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A new war in Chechnya sees the New Zealander Rendt Gorter abandoning a promising SCUBA diving school, and returning once again to the North Caucasus. Heading a large relief operation of a major relief organisation on the ground in Chechnya and Ingushetia, he finds the needed professional distance distracted by having know this haunted land too well when he worked there from 1995 to 1997 during the previous conflict. In this series he reflects on his personal experience in a war that has been largely ignored by the world.
The men had already been sitting together for a long time. Another round of coffee was being passed around. The faces turned attentively as each spoke in turn. All shared the same concern: Chechnya
"There is shooting every night in Grozny. And the Russian soldiers at the checkpoints when we passed were really strung out. The military passes we received last week don't feel like much protection."
A VHF radio in the adjacent room could be heard. Footsteps sounded and the noise subsided.
"A couple of days ago, our car was held up for hours at a checkpoint, and then by the time the next one was reached, it was closed for the night. They had to spend the night with a relative of the driver in a small village some way back along the road."
"We'll need to go in carefully," said the head of one UN operation.
In another street of Nazran, real refugees from neighbouring Chechnya were also working through the same discussion.
"We sent Aisha in to assess the security situation." Magomed carefully placed his cup on the floor and ran his hand through his hair. "In her opinion the conditions remain too unpredictable. A night-time incident at a checkpoint, and be it a mere sniper attack, is sufficient to draw all sorts of repercussions for the civilians present in the area."
Nazir frowned. "Do you think the military pose a threat to us? We have been promised safe access."
"I am concerned that a simple inconsistency in the personal identification papers, or refusing to present an asked for gift, provides enough excuse to cause serious difficulties. And if we are not present ourselves, how can we be confident that such problems would not develop into a dangerous situation for our people?"
''Previously, our concern was to earn a little money to buy bread. Now we think how to earn money and remain alive,'' said Yakha, who had recently returned from inside Chechnya.
Back at the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] offices, the radio came to life again and announced the safe arrival of another car. The heads of mission of the few aid organisations present in Nazran had gathered here to discuss the situation for relief work in Chechnya.
"This is the context we are operating in. The conflict is continuing, albeit low level, but unpredictable and with real risks to involve civilians as well as the few aid workers that actually enter the territory. There are ambushes of army columns, attacks of military positions and armed stand-offs occurring just about every day. Five incidents were reported yesterday alone, supposedly with dozens of casualties. Artillery and air attacks target suspected rebel concentrations but inevitably involve collateral damage. The Interfax news agency quoted the military as saying that Russian fixed-wing assault planes took to the air 16 times in the last 24 hours to blast rebel targets while army helicopters carried out 30 missions.
"While it has been possible to visit on day trips, we are feeling very unsure about spending the night anywhere. You never know what situation may develop overnight.
"Remote controlled mines are being reported more and more. While these are theoretically more targeted than the many land mines accumulating in areas civilians find themselves in, they are nevertheless of serious concern. Even when utilised strictly against military targets, civilians may also get injured, or more likely get caught in any ensuing cross-fire.
"In the last few days, Russian forces reportedly found explosives in four different locations. It doesn't really matter whether the number is correct, but what matters is that it highlights the kind of conflict we are now witnessing.
"Even people who did not leave the republic under the bombings have started to come here to neighbouring Ingushetia, or try to go even further, if they have the opportunity. We have been drawing up plans with the Ingush authorities, in particular the Ministry of Emergency Situations, on how to care for the over two hundred thousand displaced here in this small republic into the next winter. And that is still many months away. And while there are no clear signs from either side preparing the way to resolve this conflict, this is a sad but very necessary preparation.
"The first conflict in 1995 saw the arrival of Muslim extremism --- especially the Wahabi kind, and foreign fighters, such as the infamous Khattab, flocking to the new "Jihad" against non-believers.
"While it is one thing to see Chechnya used as the battleground of foreign ideologies, it is very disconcerting to have seen extremist thinking taking root in a population pushed so close to the brink. As this society that was so heavily cemented by respect for elder leaders, family links and mountain traditions was, and is, being torn apart by now 5 years of devastating disruption, it can be no surprise to see more and more often innocently young Chechens embracing radical thinking. The most frightening sign of this, has been the recent appearance of suicide bombings. In a culture where level-headedness was arguably a national characteristic, such self-sacrifice is a sign of desperation that speaks of a 'cancer' in this society that may have well progressed to a stage that is near uncurable."
It had been a long day, and without having to come to any conclusions, the meetings came to an end.
"This war is far from over, isn't it?" asked the UNHCR head of no-one-in-particular as everybody got up to leave.
And as the eldest of the refugees shook the hands of each of the departing visitors in turn, he replied to the unheard question: "The war will go on for long this time. Let's be careful and hope that Allah has mercy on us. Good bye, my friends."
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