Northern Caucasus: ICRC remains active in an environment increasingly marked by violence

07-04-2010 Interview

In Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan, the security situation has worsened since last summer and remains extremely volatile, making life difficult for many civilians. Djordje Drndarski, deputy head of operations for Eastern Europe, discusses the humanitarian situation in the region and the ICRC's operations.

What is the overall humanitarian situation in the northern Caucasus?

The security situation has worsened since last summer and remains far too volatile for many civilians in Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan. Most acts of violence there do not directly target them, but civilians are impacted by security operations or attacks such as the one in Dagestan last week. This violence obviously contributes to an overall feeling of uncertainty and fear. Although we have seen a gradual improvement in the overall humanitarian situation in recent years, and economic recovery in relative terms, reality remains grim for far too many people. This is particularly true for the families of persons still missing from past conflicts. However, despite this rise in violence, we do not see a humanitarian large-scale emergency in the northern Caucasus at this stage.


The site of two explosions in the town of Kizlyar in Dagestan.
© Reuters

What would you say is the key humanitarian issue in the northern Caucasus today?

The growing insecurity has far-reaching consequences. Security operations and acts of violence clearly have a humanitarian impact. Following up on their effect is therefore a priority for the ICRC. We intervene confidentially with the relevant authorities on these delicate issues with the objective of preventing unnecessary suffering. We also remind deciders of their obligations under international humanitarian law and other relev ant norms.

How about the issue of missing persons?

In the Chechen Republic alone, thousands of families are still waiting to find out what happened to their loved ones. It is estimated that over 5,000 people are still missing in the northern Caucasus from past conflicts. Their families have a right to know what happened to them. It is essential that they find out so that they can move on with their own lives.

What is the ICRC doing about it?

We have been reminding the federal and republican authorities in Russia of their humanitarian and legal responsibilities to the families of the missing. We have also continued to promote the idea of setting up mechanisms for resolving this issue – mechanisms such as a proper legal framework, a federal commission on missing persons, and lists that properly set out the names of all persons still missing in connection with the Chechnya conflicts. In 2009, we published a report that highlighted the economic and psychological needs of the families of missing persons. We also provide psychosocial support to family members of missing persons, in collaboration with the Chechen branch of the Russian Red Cross. We have also worked with local forensics experts by providing expert training and various tools for forensic laboratories.

What is the ICRC doing about more recent disappearances in Chechnya?

Based on the information we collect from families, we transmit allegations of arrests and disappear ances to the authorities at local and central levels and constantly engage in a confidential dialogue with both local and federal authorities to clarify the fate of those concerned. Until families find out what happened to their relatives, the shadow cast by the current violence and past conflicts will linger over the entire region.

What kind of activities is the ICRC currently carrying out in the northern Caucasus?

The ICRC is present throughout the region with offices in Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan. We have been active in the northern Caucasus since 1992 and over 200 ICRC staff work there today. As I mentioned, we continue to focus on the protection needs of persons impacted by the violence affecting the region as a matter of priority. With regards to our assistance action, programmes linked to previous conflicts have evolved from large-scale assistance to individual recovery projects. We make sure that what we do reflect the shift from an emergency situation to incipient recovery marked by violence

What are these programmes?

In 2005, the ICRC started a series of micro-economic initiatives that aim to improve the ability of vulnerable families to cope with economic hardship. These initiatives have focused on the families of missing persons, on the displaced, on people living in areas contaminated by mines and on the families of persons detained in connection with the conflict. These are segments of the population with limited ability to cope with their predicament. Of course, we remain able to respond to other needs in what is still a volatile environment.

Do mines remain a threat to the region?

Mines remain a pressing humanitarian issue in the Chechen Republic in particular. Thousands of people are affected by the problem. No systematic clearance of mines or marking of dangerous areas has taken place in Chechnya. The result is that many families are unable to take part in traditional or seasonal economic activities. Raising the population's awareness about the dangers of mines, micro-economic initiatives and projects aimed at improving access to water and energy sources reduce risk taking behaviour, but they are not enough. The problems caused by weapon contamination need to be addressed holistically, including through an active dialogue with authorities and the concerned communities themselves.