A sudden, sharp increase in armed conflict in the North Caucasus – the southern region that includes the republics of Chechnya and Ingushetia – is taking an enormous physical and psychological toll on the civilian population.
The violence, whose roots trace to the early 1990s with local ethnic and religious extremist groups trying to break away from the Russian Federal state, had seemed to cool in recent years. But in the last few months, the number of terrorist attacks increased dramatically. In July, prominent human rights activist, Natalya Estemirova, was kidnapped and murdered. Several weeks later, two NGO workers will killed in Chechnya, shocking the humanitarian community in Russia and abroad.
The most recent event was a bombing outside the district Police Department of Nazran, the central city of Ingushetia, on August 17. The attack killed 21 and injured another 200.
“I was working in the office when that terrible attack happened,” says Luiza, an employee of a local NGO based in Nazran. “We start at 9 a.m. and we arrived to the office that morning as usual. As soon as I came into my office, I heard a terrible noise and our office building shook. It was terrible. About 15 minutes later we were told what had just happened. I started praying to God. Me and my colleagues, we were so scared.”
The violence has had serious psychological impact, with International Medical Corps physicians and psychosocial consultants finding clear increases in depression and anxiety in the local population.
“I am scared for my life and lives of my wife and children,” says Muhammad. “I am a driver and I travel a lot on our unsafe roads. I see dozens of tanks and Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs) every day on the highways. Police APCs and posts are on every corner. I hear explosions in Nazran in the night and day. I guess the terrorists mostly target the government, military, and the police, but who knows what would happen to me when I am driving next to a government building, or I go through passport control at police posts?”
International Medical Corps has worked in the North Caucasus since 2000, providing primary medical care and psychosocial support to internally displaced people, and implementing livelihood support projects and professional development programs for youth in Ingushetia and Chechnya. Most staff members live and work in the area and often witness violence themselves.
“Despite all challenges and difficulties facing us here, we are providing relief for thousands of people,” says Maryam, International Medical Corps Health Program Manager. “We understand that the instable and dangerous situation can make us less effective, but at the same time, we know that assisting vulnerable people is our responsibility. I strongly believe that our work is absolutely needed here and this is why we are here.”
North Caucasus has a troubled history. In the early 1990s, this province attempted to break away from the Russian Federation and violent conflict followed. Millions suffered during the ensuing years of fighting between separatists and Russian forces. After the Russian forces retreated in 1996, there was a period of relative quiet, however, Chechnya and neighboring provinces of Dagestan and Ingushetia saw a rise in organized crime and civil violence.
The two conflicts that followed forced more than 100,000 people to flee to Dagestan, at least 600,000 to Ingushetia, and thousands more, especially ethnic Russians, to Stavropol Krai, Rostov region, and Krasnodar Krai. The population of Ingushetia doubled. By that time, Ingushetia already housed approximately 50,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) from North Ossetia who had arrived there as a result of yet another scarcely known ethnic conflict in Prigorodni district of North Ossetia in 1992.
The prolonged conflict causes major pain to people of the province. More than 25,000 IDPs are still living in Ingushetia today and at least 23,000 persons are displaced within Chechnya in temporary accommodation centers – formerly known as camps – and substandard rented housing. Hundreds of thousands of children, adolescents, and young adults in Chechnya and Ingushetia have lived a significant portion of their lives in conflict-driven conditions of fear and malnourishment. Very few people have jobs. Companies do not invest in the conflict-ridden area. Sixty-nine percent of people in Chechnya are unemployed – and another 58 percent in Ingushetia – while birth rates skyrocket.
International Medical Corps runs a variety of community and livelihood projects that give IDPs, returnees, and survivors of gender-based violence skills to start their own businesses or find employment. One of these people is Zarema Ezbieva, 28, who lost everything when her abusive husband left her. Without any in-demand skills, Zarema found it hard to find a job and had to live off of only unemployment and child support checks. She then found an opportunity to take accounting classes from International Medical Corps at a local education center. After completing her courses, Zarema found a part-time job as an assistant accountant.
Another, Marina Musaeva, 15, took sewing classes from another International Medical Corps program in Nazran. With an unemployment rate of 60 percent, parents in Narzan often have to choose which children to send to school. Very rarely are girls chosen. To give girls an opportunity for future employment and economic independence, International Medical Corps organizes sewing courses for internally displaced girls. Marina always wanted to sew professionally, but did not have a sewing machine at home. Now with International Medical Corps’ sewing classes, Marina is on her way to becoming a tailor and has the resources and equipment needed to do it.
The entrepreneurial success stories keep unfolding – a beauty shop run by a group of gender-based violence survivors, a small livestock farm run by two families, and a greenhouse run by a small village. Even amidst worsening violence and skyrocketing unemployment, hope is still possible if you just create the opportunity.