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Update No. 97/01 on ICRC activities in Tajikistan

05-03-1997 Operational Update

 ICRC operation resumes after hostage crisis  

The ICRC is back in action after a two-week suspension following the abduction of 16 expatriates, including two of its staff members, by an armed group. Delegates are currently conducting food distributions in the Vanch valley in the autonomous region of Gorno-Badakhshan (eastern Tajikistan) and in the reception centres for displaced people around Dushanbe. The nutritional rehabilitation programme for detainees in government prisons and assistance to hospitals treating the war-wounded have also resumed. A team of delegates is carrying out a survey to assess needs in the mountainous eastern Garm valley (central Tajikistan) which was the scene of bitter fighting in 1996 and has been under the control of the United Tajik Opposition since last September. Because of the harsh winter weather, and more recently because of the hostage crisis, the only access road had been cut off, making it impossible for humanitarian aid to reach the area.

In a first series of incidents in December 1996 a previously unknown militia group took a group of UN military observers hostage. As a result of this, at the end of the year the ICRC was the only organization still working in the Garm and Tavildara valleys. By early 1997, the military situation had calmed down; negotiations had resumed and the Tajik government and the opposition officially agreed at a meeting in Tehran to set up a joint national commission with the aim of reconciling the deepl y divided country. Nonetheless, the situation remained unstable: on 5 February the same militia group struck again, this time seizing 14 expatriates, including nine UN staff and five Russian journalists, plus an ICRC delegate and a local staff member. Although both its workers were released after two days, in a show of solidarity the ICRC suspended its activities until all other hostages were freed on 17 February.

 Convoys roll again  

The ICRC is running substantial relief programmes in Tajikistan, both in terms of the assistance provided and the logistical resources required to reach the beneficiaries, many of whom live in areas that are not easily accessible. In all, these programmes benefit some 30,000

people, mostly those affected by the armed confrontation between government troops and opposition forces in the Tavildara area. Some are still living there, frequently cut off by hostilities or inclement weather conditions, but most have fled to Gorno-Badakhshan (Kalai Khum), southern Tajikistan (Khovaling and Kulyab), the Garm valley and Dushanbe. 

Fortunately, aid convoys are once again able to carry urgently needed food, shelter materials and other relief goods, as well as medical supplies to all these areas. A convoy carrying three truckloads of food (some 20 tonnes) is currently on its way to Garm. However, as the direct road from Dushanbe to Garm is still not safe as a result of the hostage crisis the convoy will have to make a detour of about 1,600 km via Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, across rough roads and high mountain passes, in order to reach Garm from the east.

 Work on behalf of detainees  

For several years now, the ICRC has been seeking permission to visit all detainees arrested by the government in connection with the internal armed conflict that has affected Tajikistan since 1992; so far, to no avail (although some progress was made on the opposition side: last autumn delegates were able to visit, register and assist about one hundred government soldiers captured during renewed hostilities in the Garm valley. Most of them have since been released).

 Emergency nutritional programme  

Although the ICRC has not yet been allowed to conduct visits to government prisons in accordance with its customary procedures, the alarming levels of malnutrition and mortality rates observed among the detainees prompted the organization to take an exceptional step: to ensure the survival of the prison population, in summer 1996 it launched an emergency nutritional programme, accompanied by distributions of basic medicines and products for personal hygiene. The programme,which benefits some 5,500 prisoners (mostly common-law offenders), has now resumed.

 Still a priority: medical assistance for war casualties  

The renewed hostilities and poor economic conditions have played havoc with the health situation in Tajikistan. Even harder hit than other health services, medical facilities catering for the population in conflict zones lack staff and supplies. When it has access to these zones, the ICRC transports urgently needed medical materials provided by other humanitarian organizations. The ICRC, for its part, concentrates on giving aid to facilities treating the war-wounded. Since the end of the hostage crisis delegates have resumed visits to hospitals in Dushanbe and have delivered emergency medical supplies to the hospital in the town of Garm.

There are currently 39 expatriate staff, including personnel seconded by the American, British, Dutch, Finnish, French, Icelandic, Irish and Swiss Red Cross, and 240 local staff working for the ICRC operation in Tajikistan.