As freezing temperatures descend on the northern Caucasus, Chechen civilians who have fled to Ingushetia now face life-threatening situations.
Administrators of the Sleptsovsk-North camp, which is run by displaced persons, told Human Rights Watch today that two children who had caught cold in November died from a lack of basic medicine and treatment. One child was eight months old, the other two years old.
The Russian authorities have maintained that there is "no humanitarian disaster" in the northern Caucasus. But the latest research by a team of Human Rights Watch investigators in Ingushetia confirms that the humanitarian disaster in the northern Caucasus is in fact extensive, and getting worse.
"The federal authorities in Moscow are still trying to sanitize what is happening," said Holly Cartner, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia Division. "It's unconscionable to engage in this kind of propaganda when so much suffering is obviously going on."
More than 7,000 displaced persons are crowded into 124 railway wagons in the Sleptsovsk-North camp. Each railway car has space for 54 people, although some cars are housing up to 70. Many of the wagons until recently lacked heat altogether. Others have a weak, water-based heating system which is working at under half capacity; persistent leaks and a sporadic water supply threaten to bring the system to a full halt. Last week, wood stoves were delivered to those wagons with no heating system at all, but the Federal Migration Service, which is the Russian government body responsible for displaced people, has failed to supply wood or coal on a regular basis.
Due to intensified hostilities in Chechnya, the displaced continue to flow into the camp at a rate of 30-40 per day, but overcrowding forces many to sleep outside in the cold. A woman named Haida, who has since been relocated to Wagon No. 54, recounted how she and her children were forced to sleep outside for eleven days in mid-November. Many children and the elderly are stricken with colds and dysentery. In Wagon No. 67, Zura, a Grozny resident, said that all of the children were sick and suffer from constant coughing.
The displaced in the Sleptsovsk-North camp also lack warm clothing and bedding, soap, cooking supplies and facilities, medicine, baby food, blankets, shoes (particularly for children), as well as psychological support.
About 175,000 displaced people are being hosted in the homes of local people in Ingushetia, where the total population is only 347,000. According to a representative of one of the few international aid organizations working in the region, displaced people staying in private homes also lack basic supplies.
On November 10, Human Rights Watch and Memorial, a leading Russian human rights organization, sent a joint later to the Minister of Emergency Situations, Sergei Shoigu, urging redress for the desperate conditions in Sleptsovsk-North. Human Rights Watch researchers visited the facility on November 15, documenting all of the conditions described above. Since that time, Federal Migration Service officials have repeatedly stated that aid is on the way. On a visit yesterday (December 1), Human Rights Watch researchers found no change in basic conditions in Sleptsovsk-North in the last two weeks.
Meanwhile, people fleeing Chechnya continue to be subjected to bombardment along their escape routes and solicited for bribes by Russian forces at checkpoints and border crossings. Human Rights Watch collects almost daily testimony on these abuses, as well as on sporadic closures of the Ingush-Chechen border, which sometimes leave those traveling in either direction stranded in the cold and snow for two or three days.
Human Rights Watch called on the Russian authorities to ensure protection and assistance for the internally displaced in Ingushetia. It urged the government to ensure full and unimpeded access for international agencies, as well as necessary security, in order provide protection and assistance to internally displaced persons in Chechnya, Ingushetia, and other parts of Russia.
Human Rights Watch also urged international donors to respond generously to the $16.2 million United Nations Inter-Agency Flash Appeal for the northern Caucasus.