When did you last visit Chechnya and how did the situation differ from that of your last trip?
My last visit to Chechnya was around two years ago and I noticed big changes since then. The rebuilding that is taking place in Grozny has been well documented in the international media and it is all true. It is almost like Dubai in that you see all these big fancy projects going up, but, the reality is that inside these buildings, whether they are apartment blocks, or offices, they are not finished. People are not moving back. There are no signs of life, no laundry hanging on balconies, no plants, or bikes. It is still a bit unoccupied and there is an eeriness. You don’t see many normal people. You see security and police, but very few normal people. There is no feeling of normalcy.
That said it has become much safer and more stable over the last few months in Grozny. In Ingushetia there has been an upscale in the violence and people think that it could get really bad though I hope not.
IR did have a number of projects in Chechnya and now it only runs the Orphan’s Programme. Why is this?
We are re-vamping the programme. The World Food Programme (WFP) has been our biggest partner, donor and implementer for years and that had been our focus, but they are no longer partnering us as they are leaving the North Caucasus region. We are currently recruiting new programme staff and hoping for new initiatives.
What are the biggest issues facing the people of Chechnya?
The lack of security (which we can’t do much about) and the lack of income. These people have no means of income and don’t receive support as people in their position in other countries would. In the past Chechnya was a strong and healthy republic and its people are tough and reluctant to ask for aid. There are few agencies on the ground, most left after the war “ended”. The lack of accessibility does make it a nightmare, but IR remains active.
Where exactly did you visit?
I visited the No. 1 primary school in Alkhan-Kala, the Yagnenok Orphanage in Grozny and IR’s regional office.
The school has kind of been forgotten about. The government is putting money into schools, providing them with computers etc, but because of its location this one seems to have been left out.
The head mistress is extremely dedicated to the school and was gushing about IR. Through its work with the WFP IR Russian Federation has previously provided hot meals, kitchen and computer equipment to the school.
You feel a stronger concern from the teachers there than in the rest of the world. They remember the days when Chechnya was a strong republic and people had a good standard of life and they want to see that return. They want to provide the children with opportunities, and don’t want to see them either emigrate or turn to extremist groups. They want to give them a future outside violence.
The lady who runs the orphanage is also amazingly committed. The children are treated like her own kids. They are disciplined, but there is a sense of love and comfort that you don’t normally feel in such places. The kids were immaculately turned out; beautifully scrubbed, in clean, pressed clothes. I felt guilty because they had obviously spent such a long time preparing for our visit which, due to schedules and security, was so short. The kids were so excited to see us. They put on a performance and prepared little speeches about themselves and their traditional culture. They performed traditional dances. It hurt seeing the kids happy and smiling, knowing that we would be leaving and they would have to stay there.
The issue of orphanages in Chechnya is a contentious one. The government don’t want orphanages; they want extended family to be traced so that the children can live with them. This means that the remaining orphanages receive very little funding. The concept is frowned upon. Yagnenok takes in kids from all across the North Caucus; I met two brothers who were from Georgia. It is famous for its quality of care, but the conditions are really rough. I don’t know how anyone sleeps in those bedrooms. There is just bunk bed after bunk bed with not more than two feet between the beds and the ceiling is just above their heads. There is just one room for the boys and one for the girls. The bathroom would be a reasonable size if it were for two or three. Then there is a small kitchen and a dining room. By far the biggest and cleanest room was the one we distributed the parcels in. Besides the stuff we bought I saw little in the way of toys or equipment. There was a small yard which contained a play area, but very little. We brought some rollerblades and some of the kids put them on and were able to skate (I was worried they were going to break their necks) and I thought “OK, so you probably went ice-skating in your life before.” You wonder, “What have you seen in your lives to end up here?”
Was that IR’s first involvement with the orphanage?
We have been involved with the orphanage since 2005; offering the children sponsorship aid in terms of seasonal clothing, food parcels and toys. We have also been delivering Ramadan boxes since 2006 and Qurbani since 2007.
How did the children and staff respond to the distribution that took place?
They were obviously happy and excited and I was happy to see them have one Eid day, a chance for kids to feel like kids and have a special day like we all had growing up. To see and be part of that made me feel good, but it was tempered with sadness and a feeling of “What more can we do?” For every orphanage like this there are tens of thousands all over the world that are not getting any help.
What would your message to potential donors be regarding the situation in Chechnya?
The Chechen people don’t want to feel forgotten. Incidents like the Beslan massacre and the Moscow Theatre Siege have made their plight worse. The people feel forgotten by the outside world, due to the entry restrictions and security problems, and as the war gets further and further in the past the Chechens get further from people’s minds. People there constantly appealed to me to let people here know that they still need help and support from us.