This is the story of Razet, a mother of three who lost everything during a 15-year-long war in Chechnya, one of many conflicts in the North Caucasus. Recently, Razet was able to regain her strength, and start to rebuild her life, with the help of the International Medical Corps and funding from the European Union.
North Caucasus is one of the poorest regions in both Russia and the world; an area that spans war-torn and poverty stricken Chechnya and Ingushetia as well as the poorest and mostly Muslim republics. Multiple acts of terror and violence happen on a daily basis, but as there is limited access for Western journalists, coverage of the Caucasus is mostly limited to Russian media.
Despite years of Russian federal and humanitarian efforts to rebuild the ravaged republic, Chechnya remains in striking poverty, a situation that stems from a deficit of jobs. Unemployment is currently at 73% with 68% of the population without work for over eight months*. Ingushetia is next with its 57% unemployment rate. Such high levels of joblessness result from destruction of most of the region’s industry and infrastructure, high birth rates and absence of new employment opportunities. Whole industries remain completely destroyed and external investment is practically absent due to the region’s isolated, unstable and violent conditions.
International Medical Corps has been implementing livelihood support and economic development programs in Chechnya and Ingushetia for more than six years. Hundreds of jobs have been created and hundreds of families have received an opportunity to start their own businesses and support themselves via a microenterprise.
Razet is one of them. Now 44, she was born to a poor family in the village of Argun, in Chechnya. Though some of their income came from a greenhouse they owned, jobs at a collective farm did not pay well. Razet’s father was disabled and she had no brothers, so only women worked at the greenhouse. They had to do all the hard labour such as carry water from a mile away because there was no water supply in their part of the village.
When Razet was 20, she married and moved to another village, Alkhan-Churt, near Grozny, about 20 miles away. She had three children and started working in a greenhouse which belonged to a local collective farm.
In 1993, when the situation in Chechnya deteriorated and violence broke out, many businesses closed and Razet lost her job. During the war her village, which is next to the Grozny airport, was heavily bombarded by militants and Russian troops, both trying to take over the strategic target.
One cold night in December 1999 Razet heard Russian military planes nearing. She took the children and ran next door to hide in a neighbour’s cellar. Inside, they heard a loud boom, then cement dust and ash fell on their heads; the bomb had hit Razet’s home. She remembers her children were shivering from fear and cold, and the youngest child, Lechi, was screaming in fear.
Razet’s house was destroyed. For months thereafter her family lived with the neighbours. She had to flee the village many times when it changed hands. As open violence ended and the situation started to stabilise in Chechnya, Razet wanted to apply for compensation to rebuild their home, but they could not. Local officials wanted large bribes. It took seven years for Razet and her sons to repair two rooms in the house and the roof.
Three-year old Lechi never recovered from that night. Since then whenever he would hear a loud bang or noise, he would climb under a table or hide under his blanket. A doctor diagnosed Lechi with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Soon after the war ended her oldest son married and his new family moved in with Razet. “Now all seven of us live in one house. None of us could find a job for such a long time, even my oldest son, who is only 23,” Razet says.
“Last summer I found out that International Medical Corps is planning to create microenterprises in my village this year”, Razet adds. “I immediately went and asked if I could be a part of this. This was my only hope.”
International Medical Corps came to Alkhan-Churt and funded the first community project there in 2007. Razet knew International Medical Corps helped her neighbours start a cattle-breeding farm, open a tailoring shop, a dairy farm, and build a bee-keeping business. She decided to step forward and suggest opening a greenhouse.
Having worked in greenhouses since she was a child, Razet wanted to plant cucumbers, parsley and other cash crops for winter season. As a greenhouse is a serious enterprise, Razet went to her neighbours and suggested that they work together as partners. Three other families joined.
International Medical Corps’ Country Director for Russia, Dr. Simon Rasin, says: “Microenterprises are our specialty. Even though we are the International Medical Corps, and all over the world we focus on building health capacity, we see health as overall wellbeing of a person. Health is not just absence of a disease. There are several key factors leading to health – and having a job is one of them”
This project was funded by the European Commission Directorate for Humanitarian Aid (ECHO), and three months ago Razet and her neighbours started building a greenhouse from scratch. Today they are expecting their first harvest of cucumbers.
Dr. Simon Rasin adds: “International Medical Corps has been working in Russia for ten years. We created thousands of jobs in the region via microenterprises and community driven projects. EU funding helped us create several hundred very successful microenterprises with a large potential to drive economic growth.”
Finally, Razet is smiling: “Keeping a greenhouse is what I can do, a job I am good at. Now, for the first time in more than fifteen years I actually have a job. I am a businesswoman now!”
*Ministry of Finance of the Chechen Republic