(Washington, DC--June 25, 2003) Two officials of the renowned humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) told an RFE/RL audience last week that the basic right to refuge under international humanitarian law -- even the right to flee a war zone -- is being denied to tens of thousands of people from Chechnya. The officials said that their own organization's efforts to assist displaced persons from Chechnya are increasingly hampered by Russian federal authorities and local officials in and near the war zone.
Gabriel Trujillo, Head of Mission for MSF programs in Chechnya and Ingushetia, and Patrice Page, MSF's liaison and program officer at the United Nations, both agreed that there has been a concerted policy since May 2002 -- under what the Russian Federation calls its "Action Plan for Return" -- to push Chechen displaced persons from camps in Ingushetia back into the war zone, while cutting off MSF's ability to provide humanitarian aid to victims of the conflict. The "space has been reduced; people are forced to go back to a zone of war, and there is no possibility for correct assistance [to be provided to them] in Ingushetia," said Trujillo.
Trujillo and Page shared the results of a survey MSF conducted in February 2003 among Chechen displaced persons, which showed that 98 percent of the interviewees did not want to go back to Chechnya, mainly because of the lack of security. But constant intimidation by Russian military units -- now based next to the refugee camps in Ingushetia -- and the denial of basic services by the Ingush and federal authorities has taken its toll, with an estimated 43,000 of 100,000 Chechens leaving the camps to go back to Chechnya since May 2002. Trujillo confirmed, "This is not of their own will. They have no viable alternative to stay; they don't have a choice." Page said that MSF has not been able to check on the returnees, because MSF and other international humanitarian organizations such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are no longer allowed to send personnel into Chechnya.
Among the hundreds of conflicts and disaster areas in which MSF has provided assistance, Trujillo said, "Personally, I know of no other situation where we now have so little contact [with our patients] -- maybe North Korea --where we cannot see our patients in the field." Page concurred, saying, "I've worked in Sudan and Liberia, our expats were there; Why, in this war zone, are we not able to work? We know how to work in a war zone."
Trujillo also spoke of the deteriorating security situation in Ingushetia that has forced MSF to move its field office from Nazran, Ingushetia to the neighboring republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, two hours away from the camps in Ingushetia. "We now work in a climate of constant fear," he said, adding that "before meeting with President Zyazikov [of Ingushetia], I was warned that I was not safe [in Ingushetia]." Page said that if both he and Trujillo could stay in Ingushetia last year and visit Grozny daily, "now we only have remote control; we cannot monitor, we cannot assess... no normal programs to assess what's happening to the civilians."
Trujillo and Page made an appeal for the Russian government to secure the safe release of their colleague, Arjan Erkel, a Dutch national who was kidnapped in Makhachkala, Dagestan by masked men in August 2002. Erkel had been volunteering on a MSF medical aid program in Dagestan, a neighboring republic to Chechnya in the Russian Federation. MSF has been forced to close its program in Dagestan since the kidnapping and the lack of interest by Russian authorities. The MSF representatives asked that persons interested in helping to secure the safe release of Arjan Erkel visit the MSF website at www.msf.org
Founded in 1971, Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres is an international medical humanitarian organization that delivers emergency aid to victims of armed conflict, epidemics, natural and man-made disasters in more than 75 countries. MSF believes that all people have the right to medical care regardless of race, religion, creed or political affiliation. MSF was awarded the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize, in recognition of its "pioneering humanitarian work on several continents."
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