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Update No. 97/01 on ICRC activities in the Russian Federation/northern Caucasus

10-01-1997 Operational Update

 Aid workers become victims  

The cold-blooded murder of six expatriate delegates by a group of unidentified gunmen at the ICRC's Novy Atagi field hospital (Republic of Chechnya) in the night of 16/17 December 1996 sent shockwaves through the international community. The Chechen authorities declared 19 December a day of national mourning and 20 December was a day of mourning for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. The killed Red Cross workers came from Canada, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Spain and had been seconded by the National Societies of these countries. The tragedy occurred almost four months after a cease-fire had been concluded on 22 August and while peace negotiations were going on.

 The Novy Atagi hospital: a source of surgical care as much as a symbol  

The hospital where the delegates had been working is located some 20 kilometres outside Grozny. Donated and supported by the Government and National Red Cross Society of Norway, it was mostly staffed by expatriates from European National Societies and the Canadian and New Zealand Red Cross. Three reasons in particular had prompted the ICRC to set up this facility: in the wake of the fierce fighting in summer 1996, several hospitals in Chechnya, and particularly surgical hospitals No4 and No9 in Grozny, had been wholly or partially destroyed; adequate specialized care needed to be extended to all those requiring war surgery; and, for the first time in the context of the Russian Federation, the institution had wanted to introduce the concept of a neutral and protected area in a conflict zone. Both parties gave their agreement and support for the hospital to be set up in a disused boarding school. Between 2 September and 14 December 321 patients were hospitalized there. Expatriate and local staff (20 and 180, respectively, in December) performed nearly 600 surgical operations and gave more than 1,700 out-patient consultations.

 International humanitarian aid in jeopardy  

In view of the security situation, which had remained problematic, the ICRC had tightened security measures for its staff and the hospital compound in the months preceding the murders; however, nothing had prepared the institution, or other humanitarian organizations working in this context, for an act of aggression of such proportions. Investigations are being carried out by the Chechen authorities but have not yet yielded any results as to the motivation of the crime or the identity of its perpetrators. In the light of the evidence it has been able to gather so far, the ICRC has drawn the following main conclusions: the murders were planned in advance, were carried out by professional killers, and were aimed at the expatriates working at the hospital.

Because of its unprecedented gravity and deliberate targeting of foreign nationals, the crime will evidently have far-reaching consequences for the provision of international humanitarian aid in the northern Caucasus. The ICRC immediately evacuated the mortal remains of the murdered delegates and the survivors. Responsibility for the hospital was handed over t o the Ministry of Health and the remaining patients were cared for by local ICRC staff pending their discharge or transfer to other facilities. All other foreign humanitarian organizations working in the Republic of Chechnya followed suit and pulled out their expatriate staff.

Pending an improvement in security conditions and information on the motives of the attack, and also to give itself time to plan its future approach to the region, the ICRC has suspended part of its operation, though a number of activities are carrying on. In the meantime, conflict victims in the region, including tens of thousands of displaced people in Chechnya and the neighbouring republics, are still in desperate need of help. For the third winter in a row, many are without shelter from the cold and lack the most basic necessities for survival. The sewage system in Grozny has broken down and the city is drowning in waste.

 ICRC activities  

 Prior to the murderous incident, the ICRC had been at the peak of its activities:  

- Delegates had been able to resume visits to some 30 detainees held on both the federal and the separatist sides. More than 18,000 Red Cross messages enabled families who had been separated to keep in touch.

- Medical programmes included regular assistance to over 20 health centres treating the war-wounded in the Republic of Chechnya, apart from the refurbishment and reequipment of two key hospitals in Grozny.

- The institution was the sole provider of drinking water for the city, producing 1 million litres of chlorinated water daily, organizing and partly carrying out distribution. Water distributions an d sanitation work also benefited villages in the south and west of Chechnya, four schools and a hospital in Gudermes, and 30 collective centres for displaced people in Khasavyurt (Daghestan);

- To prevent epidemics, sanitation engineers launched a major waste evacuation operation to get the sewage system in Grozny working again.

- Food parcels, wheat flour, blankets and plastic sheeting were distributed to more than 50,000 vulnerable people in Grozny, Argun and Gudermes and in villages in southern Chechnya. 7,000 cooked meals a day were prepared in 17 public kitchens.

- Essential school equipment (books, writing and knitting material) was provided to 100,000 children in the republics of Chechnya, Daghestan and Ingushetia; some 20,000 children in Grozny were already benefiting from a school snack programme. The ICRC was helping to rebuild or repair schools and had distributed 600 stoves as well as cement and plastic sheeting enabling classrooms to be heated. The distribution of some 30,000 sets of children's winter clothes to families in Grozny and Gudermes had begun.

-Cooperation with the Russian Red Cross: the ICRC was supporting five local committees of the Russian Red Cross in the northern Caucasus in carrying out social programmes for vulnerable groups (Chechnya, Daghestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and North Ossetia). It helped them meet emergency needs in the region, for example by providing food parcels and warm clothes, and supports their home-care and " meals-on-wheels " programmes for elderly and disabled people. The long-term objective is to enable the committees to carry out community-relevant medical and social work independently.

 After 17 December 1996:  

Until further notice, all programmes requiring the presence of expatriates have been suspended in the republics of Chechnya, Da ghestan and Ingushetia. Several limited programmes that can be carried out by the local Red Cross or the Ministry of Health are still running, with support from the ICRC's mission in Nalchik (Kabardino-Balkaria):

 On-going programmes in the Republic of Chechnya :

- Sustaining efforts to gain access to detainees still held by the federal authorities in connection with the conflict in places of detention outside the Republic of Chechnya.

- Completing reequipment of hospitals (No 9 and No 4 in Grozny) and other medical facilities under the responsibility of the Ministry of Health, such as the central blood transfusion centre.

- Handing over to the Ministry of Health the ICRC's medical supplies remaining in Grozny; these are to be distributed to health facilities in need, as had been planned by the ICRC.

- With the help of local employees, operating pumping station No 1 in Grozny, which remains the chief source of safe drinking water for the city's entire population.

- Keeping up support for 17 public kitchens run by the Chechen committee of the Russian Red Cross and local private enterprises for vulnerable beneficiaries.

- Support for local committees of the Russian Red Cross is provided via the ICRC in Nalchik, enabling them to go on as before.

- Dissemination for the armed forces: the delegate in charge of this programme will give presentations on international humanitarian law for the federal armed forces stationed in the region; with a view to resuming activities in the Republic of Chechnya as soon as the situation permits, locally recruited dissemination staff continues to be trained in Nalchik.

 All activities in the neighbouring republics of Daghestan and Ingushetia have been suspended, with the following exceptions:  

- Completion of sanitation work in reception centres for displaced people in Khasavyurt, to be carried out by local employees.

- Programme aimed at supporting the local Red Cross committees.

- Dissemination of international humanitarian law to the federal armed forces.

 Activities carried out by the Moscow regional delegation remain unaffected by the events.