Aerial view of war-ravaged Grozny.
After the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991, many of the ethnic and minority groups on the outskirts of the surrounding areas began to secede and declare themselves newly independent republics. The first three to do so were Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia—the southernmost of the Soviet republics. The area to the north of these republics continued to be a part of the new Russian federation, although the people of this area were not Russians but rather ethnic Muslims. As time went on, several of the ethnic groups in this area began to press for their autonomy from Russia. The Chechens were one of the most outspoken of these ethnic groups.
Today, the new republics comprise an area in southeast Europe called the
Caucasus. Located in the northern tip of the Caucasus is Chechnya,
situated in the Caucasus Mountains. Chechnya extends from west to east for
about 600 miles between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. One thousand
miles to the south of Moscow, the republics of Dagestan, Georgia, North
Ossetia and South Ossetia surround Chechnya.
Background: The Chechen War
During the past decade, Chechnya has been ravaged by an ongoing war with Russia. The sides’ stances are highly polarized from one another and this has intensified the climate of the war. The Chechens’ efforts to gain independence stand in stark contrast to Russia’s claims of absolute sovereignty over the republic. However, these polarized standpoints have led each side to commit severe human rights abuses during the war, completely obscuring the reasoning that lay behind both the Chechen and Russian positions. This has made the conflict very difficult to understand for anyone not directly involved.
Thousands of people, many of whom are children, have become refugees due to the ongoing war in Chechnya. Here, children who have settled in Ingushetia await the day they can return home.
Although the middle of 2000 saw a decline in the amount of
large-scale military action in Chechnya, aggression from each side still
causes civilians to be the victims of this unrelenting conflict. Landmines
have become one of the staple weapons of the war and have been used at
great lengths by both Russian and Chechen forces. Extensive use of
landmines throughout the conflict has left the Chechen region a grim and
bloodied place where the population struggles with this dilemma on a
day-to-day basis. The people who are affected the most are the estimated
300,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) who have been moving to
refugee camps and settlements in the neighboring area of Ingushetia. Once
these people reach the camps, they usually remain. The main reason for
their unwillingness to leave a camp is an absence of safety, for often the
IDPs are the ones who stumble upon hidden mines. Experts have claimed that
Chechnya has at least half a million UXO hidden throughout its roads,
forests and countryside.1 As Russian and Chechen troops have
moved across the republic, they have often left behind these forgotten
The conflict between Chechnya and Russia has not existed only during the past decade; the historical context of this war can be traced back more than 200 years. Throughout history, Russians have made many attempts to increase their territorial acquisitions into the Caucasus. Russia’s desire to conquer this region initiated a series of battles and ultimately led to the Crimean War (1853–56) against the inhabitants of Chechnya. The Chechens, who maintain a strong sense of self-identity, struggled long and hard to reclaim their freedom and independence. However, Russia’s strength prevailed, leading to the capture of the Chechens’ homeland and the overall annexation of Chechnya at the time of the Czar in 1859. This is one of the underlying causes for the great deal of hatred between the two groups.
In September 1991, an event took place that rekindled the
tension between the two neighbors. It was at this time that Chechnya
declared itself a republic independent of Russia and espoused the name the
Chechen Republic “Ichkeria.” After that, relations between Russia and
Chechnya drastically deteriorated until December 11, 1994, when Russian
troops were dispatched to Chechnya and fighting between both sides
commenced. That portion of the war went on until 1996, when major fighting
from both sides discontinued. In early August 1999, Chechen groups began
harassing Russian towns and villages as the Chechens crossed over into the
neighboring republic of Dagestan. These groups declared their desire to
bring Chechnya and Dagestan together as an independent Islamic state. This
situation renewed the fighting and has led to the current situation.
Current Mine Situation
Grasping an understanding of the extent of the landmine problem in Chechnya today is difficult. With the war at hand in the Chechen republic, gathering landmine information is virtually impossible. For the most part, the information is inaccessible because landmines are disseminated by both Russian and Chechen forces everyday to complicate the rebuilding of road and railway infrastructures, electrical communication supply lines and other infrastructures of this type. Aida Ailarova, an expert with the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF)-funded National Office of Mine Action in Vladikavkaz, states, “Both sides use mines very extensively. Even if the war stopped tomorrow, it would take years to make Chechnya safe. But as long as the conflict continues, no one will seriously begin demining operations.”2 With this war taking place, a proper Level 1 Impact Survey could not be administered in order to obtain an assessment of the landmine problem. According to investigative research of Russian, Chechen and other military news conducted by Zarema Mazaeva, a researcher for the Landmine Monitor, estimates state that approximately 3,860 explosive devices (such as radio-controlled fuses, self-made explosive devices, artillery shells and grenades) were neutralized between January 1, 2002, and April 8 of 2002.3 Unfortunately, the landmine situation is not getting any better and it is spreading out into other regions within the Caucasus. Chechen forces have begun to spread the mine warfare into the Dagestan territory and other border villages. Chechens have been blasting combat vehicles and checkpoints throughout this region and engineers have unarmed many landmines planted by their forces over the past couple of months. Now, it is estimated that up to 100,000 hectares of arable land throughout Chechnya still need mine clearance.4
Aside from this, the victim toll is another hazy matter to decipher. Although there are estimates on this subject written in publications such as the Landmine Monitor, the number of victims registered by Monitor reports would not give an exact picture of the situation. Zarema Mazaeva explains, “There is no institute that would deal with the given problem specially and would regularly collect information on the injured as well as the mined territories.”5 Nevertheless, estimates of the civilian count are still distressing. Since the beginning of this year, it has been documented that more than 300 civilians have been injured in Chechnya by landmines according to the Republican Ministry for Civil Defense and Emergencies.6 To paint a picture of the overall victim toll since the beginning of the war, international aid agencies claim that there are at least 10,000 mine victims in Chechnya—4,000 of which are children—that are in dire need of physical therapy, prosthetics or psychological counseling.7 Chechnya has traditionally been one of the poorest of the Soviet republics. Although there are hospitals throughout the region, there is currently only one clinic in the north Caucasus region actually capable of providing prosthetic care—the UN-funded Prosthetics Workshop in Vladikavkaz, which is not far from the war zone. Unfortunately, this clinic can only handle about 15 patients a week. When one takes into consideration that a growing child needs to have his or her prosthesis refitted every six months, it becomes exceedingly obvious that Chechnya needs as much help as it can get.
A villager inspects the rubble of his once standing house.
Current Mine Action
Aid workers claim that little will be changed as long as the war goes on in Chechnya. Despite this, many groups and governmental organizations have been concentrating their efforts on creating new methods to raise landmine awareness and improve victim assistance. The overall bulk of mine awareness has been aimed at children and adolescents. All around Chechnya and the surrounding republics, posters, leaflets and school kits have been circulated, mainly targeting the displaced children living in these regions. UNICEF and the Chechen education ministry have been working on a new course that will be added to the Chechen school curriculum. This will educate children about the various types of mines and how to move around throughout the dangerous republic. Charity groups and UN agencies have been involved with distributing wheelchairs, crutches, corsets and walking sticks to mine victims as well.
The World Health Organization
The World Health Organization has put forth great efforts to continue on with its emergency assistance program for the North Caucasus region. This assistance program has been running for two years now and aims to diminish the adverse health conditions of the people affected by the conflict. According to the WHO newsletter, “Health Action in the North Caucasus,” current mine action has included:
UNICEF, alongside local non-governmental organization (NGO) Voice of the Mountains, has been conducting mine risk education presentations to schoolchildren in Ingushetia and Chechnya. These lessons on landmine education are taught to children through theater performances and other entertaining activities.
In addition to landmine education, Voice of the Mountains has been working on registering mine/UXO victims in Chechnya for vocational training, which commenced in the beginning of June.
WHO and the Vladikavkaz prosthetic workshop have agreed to expand their program of prosthetic care to Chechen adult amputees and to carry out prosthetic assistance to about 40 adult war victims. By early April, it was planned that the first group of 10 Chechen amputees would be fitted for new prosthetics.
The dual WHO/UNICEF program on assisting child mine victims with prostheses has been confirmed. Sixty Chechen children have received prostheses within the outline of this program.
As stated in the WHO newsletter, “ICRC announced that the prosthetic center in Grozny would be re-opened in mid-July. Meanwhile, the training of three selected prosthetic technicians continues in Sochi in manufacturing and fitting prosthesis, to make them available as soon as the center starts receiving the patients.”8
In the latter part of the 1990s, HALO Trust’s effort in mine clearance was something that went unparalleled. According to the HALO Trust website, “HALO Trust was the only organization to maintain a viable program in Chechnya and by late 1999, the program employed over 150 Chechen staff with integrated manual and mechanical mine clearance teams.”9 However, as Chechnya plunged further into violence, their efforts had to be suspended. Today, mine clearance is imperative, and currently HALO Trust is awaiting the chance they will be able to return and continue on with the demining program.
As long as the war between Russia and Chechnya grinds on, the region of the North Caucasus will constantly bear witness to many of the brutal effects of landmine use. Because mines are a cheap and easy method to accomplish the goals of both Chechen and Russian forces, many will be planted every day. Hundreds of civilians will continually be uprooted by the fighting and forced to flee to mine-infested terrain, leading to a victim toll that is always on the rise. Until the fighting subsides, humanitarian demining will not commence. With the landmine awareness programs that have been launched in the schools, there is some hope that the many children who normally would fall victim to landmines will be well-informed of the lethal situation.
1. Weir, Fred. “Chechen Conflict Festers with Use of Landmines.” Christian Science Monitor. (February 6,2002.)
3. Private E-mail Correspondence from Zarema Mazaeva. (June 20, 2002.)
4. MgM Demining Network alert: “Over 300 Wounded by Mine Blasts in Chechnya in 2002.” ITAR-TASS News. (June 18,2002.)
5. Private E-mail Correspondence from Zarema Mazaeva. (June 14, 2002.)
6. Supra Note 3.
7. Supra Note 1.
8. World Health Organization Europe homepage: http://par.who.dk/. “Health Action in the North Caucasus.” (February/March 2002.)
9. HALO Trust website. http://www.halousa.org/cauc.html. “The Caucasus.”
*All photos from “Deadlock: Russia’s Forgotten War” produced by CNN/Azimuth Media.
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