War Leaves a Legacy of Pain and Hardship in Chechnya

In response to the Russo-Chechen wars which left approximately 300,000 dead and 750,000 displaced, International Medical Corps began providing services in the North Caucasus in 2000.  Today, with the support of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM), we continue to provide primary health care, psychosocial and mental health support to communities in countries including Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan where the conflict has resulted in very high poverty and  maternal and child mortality rates. International Medical Corps also supports programs to prevent gender-based violence and conducts public health outreach on tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, drug abuse and smoking prevention.

As in many other areas of the world, International Medical Corps conducts psychosocial support programs in the North Caucasus through primary health care facilities. We train health care workers to recognize signs of emotional stress and mental illness, how to screen beneficiaries exhibiting those signs, as well as the basic steps for support and rehabilitation. In places such as the North Caucasus, where populations have been subjected to armed conflict or displacement, we consider this component of our health care as especially important.

In Germenchuk, Chechnya, our staffer, Zara Kamurzoeva, recounts the story of a young girl named Toma who lost both her parents in the war.  International Medical Corps recently organized a festival in Germenchuk to help children like Toma deal with the emotional toll of the conflict.

“I love singing and dancing, but celebrations are long gone. Since I lost them, my life has no meaning,” says Toma as she looks at me with her beautiful brown sad eyes. I ask myself, ‘Whom did she lose? What happened?’

We were at a festival organized by International Medical Corps in Germenchuk, Chechnya.,The children put on a play about Chechen culture and traditions. Germenchuk is located near the Chechen capital of Grozny. The school, which was recently restored, is a large modern building constructed in the same place as the old one destroyed during the war. It has over 900 students. The school psychologist, Mairkev Dibaev said, “All the children in the school are very different; there are orphans, disabled children, some from very poor families. They hardly ever get to have fun and celebrations in their lives.”

Toma graduated from this school and was a presenter at the event. She often comes to the school to talk to the psychologist. Her life is a tragedy not uncommon to Chechens. She and her brother, Ruslan, live with their uncle because they lost their parents long ago. She does not even have a picture of her parents.

Toma’s parents and Ruslan could not leave Chechnya during the war because by the time they were ready the route out of the country for refugees was blocked. The children spent the most horrifying moments of their young lives in cellars hiding from bombs. Toma’s father, Musa, tried to find some means to feed the family, or even some clean water but it was difficult to come by. At night they would stay warm by clinging to each other in bed.

One day Musa never returned home. Fatima, Toma’s mother, waited and waited. She could not believe that Musa would not come back one day – smiling. Several days passed. Cold and starving, the children also waited in fear.

Sometime later, the route for refugees opened and Fatima managed to take her children to Ingushetia, where they stayed with relatives in Malgobek. For the first time in weeks, the children could eat until they were full. But the thought of Musa still missing prevented Fatima from sleeping. She went to the Chechen border every day hoping to find him there. She gave information about him on television, radio, asked relatives to help with the search. All was in vain.

Fatima also worried about her children. Toma was ten, and Ruslan just nine. She refused to accept that her husband would not come back, so she found a solution – she would go back to Chechnya and look for him herself. Early in the morning Fatima kissed Toma and Ruslan and told them she was going to look for their dad. And that they would come back together in the evening.Neither returned.

It has been ten years of nightmares and waiting for Toma and Ruslan. They have since finished school and now Toma is a nursing student with dreams of becoming a midwife. Ruslan helps his uncle with his construction business and dreams of building his own house where Toma and he will be safe. They have not lost hope that one-day their mom and dad will open the door of their house and bring back long lost joy and happiness.

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