London conference focuses attention on plight of Chechen children

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Ahmad Musa

Shawwal 28, 1426 2005-12-01

World

by Ahmad Musa (World, Crescent International Vol. 34, No. 10, Shawwal, 1426)

Last month, the British charity MARCCH convened a major conference on “Chechen after Maskhadov”, in cooperation with other Chechen support groups in the UK. It was attended by AHMAD MUSA, a contributor to Crescent International and a supporter of the Save Chechnya Campaign (SCC).

The Britain-based medical charity Medical Aid for the Relief of the Children of Chechnya (MARCCH) held a very successful conference on Chechnya in London on November 25. Held at the Brunei Gallery in association with the Centre of Contemporary Central Asia & the Caucasus (which is part of the School of Oriental and African Studies), the conference brought together distinguished experts on Chechnya to discuss Chechnya's current situation and its future. The title of the conference was "After Maskhadov", in reference to the assassination of AslanMaskhadov, the late Chechen president, by Russian forces earlier this year.

It is now more than a decade since Russia invaded Chechnya. More than ten years of brutal war have devastated every part of Chechen society and killed or displaced at least half of the pre-war population. The destruction and degradation of Grozny and many of Chechnya's towns and villages have frequently been compared to what was inflicted on Stalingrad andDresden in the second world war. Aslan Maskhadov had been chief of staff and masterminded the brilliant re-capture of Grozny in August 1996 that led to the withdrawal of Russian troops. He later won a resounding mandate as president in OSCE-monitored elections that are now regarded as the last free expression of the popular will of the Chechen people.

In the current war Maskhadov was the one voice who called consistently for an unconditional end to the war. So he was lured, on the pretence of negotiations, to the northern Chechenvillage of Tolstoy Yurt, where he was killed in an early-morning raid on March 8 of this year. His murder and the Russians' subsequent refusal to return his body to is family for burial in accordance with Muslim custom were widely condemned.

The conference was a rare and timely opportunity to learn about the circumstances and conditions of this war from specialists in the fields of academia, humanitarian relief, human-rights advocacy and politics. They discussed and explored the outlook for Chechnya after Maskhadov. Laws are being discussed in the Duma, and will probably be rubber stamped, that will severely restrict the ability of foreign NGOs to operate in Russia and Chechnya: this is particularly ominous for what little humanitarian work is being done for Chechnya. With an increasingly constricted global energy supply and the portrayal of the war on Chechnya as part of the wider 'war on terror', Russia has assumed a renewed pre-eminence on the world stage. This transformation will be in sharp focus in 2006 as Russia prepares to host the G8 summit in Moscow.

Each speaker shared with the audience insights and anecdotes from their experiences and knowledge of Chechnya and the prospects for its future. A variety of views were presented on the necessary steps for resolution of this intractable conflict, some of which were the subject of lively discussion. The morning sessions were chaired by Professor Donald Hayfield, Professor of Russian and Georgian at Queen Mary & Westfield College and a founding trustee of MARCCH, who also interpreted for Russian-speaking panellists all day. The afternoon sessions were managed by George Hewitt, Professor of Caucasian Languages at SOAS and also a founding trustee of MARCCH.

Lord Rea, long-time advocate of the Chechen cause and patron of the Save Chechnya Campaign, made the opening remarks. He was followed by Satanay Dorken, chairperson of MARCCH, who gave the opening address and drew the attention of the audience to the dire and unmet needs of Chechnya's children and the work of MARCCH in addressing them. The opening session of the day was on politics, with prominent speakers Lord Judd, former rapporteur for the Council of Europe on Chechnya, and Ahmed Zakayev, former field commander and currently deputy prime minister in the resistance leadership of Abdul Khalim Saidullayev.

Lord Judd condemned the unwillingness of western governments to challenge the Russian government and its leadership on their conduct of the war and their subsequent toleration of widespread abuses of human rights. As former rapporteur for the Council of Europe during the opening years of the war he was the chief interlocutor for the international community in the Chechen conflict. He resigned in disillusionment during the run-up to the Chechen referendum in 2003, which he regarded as flawed and untenable. During his speech he challenged the widely-held opinion that there is little the West can do to influence Russia; he pointed out that in fact the West has never made any real attempt to do so.

Akhmed Zakayev, the representative of the Chechen resistance, delivered his first public speech in English, and showed himself to be an accomplished representative of the Chechen cause. He outlined the key constitutional features of Chechnya's status within the Soviet Union and the nascent years of present-day Russia, and cogently presented the case forChechnya's sovereignty and independence. As such Chechnya had effectively gained her freedom along with neighbouring countries such as Georgia and Azerbaijan during the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, he said, adding that the subsequent conflict should be seen as an international one between two sovereign states. For the rest of the day he answered challenging questions on subjects ranging from Shamil Basayev to the role of the shari'ah in modern-day Chechnya.

The humanitarian panel was a compelling line-up: Dr Khassan Baiev, a surgeon, acclaimed author of The Oath and chairman of ICCC (the International Committee for the Children of Chechnya); Madina Megamadova, chairperson of Mothers of Chechnya; and Dr Natalia Estemirova of Memorial, Grozny. They described at length the crippling effects of the war on the health of the Chechen people. Tuber- culosis is now a major killer: 90 percent of Chechen refugees, most of whom had spent several years in poorly sheltered and crowded tent-accommodation, had contracted TB. Dr Baiev estimates that one in every three babies born in Chechnya has a defect of some sort. These figures are anecdotal because the official health and mortality statistics are a state secret.

The possibility was considered that the defoliation poison known as Agent Orange, or a derivative thereof, has been deployed by Russian forces in Chechnya and could be the cause of the enormous increase in the incidence of birth defects. Again lack of research in this area makes it impossible to reach definite conclusions at the moment. The panellists do agree, however, that the health of the Chechen people and the general environment have been severely compromised by the war, and that a double catastrophe looms unless urgent remedial and rehabilitative action is taken.

Professor Bill Bowring of the London Metropolitan University narrated his recent experiences in being detained for half a day at Moscow Airport, his visa being revoked and his being summarily deported from Russia. As a renowned activist and expert in international law his case illustrates the shrinking limits of Russian tolerance for foreign involvement in the human-rights situation in Russia and Chechnya. It is apparently the Russian government's intention that Chechnya should eventually be completely cut off from the aid and support of the rest of the world.

Vanessa Redgrave was given a prize by Khassan Baiev on behalf of the Vermont Film Festival for her film Russia/Chechnya: Voices of Dissent, which was shown after an introduction by her. Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP for Islington North; Steve Crawshaw, UK Director of Human Rights Watch; Andrew Jack, former head of FT Moscow Bureau and author of Inside Putin'sRussia; Daniel Schreiber of the ICRC; Muhammed Shishani, vice-chair of the Chechen World Congress; Chris Langton, military specialist; Oksana Antonenko of the Institute of International Strategic Studies; and John Russell of Bradford University made up the remaining panellists. Each contributed to an extremely engaging and informative day on Chechnya.

The feedback from the audience was universally positive, with the many attendees staying from 8:30 in the morning to the end of the conference to 7:30 in the evening. Satanay Dorken, the principal organiser, expressed satisfaction with the interest raised: "The conference succeeded in highlighting the dire state of health in Chechnya and in particular the heavy death toll that the spread of tuberculosis is exacting on a daily basis. As a Medical Charity for children we are compelled to act now."

MARCCH (www.marcch.org) is one of the very few attempting to a tackle the dire medical conditions affecting children in Chechnya. MARCCH received a donation of $50,000 from AngelinaJolie, Goodwill ambassador for the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which will enable the charity to commence the process of establishing an orphanage in Grozny. MARCCH is also approaching larger aid-agencies to explore collaborative ways of implementing a vaccination-delivery programme for infants in Chechnya. MARCCH is also exploring avenues whereby children needing specialist care can be sent to centres in the West for treatment. The main achievement of this conference, however, is to prove to people outside Chechnya, especially in the West, how very serious the Chechens' plight now is, and how much help and support (in our money, attention and time) they are going to carry on needing for years and decades to come.

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