Special report : ICRC assistance operation in Tajikistan

 

 

 Winter 1996-97  

   

 Tavildara: how will families survive the winter at 1,800 metres?  

 [ICRC/Oleg Klimov, Ref.TJ-40/28]  

 
 

In the course of this year the ICRC has significantly stepped up its activities in war-torn Tajikistan. Already fraught with social and economic problems, the nation's life force has been further sapped by internal armed conflict. Some 23,000 displaced people, 2,000 others still living in a remote conflict zone and nearly 7 ,000 detainees are in dire need of humanitarian aid. The ICRC has provided them with basic necessities, including medical material for health facilities cut off from supplies. To help them survive the extremely harsh winter, relief assistance needs to be considerably increased. The ICRC is planning to send another 325 truckloads containing 2,400 tonnes of food and 200 tonnes of clothes, blankets and shoes, plus essential medicines. Given the forbidding climate and terrain of central Tajikistan, this represents a major logistic challenge, requiring the use of a helicopter.

 What happened in 1996?  

Since January government forces and the United Tajik Opposition have been locked in an increasingly bitter battle. The opposition gained ground all the way down the Mionadu valley towards Garm, but in September government forces brought their advance to a halt in Tavildara (see map). Located on the front line, the city has changed hands four times this year, and is currently held by the government. Further east (in the upper Garm valley), opposition troops have taken over the towns of Tajikabad and Dzhirgatal, thereby gaining control of the upper Garm and Mionadu valleys. A cease-fire negotiated locally between the Tajik government and opposition commanders has been holding in the middle and lower Garm valleys since mid-September, although sporadic clashes still occur.

 What about the civilian population?  

Because of the fighting, thousands of people have left Tavildara since May. The ICRC has ascertained that :

* some 10,000 have made their way to Dushanbe and Garm;

* another 5,000 have taken refuge in other towns and cities under government control;

* more than 8,000 have fled to Kalai Khum in Gorno-Badakhshan.

Large numbers of people are already stranded in the autonomous region of Gorno-Badakhshan (Kalai Khum

and eastern Tajikistan), where they had fled from the southern Hatlon province during earlier phases of the

conflict (1992/93). About 2,000 of them were hoping to return home. However, as the direct Khorog-Dushanbe

road is no longer practicable, displaced people have not gone back in large numbers. Many   have been taken in

by relatives, but cannot rely on this hospitality indefinitely as poverty is widespread and food scarce. Most of the

recently displaced people are sheltering in schools and mosques.

Rather than letting up, hostilities in the Tavildara area appear to be worsening. In the near future more civilians are therefore likely to flee both northwards and southwards to the Garm valley and Gorno-Badakhshan, where living conditions are already precarious.

 In the valleys  

About 270,000 people live in the Garm valley. However, they are hindered in their movements along the valley floor as insecurity is rife and the road is dotted with military checkpoints. For the 2,000 or so people remaining in the Tavildara region, it is no longer safe to work the land because of antipersonnel mines. The population living in territory controlled by the opposition in the upper Mionadu valley is cut off completely from the outside world, including humanitarian aid.

 The ICRC's work  

The ICRC is concentrating its operation on conflict areas which are not covered by other organizations. Needs elsewhere in the country are dealt with by UNHCR, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Médecins sans frontières and others. In response to the emergency resulting from the hostilities in 1996, the ICRC has opened two new offices in Garm and Khorog, bringing to four the number of places where the ICRC is permanently present. Currently, 34 expatriates and 180 locally hired staff carry out the following tasks:

* protecting and assisting detainees and civilians;

* restoring links between families separated by the conflict;

* promoting the rules of international humanitarian law;

* providing emergency medicines and medical supplies in conflict areas;

* bringing relief assistance to the displaced and to destitute members of the local population.

By fostering contact with Tajik government representatives and local opposition commanders, the ICRC has

managed to win the trust of both, which is essential if delegates are to accomplish their task unhindered.

Nonetheless, their work remains extremely difficult, and sometimes impossible, as territories frequently change

hands or become inaccessible from one day to the next because of the inclement climate and steadily

worsening roads.

 Relief programmes  

The ICRC's relief assistance programme benefits some 23,000 displaced persons from Tavildara who have fled to Garm, Kalai Khum, Dushanbe and other cities under government control, plus 2,000 who have stayed behind in Tavildara.

The displaced persons have received family parcels and flour which the ICRC was able to provide rapidly thanks to its local contingency stocks. To adapt this assistance to the cold season, the ICRC plans to distribute monthly food supplies, blankets, stoves and warm clothes. Even though the weather will make it much harder to reach localities other than Dushanbe, distributions are expected to continue throughout the winter.

Relief for the population of Tavildara arrived on 13 September, for the first time in five months. Since then, the ICRC has continued to run convoys carrying plastic sheeting, blankets, food parcels and wheat flour for all 2,000 people. So far, 40 tonnes of food have been brought to the area, and the current priority is to organize as many convoys as possible before the onset of winter; from December to March the roads are usually blocked, and the population relies entirely on outside aid.

 
 

   

 Mountains and rivers, but no bridges: ICRC landcruisers are taken in tow.  

 [ICRC/Oleg Klimov, Ref.TJ-49/9]  

 
 

 Support for hospitals  

The health situation in Tajikistan is no less than catastrophic. Outbreaks of typhoid fever and malaria occurred during the summer. Even harder bit than the health services in fairly accessible places, such as Dushanbe, are medical facilities in remote places and conflict zones. Chronically short of staff and supplies, they are frequently cut off from humanitarian aid.

The ICRC aims to provide emergency medicines and medical supplies in conflict areas, and particularly to medical facilities treating the war-wounded. It also intends to help rehabilitate such facilities, as needed. The e scalating hostilities in 1996 have prompted the institution to step up its assistance significantly. Since April seven hospitals treating war-related injuries in Dushanbe, Garm, Tajikabad and other towns under government control have received regular surgical assistance, and in some cases equipment. More recently, another seven hospitals and several first-aid posts on both the government and the opposition sides have received essential medical assistance, in addition to surgical materials.

At the end of June, the ICRC airlifted ten tonnes of medicines and medical supplies worth Sfr 100,000 to Dushanbe, enough to treat 2,500 war-wounded patients. It plans to provide another batch of medicines and materials worth Sfr 100,000 before the end of 1996.

 Food for starving detainees  

Because of the disastrous state of the economy, the 6,900 or so detainees languishing in Tajik prisons are even worse off than the rest of the population. Permanent semi-starvation has made the prison   population extremely vulnerable to any of the diseases for which prisons are ideal breeding grounds, and malnutrition and mortality rates had reached alarming levels.

The ICRC launched an emergency nutritional rehabilitation programme (high-calorie and protein food supplements and food rations) for all detainees held in the 14 government prisons, including common law offenders.

The first stage consisted in distributing food parcels to the prison kitchens. Then, during 35 days the detainees also received food supplements such as high-energy biscuits, energy milk and vitamin tablets. The therapeutic feeding programme is now over as the detainees have gained some weight, but the ICRC continues to provide the prison kitchens regularly with bulk foo d. At this stage, two ICRC nurses and a delegate have distributed or are distributing:

* 300 tonnes of wheat flour, 10,000 food parcels, 130 tonnes of high-energy biscuits and milk (worth

 Sfr 930,000 ),

* essential medicines and vitamin tablets ( Sfr 80,000 ),

 * shoes, pullovers and blankets ( Sfr value 360,000 ).

 Tough going: 2,000 kilometres along mountain roads  

Landlocked Tajikistan has no port and is far away from main communication routes. Once relief goods have been procured abroad, it can take up to three months to ferry them across half the territory of the former Soviet Union until they arrive at the ICRC's main warehouse in Dushanbe. But this is still a far cry from their final destination: the goods have yet to be trucked over massive mountains in the heart of Tajikistan to reach the conflict victims in desperate need of help.

 Man-made obstacles  ....  

Travelling on the route from Khorog to Kalai Khum along the Afghan border is uphill work indeed. Practically every step of the way has to be negotiated: be it with the military checkpoints scattered along the valley all the way up to Garm, with the opposition in the lateral valley , or with the Russian border guard, whose mandate is to protect Tajikistan's external border with countries outside the Commonwealth of Independent States. It has taken delegates months of regular personal contact to persuade all those involved to allow the ICRC to do its work and let the relief goods through. Fortunately, the convoys are now fairly well accepted.

 ...and natural ones  

Once the man-made obstacles have been dealt with, there remain the natural ones in the form of awesome mountain ranges. For six months of the year the eastern half of the country is cut off from the west by snow. Road conditions are extremely hazardous.The steep and narrow, twisting roads and tracks are not only riddled with potholes, but also frequently blocked by landslides and avalanches.

 
 

   

 
 

 The long and winding road to Khorog  

Now that roads are mined and bridges have been blown up in the Tavildara area, relief convoys can no longer travel direct from Dushanbe to Khorog, but have to negotiate a long and tortuous detour. From Dushanbe, they have to head west into Uzbekistan, weave across the border back into Tajikistan and drive through the northern Tajik plains, cross into north-eastern Uzbekistan, drive on through western Kyrgyzstan and then down along the Chinese border through eastern Tajikistan all the way round to Khorog ... Instead of trucking relief goods over 250 kilometres by direct road to Kalai Khum, convoys cover 2,050 kilometres and negotiate difficult mountain passes at altitudes of up to 4,300 metres (see itinerary on the map). On average the trip takes five   days one way.

 So much for the way - but what about the means?  

The road conditions and distances involved in such trips drastically shorten the operational life of relief trucks, and they frequently break down along the way.The trucks cannot be fully loaded, and because of the length of the trip they are away for ten days at a time which limits the frequency of convoys. For all these reasons, the current fleet of 12 trucks needs to be boosted by an additional 6 trucks, and the number of 4x4 vehicles will have to be increased by 9, bringing the total number of truck s and vehicles to 37.

With the onset of winter and the arrival of snow, access to the population of Tavildara will be barred. The same applies to some 400 captured government soldiers in the Mionadu valley whom the ICRC has not been able to visit for lack of suitable means of transport. To get to these conflict victims who are beyond the reach of any other assistance, the ICRC has decided to charter a helicopter as of December 1996.