Photo: Simon Roberts
Fatima is not in good shape. She suffers from hypertension. But she is better than she was. Before, she used to get angry about everything. Now she laughs as she explains: ‘When they come in the middle of the night with their masks and guns, and pull us out of bed when we are sleeping with our husbands, I only tremble. I guess I’ve learned to cope better’.
Fatima is talking about the sweep operations conducted by Russian Federation Forces trying to round up Chechen ‘rebels’ – Chechens who have sought independence from Russia during a 10-year bloody conflict. Tens of thousands of combatants on both sides and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians have lost their lives in this conflict. Despite official Russian claims that the situation in Chechnya has ‘normalized’, life there remains far from normal. While major military operations have given way to low-level attritional warfare, civilians are all too often still caught in the crossfire.
In addition, tens of thousands of Chechens remain displaced because their homes have been destroyed or their towns remain insecure. Many are displaced in Chechnya. Many others have sought refuge in neighbouring Ingushetia and Dagestan (both also republics within the Russian Federation).
Over 30,000 Chechens in Ingushetia are now refusing to be pushed back home. Instead they live in derelict buildings such as old canneries or poultry farms that are roughly equipped for human habitation. Their living conditions vary from difficult to unbearable, in overcrowded, dank, dilapidated buildings that enable diseases such as tuberculosis and pneumonia to flourish.
Fatima is one of them. She is the wife of a camp leader in the Karabulak settlement in Ingushetia. Their small wooden shelters stand in rows in the shadow of a factory that now produces vodka. While the camp is a long way from the nearest town, it still does not escape the sweep operations conducted by the Russian forces.
Yet despite the continued violence and the tens of thousands of displaced, the international community has increasingly distanced itself from this conflict. Recently, both the EU and the US refused to introduce a resolution criticizing Russia over Chechnya at the 61st session of the UN Commission on Human Rights.
Not all international organizations have turned their backs on Chechnya. The medical humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has offered extensive assistance to the civilian population in both Chechnya and Ingushetia since the beginning of the conflict.
Fatima is being assisted by MSF. So is her neighbour, who moved here a couple of years ago from Komsomolskaya in Chechnya after masked gunmen killed her husband in their front yard. Both her young children witnessed their father being killed. Both are now receiving counseling.
Each displaced Chechen has a story to tell. Most have lost at least one relative in the conflict and nearly all have been threatened or have witnessed violence. Click here to read the full story of their plight.