Why world won't aid Chechens

Russia's campaign has created 155,000 refugees in two weeks. Aid groups

The latest war in Chechnya is creating a major refugee crisis - but almost no international humanitarian response.

The Russian military campaign against Islamic rebels in the breakaway Caucasus republic has driven 155,000 refugees into neighboring Ingushetia and Dagestan, including 5,000 who fled their homes yesterday, according to Russian officials.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Rescue Committee, and the France-based medical aid group Doctors Without Borders have staff devoted to working in war zones, but not a single expatriate worker in Chechnya.

"There's a very real emergency unfolding, but we have to be responsible employers as well," says Barbara Smith, the International Rescue Committee's vice president for overseas operations.

The problem with Chechnya is that three years ago, as rebels were forcing the withdrawal of Russian troops after a bitter two-year struggle, it became too dangerous for aid groups to work there. And the perception is that little has changed.

All of these organizations pulled out their international staff or closed programs in Chechnya after a string of kidnappings and murders by factions loyal to rival warlords. In 1996, six Red Cross workers were murdered in a hospital just outside the capital, Grozny. The ICRC was founded on the principle of neutrality and is protected by the Geneva convention, so the murders signaled that no organization could expect safety.

Many aid groups responded by scaling back programs, then pulled out entirely after a regional UNHCR director, Vincent Cochetel, was taken hostage in early 1998. More than 300 days later, Mr. Cochetel was freed by Russian commandos. At the same time, the partial remains of four kidnapped Western telephone engineers were found near Chechnya's western border.

With war erupting again, aid workers feel reluctant to revisit the troubled region. "You would be placing staff not only in a wartime situation, which we do in other places in the world, but also in a situation where they have to look out for being directly hit," says Nils Carstensen at the Geneva-based Action by Churches Together.

"A lot of agencies had paid an awful price for working in Chechnya," says Greg Hansen, who conducted studies on aid in the Caucasus for Providence, R.I.-based Brown University's Humanitarianism and War Project. "Some of them took a punitive stance. The argument being, 'We'll withhold assistance. When they're ready to receive it, we'll give it.' "

Last week, after the broadcast of television footage showing a bombed busload of Chechen refugees, a high-level European Union delegation went to Moscow to relay concerns for civilian casualties and call for a speedy political solution. "Russian claims of surgical strikes against terrorist bases just don't wash with their use of multiple rocket launchers and artillery that are not precision weapons," says Mr. Hansen.

The EU also has begun talking to UNHCR officials about how to help the tens of thousands of refugees pouring into overburdened Ingushetia, which has a peacetime population of just 300,000.

EU and UNHCR officials say, however, that they have no plans to enter Chechnya. "There's no point in having people in a place if you all work in a bunker and have military escorts," says UNHCR spokesman Paul Stromberg. That, however, would leave the bigger humanitarian concern unaddressed, since most Chechens displaced during the 1994-'96 war did not cross over the border.

International appeals for a political solution appear to have fallen on deaf ears. Moscow insists that its military action is an internal conflict and a reaction to a series of terrorist bombings in the past two months that left nearly 300 Russians dead.

And the world's response has been muted. "The international community doesn't feel the same obligation to Chechnya as it does to the successive states of Yugoslavia," says Martha Olcott, at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Washington and European governments have been hesitant to intervene after Moscow compared its air campaign to the NATO bombings in Kosovo.

With all these ingredients for a drawn-out war, humanitarian agencies are struggling to find a way to help without endangering staff. One organization says it may send people in and around Chechnya. It asked not to be named so its workers would not be targeted for kidnappings. The International Committee of the Red Cross says it will not send expatriates into Chechnya, but has a local staff of 30 in Grozny and will operate by remote control.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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