Helpers Become Hunted In Russia's Caucasus

Foreigners are kidnapping targets in a lawless region

This is not the way international humanitarian work was meant to be.

Bumping over potholed roads in a windowless Land Rover armored to withstand point-blank fire from a machine gun, and with orders to stop for no one, United Nations refugee workers in southern Russia behave more like potential victims than potential saviors.

And that's what they are. As a flood of kidnappings-for-ransom has swept Chechnya and neighboring republics in recent months, foreigners have become especially juicy targets.

Kidnapping is a traditional pastime in this part of the world. But it has undergone a dangerous boom since the end of the war in 1997 that left Chechnya devastated and Chechens impoverished.

Most of those seized as hostages are local people - nearly 200 so far this year, according to the Chechen authorities. And most of them are freed quietly when their families pay up.

But foreigners are a prize catch, and the going rate for their release is $1 million a head.

That is what the French government paid earlier this month for four French aid workers, according to Chechen officials.

And it's what the independent Russian network NTV paid for a camera crew earlier this year.

Still languishing in secret Chechen cellars are two young British nationals who had been running an educational program, a German citizen, and a Slovak.

The risks of abduction and death have forced almost all foreign aid workers out of Chechnya and neighboring Dagestan and Ingushetia.

Even the International Committee of the Red Cross, the most intrepid of international organizations, has kept its foreign staff out of the region since six of its delegates were murdered in Chechnya a year ago. (See Page 6.)

For awhile after that massacre other nongovernmental groups stayed on. But one by one they have pulled out their foreign staff, and all but one have closed down their operations completely.

The latest to go, the French organization Doctors Without Borders, announced Tuesday that it was abandoning the North Caucasus.

Now the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has lost its foreign partners, who used to implement projects to help refugees from the wars that racked this region in recent years.

And although the UN agency has stayed on, it uses less vulnerable local staffers wherever possible in the most dangerous places.

Tina Vagapova is one of those Chechen staffers.

"I've never had any kidnap attempt on me," Ms. Vagapova says. "But armed men have come to me and asked who I was and what I was doing. I explained, prudently, what the organization is doing, and they have understood."

If the UNHCR has escaped the fate of other international organizations, it is probably because officials have adopted the most stringent security measures.

A former British Army officer acts as a security consultant (the bulletproof Land Rovers are British Army issue and saw service in Northern Ireland), foreign staff never stay overnight in any of the danger zones, and their offices are under armed guard.

These sorts of precautions are available to a UN agency, but few nongovernmental organizations can afford them.

Nor can foreign media, which might have kept world attention focused on the needs that aid workers were trying to meet. Hardly any foreign reporters have ventured into Chechnya since presidential elections last January.

Some simply don't relish the prospect of spending months in a cave during ransom negotiations. Others don't want to put their editors in the position of having to place a cash value on their heads. Still others know that neither their governments nor their newspapers would pay a ransom, on principle.

At any rate, says Michael Specter, Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times, "It isn't worth the risk."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.