curtailment of humanitarian assistance would also mean the near-complete isolation of a people whose centuries-old sense of alienation from the outside world already runs astonishingly deep. Chechens tend to be self-sufficient - almost to a fault. But their greatest strength is also their greatest vulnerability. Unmet needs among the population help to sustain the forces of radicalization and criminality, rendering a return to normalcy ever more elusive.
The past few years in the north Caucasus have been fraught with frustrating setbacks and terrible costs for humanitarians. But this is less a rationalization for turning away from human need than a call for renewed creativity, resilience, and resolve on the part of the international community.
* Greg Hansen of Ottawa, Canada, recently returned from a four-month visit to the Caucasus. He is compiling a handbook on humanitarian action in the Caucasus for the Humanitarianism and War Project of Brown University.