Saturday, November 21, 2009
Chechnya/Russia Conflict Part 2
Chechnya/Russian conflict: part 2
In part one I talked about my first experience with the Chechnya/Russian conflict, which centered around my contacts with the Moscow police training academy and two professionals from Chechnya who had worked with Chechnya victims of the conflict. In this section I talk about some of the experiences of Chechnya survivors of the conflict. Our team from the University of Missouri International Center for Psychosocial Trauma. We had been turned down for working in a number of other countries before it was decided we would meet with our teachers and doctors in Istanbul, Turkey. Refugees had also settled there and some of them became participants in our training program... The picture was drawn by a Chechnya artist who was in our class. He has me hypnotizing the wolf and asking him to believe that he is Little Red Riding Hood.
Visions of Chechnya
Mental health workers try to help refugees fleeing the Russian province.
A Chechen doctor speaks:
"In 1995 when Grozny," the capital of Chechnya, "was bombed, I was in my last year in medical school in Volgograd. In two hours I was packed and, with four other Chechen students, I went to defend the city.
"In every city we formed groups of military. All women and children fled to Ingushetia. We didn’t have a leader, so we were not well organized. Then the Russian soldiers came to our village. My father insisted I go back to medical school because, as a doctor, I could be of more help to my people. My brother and father said they would stay and fight to save the village.
"When I got back to Volgograd, the soldiers arrested me. They wanted to know if I had been fighting. I was able to get documents that said I had been sick for three months. That and my friends all supporting me allowed me to finish medical school.
When I got back to the university, I faced much hostility. People were always saying, ‘The only good Chechen is a dead Chechen."
The last statement from the physician, who now lives in Istanbul, was one I was to hear from a number of the seven professionals I interviewed on my trip to Istanbul with the University of Missouri International Center for Psychosocial Trauma.
Like the doctor, they also worried about being overheard even by fellow Chechens, and when anyone moved close to us, they would fall silent. None of my Chechen interviewees wanted their names used because of the danger to their relatives still in Chechnya or Ingushetia.
When the doctor first got his degree, he worked in Russia in a hospital. His life was made difficult by constant surveillance. Listening and visual devices were put in his room, and the police frequently hassled him. At that point, he made arrangements to legally move to Turkey.
"I had a post-traumatic stress disorder when I first came to Turkey," he said. He described nightmares and flashbacks, and he later approached me after a dinner to talk of his tremendous guilt about not staying in Chechnya and fighting the Russians. He feels that he let his people down and that he should have been willing to die. It was of some help for him to be reassured that he will be more valuable to his people as a trained doctor than as a dead, forgotten hero.
Perhaps as many as a quarter of Chechnya’s 1.2 million residents have been killed in the ongoing war with Russia. About half the population has fled the country, but they are living in conditions far short of adequate in housing, food and education for their children.
My informants said Chechens disappear routinely, particularly young men, and only occasionally are their bodies found. When I brought up torture with one of the women doctors, she said, "That’s too political, I don’t want to talk about it." Later, another informant, willing to go into more detail, indicated the torture of prisoners was common and often the bodies are blown up afterward to destroy evidence of torture.
Villages that might have fighters are destroyed, which leaves nowhere for Chechens to live if they wish to remain in the country. The situation is complicated by an influx of outside terrorists who, in their desire to help fight the Russians, make the situation worse.
The stories I heard were supported by a United Nations panel’s Nov. 7, 2003 report. It sharply criticized human rights violations in Russia, highlighting the impunity of security forces in Chechnya. The committee said in its report that it was "deeply concerned about continuing substantiated reports of human rights violations in the Chechen Republic, including extra judicial killings, disappearances and torture including rape."
The University of Missouri International
Center for Psychosocial Trauma
The United States Institute of Peace provided funds several years ago for the UMC International Center for Psychosocial Trauma. Director Arshad Husain, a child psychiatrist at the UMC medical school, had hoped to go to Chechnya to train mental health workers and teachers to work with traumatized children. Given the ongoing fighting in Chechnya, he was told a better place to do training would be the neighboring Russian province of Ingushetia, where 200,000 Chechens have fled during the current conflict. They were living in makeshift refugee camps with few amenities and muddy playgrounds for their children.
The Russian government refused to grant visas for us to visit. The situation dragged on, and we were told the money we had been granted by the institute would be withdrawn if we did not find some way to use it. A contact in London helped Husain establish a contact in Turkey, where some refugee camps existed in Istanbul. Arrangements could be made to bring a group of 20 teachers and mental health workers from refugee camps in Ingushetia, and eight professionals from the camps in Turkey could join us.
The arrangement sounded ideal. The center team, which also included educator Venetta Whitaker from UMC and Gail Baker, Andra Ferguson and Rose Procter from Royal Oaks Hospital, would face a minimum of risk. The Chechen professionals would get training plus a break from their present dire living conditions.
When we arrived in Istanbul, we found our training conditions were less than ideal. The large, bare room was cold, and our translator had to be able to speak English, Russian, Turkish and Chechen. Our translator for the first two days had a minimum understanding of English and had stage fright, which prevented him from speaking loudly. The only audio-visual equipment was an overhead projector, and our student body included fewer teachers and mental health workers and more professionals in related areas like administration.
There were five journalists in the group of 20 visitors from Ingushetia. Why so many journalists? It was difficult for mental health workers and teachers to get permission to leave the area, but Russians are leery of the damage to their image under communism, when they tried to control the media. Now they bend over backward to show they have become democratic and believe in freedom of information and personal rights.
The picture they are trying to project, however, does not conform to reality. Within Chechnya, there are tight restrictions on what reporters can see and report. For example, they are not allowed into the villages destroyed by the Russian army to interview survivors.
The participants, even those who did not have direct therapeutic contact with traumatized children and adults, said our workshops would help them when they returned to the refugee camps. Even though training conditions were not ideal, we felt we made a difference.
Who are these refugees?
The southern part of the old Soviet Union was a veritable Babel Tower of languages and ethnic groups in conflict not only with the Soviet Union but with each other over territorial claims and old injustices. The one thing they had in common was their dislike of Russian rule. Some of these areas, like Georgia, became separate countries after the breakup of the Soviet Union, but seven groups remain provinces within Russia, including Chechnya and Ingushetia.
Both groups have a long history of resisting Russian rule and have been heavily punished for this resistance. When Stalin was conducting his purges in the 1930s, he had the leaders in this area killed. During World War II, many people in the area sided with the Germans, resulting in almost 400,000 of them being deported to Siberia. In 1957, those still alive returned, but by then many who had been left behind had moved with other Caucasians to other countries. Two million of them moved to Turkey.
The Caucasus Foundation, or Kafkas Vakfi, which supported our visit and provided space for our refugee students and us, was started by Turks who came from the North Caucasus in 1864. Although there are 20 different Caucasian ethnic groups, they feel that they have a common heritage and that Russia is a common enemy. Chechens are one of those groups.
In 1995, recognizing the difficulties their cultural groups were having in Russia, the Caucasus Foundation re-established relationships with Caucasians in Russia. They wanted to share some of what they had earned but limited their help to those who are suffering from war and were careful that what they did was not seen as military aid.
Besides giving help to refugees, they were lobbying in Europe to get Russia to stop its attacks on their subject people. They wanted a solution that stops the war. The organization supports Chechnya independence. The foundation doesn’t have the money to give as much help as is needed, but it has become a central resource for those who want to give additional aid and supplies.
"The Russians say that the only good Chechen is a dead Chechen, especially if it is a male.
"I went to the University of Grozny and became a mechanical engineer. It was there I learned English.
"I lived in Grozny, but at the beginning of the war, and I moved to my parents’ village. Then the Russians came to our village; they took 28 young people from our village. They just disappeared, and no one knows what happened to them.
"I had been wounded as a civilian in the last war by planes that came with bombs. If you have wounds, you have a problem because the Russians think you could be a fighter. That was in 2000, and I felt I had to leave. I went to Dagestan and was there for a week, but it was too dangerous. The security people were looking for people who might be fighters. Then I went to Backni, the capital of Azerbaijan, and couldn’t find work. So I came to Turkey. Like most people, I came in on a month visa but didn’t leave when my time was up.
"I worked illegally for little money, for long hours. Being illegal, I had no rights. When they discovered I was illegal, I lost my job. Then I came to this camp. I have tried to get to France or Belgium where there are other Chechen refugees, but I have had no success. I don’t know what we are to do. It may be many years before the Chechen problem is solved."