Saturday, November 21, 2009

Chechnya/Russia Conflict Part 3

The picture done by the artist in our class is of a Chechnya warrior with his leg strapped so that he can not flee from battle.

Chechnya/Russian Conflict Part 3
        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 the second section I talked about some of the experiences of Chechnya survivors of the conflict. In this section I go into detail about our work with the children. Remember in reading this I am reporting what I experienced in 2003).

The Camps of Chechnya
Families fleeing war of Eastern Europe find refuge in Turkish villages.

CHECHEN REFUGEE CAMPS, Istanbul, Turkey - Thirteen of us crowded into the tiny room furnished with a double-bunk bed and two small sofas. The room was about 12 feet by 12 feet with a niche for a kitchen and a closet-like area for a toilet. Our host was living in this one small room, which served three families. I assume someone slept on the floor.
        Of the 150 people in this camp near Istanbul, 60 are children. Before they sought shelter here from the long war for Chechen independence against Russia, this camp was a series of cement structures that the Turks used as open-air picnic areas facing the Bosporus Straits. With no windows or doors on the structures, the living quarters were constructed with the clever use of transparent plastic sheeting and laths.
For the first two years, there was neither running water nor electricity, but nine months before my visit in 2003 both were installed. When our six-member team from the University of Missouri’s International Center for Psychosocial Trauma visited in November, there had been five days of rain. Water was dripping from one of the light fixtures, around which had been taped a plastic catch bag.
        The woman who made the tea had a 5-year-old daughter, Fatima, who smiled once she got over the shock of seeing visitors. The Russians had put the woman’s husband to death by electric chair--one of many extra-legal deaths the refugees told us about. Our translator did not give us the details.
        That evening, we went to Camp 2, which consisted of several large general-purpose rooms, a common cooking area and many small rooms off two hallways. This one lodged 150 people, including very few men but 75 children who had been allowed to stay up late to meet with us.
        As they clamored to have their pictures taken, I thought, "What lovely children." They were full of energy, not frightened of us as outsiders and eager to talk with us despite the language differences. I did not pick up the level of hyper-alertness and tension I had found in other refugee camps I found in places like Bosnia and Kosovo..
        The mothers also wanted to pose for pictures. They told us they felt they had been forgotten by the rest of the world and that anything we could do to call attention to their plight would be welcomed.
        The Chechens in Turkey are a people who officially do not exist. They are not entitled to any aid from the Turkish government or education for their children. These refugees have no official status, which means no resident permit. The Turkish government has taken no steps against them, however, and ignores the fact that they are here. In the first camp, some of the children were in Turkish schools, but no record is kept of them and they are not given diplomas.
        Besides pressure from Russia, another reason the government refuses to offer help is that, if conditions were too good, there would be a massive influx of refugees from those areas.

The Situation
        Our team from the UMC trauma center was led by child psychiatrist Arshad Husain and consisted of Venetta Whitaker and me from UMC and Gail Baker, Andra Ferguson and Rose Procter from Royal Oaks Hospital. The U.S. Institute of Peace provided funds to bring 20 professionals from Ingushetia to Istanbul, and we had eight students from the camps in Istanbul. The Caucasus Foundation provided space and facilities for our training program.
        The professionals who were our students knew little about stress disorders despite the fact that most of them were suffering symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Because of translation problems, we were not always sure how much of what we said was getting through. We were dealing with three major and one minor language, Russian, Turkish, English and Chechen. Despite the language barrier and the fact it was Ramadan, during which everyone fasts during the day, they took an active part in the program.
Training was sometimes pushed to the side because our students had so much they wanted to share with each other and with us about conditions in Ingushetia and Chechnya.

Ingushetia refugee camps
        One of my interviews was with a film director financed by Doctors Without Borders to make documentaries about AIDS and the misuse of drugs.
        "I also work for a" nongovernmental agency "that is suing the Russian government for its violence against human rights," she said. "I direct refugees with problems to the appropriate agencies to get redress."
This woman served as my client for a demonstration. She found it almost impossible to think of a safe place. We eventually created one, but I had to do additional work with her afterward because the exercise brought up so many memories of things she was trying to repress, including her memories of the Russians killing her husband nine years ago.
        Her daughter went back to Grozny and was assaulted in her room one night by men in masks who threatened to kill her. The daughter is now a psychology student who has learned English on her own, and she won’t go back to Grozny. She has tried to get a U.S. visa, but the government fears she will not want to return. My informant felt that Chechnya is losing its best and brightest youths, who are going abroad and won’t be available to help re-establish their country once the Russians leave.
        "My organization keeps track of and makes videos about those who have disappeared," she said. "The Russians do address ‘cleaning,’ where they enter and kill whole families. Often the parents are ‘disappeared’ and children are left parentless. The parents must be gone a year before the children can be officially helped. Our organization helps the widows and educates the children."
        Other students from Ingushetia described the refugee camps there as ragged jerry-built shacks and tents set along muddy roads. There is little education for the children in the refugee camps and no health help from the Russian government. Some Russian churches give food and other supplies. The food is mostly bread and flour. Unemployment is high, and the economic situation is desperate.
        The Ingushetia government is cutting off gas and increasing administrative red tape to pressure Chechen refugees to close the camps. There is little humanitarian aid, but 98 percent of the refugees do not want to return to Chechnya. Many have had their homes destroyed, and there is always fear of people disappearing.
Human Rights Watch investigators report considerable pressure on refugees to leave Ingushetia and return to Chechnya. Pressure includes threats of arrest, withdrawal of food allowances, cutting off heat and electricity to their tents and forced removal. Human Rights Watch says returning people to an active war zone violates the U.N. Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.

Leader of the movement for independence
        Gen. Aslan Maskhadov, former president of Chechnya and leader of the resistance against Russia, was recently quoted in 2003 as saying, "I would like to state again that we are not international terrorists or fundamentalists. We are Chechens fighting for our national independence. We did not invent the idea of national liberation; we inherited it from our fathers and grandfathers. We are carrying on with what they started centuries ago, when there were no such things as "international terrorism" and "fundamentalism." We simply want to free ourselves from the colonial oppression of a barbaric state, and this is what we are doing."
        The army’s behavior against the Chechens has not gone unobserved in Russia, where human rights groups issued a challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin. A book released in October (2003) documented hundreds of cases of civilians killed or abducted in Chechnya. The volume is called "People Live Here," a reference to a sign frequently posted by civilians over the rubble of the republic’s capital, Grozny.
Several of the men I interviewed held administrative positions in Chechnya before fleeing the war. They felt there was much support for the Chechen people from European countries, especially France, Germany and Belgium. They believe pressure from Europe will cause the Russians to eventually grant Chechnya independence.

        The presence of a team of professionals from the United States raised the spirits of both the local refugees and the refugee professionals from Ingushetia. That we would take the time and expense to come to them helped break through some of their sense of isolation.
        Besides recognizing that techniques exist to help them deal with post-traumatic stress reactions, there was the hope that perhaps if these reactions were dealt with in their children, it could help break the cycle of violence that has bedeviled their part of the world.

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