I’m a retired professor of psychology who after retirement 1n 1995 volunteered to work with the University of Missouri, International Center for Psychosocial Trauma. I traveled into trauma zones such as Bosnia and Palestine working with physicians, teachers and mental health workers training them in treatment methods to use with traumatized children. Rather than individual therapy we focused on techniques that can be used with groups.
My first personal contact with the problems in Chechnya was during a training program in the trauma psychology in Moscow in 1998. The participants were from a number of former USSR countries and some that had not yet split off. One area that wanted independence was Chechnya and a team of Chechen psychologists and psychiatrists who were participants had joined me in discussions outside the classroom and talked freely about conditions in their “country.”
The following summer Kuri Idrisov, a psychiatrist, and Khapta Akhmedova, a psychologist, joined us on the campus of the University of Missouri for our regular summer training program in Trauma. They did a presentation on post-war psychological problems in Chechnya. Russia and Chechnya went back to war with each other shortly thereafter. Because of their problems with English, I helped Kuri and Khapta translate their presentation. Besides presenting a history of the relationship with Russia, they gave a detailed description of the use of torture by the Russians. I found working on the presentation with colleagues who had treated these victims a harrowing experience.
About that time the team had been given funds to run a training program for helping professionals in Chechnya, but given the dangers in the area the Russians refused us entry. It was a year later before we could make arrangements to meet with professionals from Chechnya in Istanbul, Turkey.
The first report in this section is background on the Chechnya-Russian conflict, and the latter two reports are based on our contacts with the Chechen professionals and refugees in Istanbul.
CHECHNYA, RUSSIA UNABLE, UNWILLING TO COMPROMISE (Part 1)
In October, 2002, a group of 40 terrorists/freedom fighters seized a crowded Moscow theatre and demanded the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya. After a two-and-a-half-day siege Russian authorities pumped an unnamed chemical agent into the building’s ventilation system and raided it. Forty of the Chechens were killed and 129 of the hostages. Many others were made seriously ill by the gas.
Russian President Putin tried to tie this act in with international terrorism. Chechens I have talked to, on the other hand, saw the actions of their people in a different light. Their actions are internal to Russia and taken in pursuit of freedom for their “country.” This situation is very different from the external terrorism threat that we in America face and probably more serious in terms of the number of people who will die before it is resolved.
Sources of conflict
Because of its oil resources and its position controlling access to the Black Sea, the province of Chechnya is critical to Russia’s economy. When times are peaceful, the area has operating oil refineries, natural gas and pipeline transit. An independent Chechnya would be damaging not only to Russia, but also to the people who live there.
Chechens are a Caucasian people who have been abused by Russian governments since the first half of the 19th century. Frequent attempts have been made during the last 200 years to repress Chechens, culminating in Josef Stalin dissolving the republic in 1944 and ruthlessly deporting hundreds of thousands of its leading citizens to Kazakhstan. Unprepared for the move, many died during the first winter.
Thirteen years later, Nikita Khruschev allowed those who were still alive to return home. This kind of treatment added to the anger of the Chechen people. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the resistance to Russian control again broke into the open, and there was the war of 1994-96. Similar to the situation the Russians faced in Afghanistan, warlords fought for control. The war devastated the republic, and more than 80,000 people died, a considerable part of a population of about 1 million. More sinister, however, is the fact that, with the Russians driven out, it became a major training ground for the Russian Mafia, which is now reportedly run by Chechens.
When I was in Moscow with the International Center for Psychosocial Trauma in 1998, I met with the faculty of the police academy in Moscow. Because of my book, Stress Management for Law Enforcement Officers I was known to the police training academy in Moscow who were using a bootleg version of my book in one of their classes.
They admitted organized crime was a major problem in Russia. The police felt there was no way they could do much about the leading criminals because the protection of so many people in high places had been bought. If cooperation couldn’t be bought, the resisters were killed. It appeared to be common knowledge that Chechens were in control of organized crime, having done away with the competition.
Through the years, the Russians had either kept competent Chechens out of power or had deposed those who came to power. The only way for an intelligent Chechen to get power was outside the system. Their brightest men seemed to take naturally to the skills required for successful organized crime. The corruption hit a growth spurt during the period of peace after the outbreak of resistance in the mid-1990s. The Chechen Mafia spread its power out over the country. Many moved to Moscow and bought the services of influential people in Moscow. Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, became a center for criminal activity.
Law and order were nonexistent in the republic, so smuggling became a prime income producer. The Moscow police told me this actually benefited the larger economy because without Chechen organized crime, the economy would have been totally under the control of corrupt government officials and would have ground to a halt. Besides commercial goods like cars, the Mafia also trafficked in narcotics and kidnapped foreigners for ransom.
Although there was money to be made in oil and the transportation of products to the Black Sea, the Russians had not allowed these industries to be open to young entrepreneurs who were Chechen. Hostage-taking became a source of income and could almost be considered a cottage industry in Chechnya.
A young mental health worker from Chechnya whom I met in Moscow had been in an apartment with a group that included agency workers from outside the country. The door suddenly slammed open, and masked men with guns rushed in. Her first thought was that this was a training exercise, and it took a few minutes before she appreciated the seriousness of the situation. The men took several of the outsiders to hold for ransom. At the time I talked to her, they had not been returned and she was suffering from a post-traumatic reaction.
The taking of hostages at the theater in Moscow to put pressure for freedom on the government was a continuation of this kind of guerrilla warfare. At this point our trauma team was invited to train Chechnya mental health workers and teachers, but because of the danger of hostage-taking we would not be allowed into the republic. Instead it was planned that the trainees would come to us in Ingushetia.
The failure of the Russian army
During the war in the mid-1990s, the Russians sent in troops who were poorly trained, poorly led and in many cases not as well armed as the Chechens. When the Communists pulled out after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, they left a significant number of weapons. When the warlords and the Mafia took over, they were able to arm their troops well. Some weapons such as anti-tank rockets were sophisticated and devastated parts of the Russian army. They bought some of their arms from the Russian soldiers fighting them, who used the money to buy vodka.
The military tactics used by the Chechens, like those in Afghanistan, bewildered the Russians. Out of frustration, some of the Russian troops engaged in atrocities that turned Chechens who would have supported the government against them.
A Chechen psychiatrist we worked with reported that many of his clients had been victims of Russian torture. This failure of the Russian army also had a negative effect on the troops. One of the problems our informants in Moscow talked about was the number of post-traumatic stress reactions the returning Russian soldiers were suffering.
On Oct. 1, 1999, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia officially declared war on Chechnya. Russia wanted to re-establish its control over the Caucasus even if it had to kill every Chechen. A large part of the population, 200,000 people fled the fighting and went to Ingushetia.
The ordinary Chechen citizen was caught between two forces that showed little evidence of backing off. Both sides were blind to the needs of the other, with Russia being blinder than the Chechens. As a result, freedom fighters/terrorists are likely to plague Russia for some time to come.
CHECHNYA/RUSSIA CONFLICT Part 2
In part one I talked about my first experience with the Chechnya/Russian conflict, which centered around my contacts with the Moscow police training academy and two professionals from Chechnya who had worked with Chechnya victims of the conflict. In this section I talk about some of the experiences of Chechnya survivors of the conflict. Our team from the University of Missouri International Center for Psychosocial Trauma had been turned down for working in a number of other countries before it was decided we would meet with our teachers and doctors in Istanbul, Turkey. Refugees had also settled there and some of them became participants in our training program.
MENTAL HEALTH WORKERS TRY TO HELP REFUGEES FLEEING THE RUSSIAN PROVINCE
A Chechen doctor speaks:
"In 1995 when Grozny," the capital of Chechnya, "was bombed, I was in my last year in medical school in Volgograd. In two hours I was packed and, with four other Chechen students, I went to defend the city.
"In every city we formed groups of military. All women and children fled to Ingushetia. We didn’t have a leader, so we were not well organized. Then the Russian soldiers came to our village. My father insisted I go back to medical school because, as a doctor, I could be of more help to my people. My brother and father said they would stay and fight to save the village.
"When I got back to Volgograd, the soldiers arrested me. They wanted to know if I had been fighting. I was able to get documents that said I had been sick for three months. That and my friends all supporting me allowed me to finish medical school.
When I got back to the university, I faced much hostility. People were always saying, ‘The only good Chechen is a dead Chechen."
The last statement from the physician, who now lives in Istanbul, was one I was to hear from a number of the seven professionals I interviewed on my trip to Istanbul. Like the doctor, they also worried about being overheard even by fellow Chechens, and when anyone moved close to us, they would fall silent. None of my Chechen interviewees wanted their names used because of the danger to their relatives still in Chechnya or Ingushetia.
When the doctor first got his degree, he worked in Russia in a hospital. His life was made difficult by constant surveillance. Listening and visual devices were put in his room, and the police frequently hassled him. At that point, he made arrangements to legally move to Turkey.
"I had a post-traumatic stress disorder when I first came to Turkey," he said. He described nightmares and flashbacks, and he later approached me after a dinner to talk of his tremendous guilt about not staying in Chechnya and fighting the Russians. He feels that he let his people down and that he should have been willing to die. It was of some help for him to be reassured that he will be more valuable to his people as a trained doctor than as a dead, forgotten hero.
Perhaps as many as a quarter of Chechnya’s 1.2 million residents were killed in the ongoing war with Russia. About half the population had fled the country, but they were living in conditions far short of adequate in housing, food and education for their children.
My informants said Chechens disappear routinely, particularly young men, and only occasionally are their bodies found. When I brought up torture with one of the women doctors, she said, "That’s too political, I don’t want to talk about it." Later, another informant, willing to go into more detail, indicated the torture of prisoners was common and often the bodies are blown up afterward to destroy evidence of torture.
Villages that might have fighters were destroyed, which left nowhere for Chechens to live if they wished to remain in the country. The situation was complicated by an influx of outside terrorists who, in their desire to help fight the Russians, make the situation worse.
The stories I heard were supported by a United Nations panel’s Nov. 7, 2003 report. It sharply criticized human rights violations in Russia, highlighting the impunity of security forces in Chechnya. The committee said in its report that it was "deeply concerned about continuing substantiated reports of human rights violations in the Chechen Republic, including extra judicial killings, disappearances and torture including rape."
The University of Missouri International
Center for Psychosocial Trauma
The United States Institute of Peace had provided funds for the UMC International Center for Psychosocial Trauma to work with Chechens. Director Arshad Husain, a child psychiatrist at the UMC medical school, had hoped to go to Chechnya to train mental health workers and teachers to work with traumatized children. Given the ongoing fighting in Chechnya, he was told a better place to do training would be the neighboring Russian province of Ingushetia, where 200,000 Chechens have fled during the current conflict. They were living in makeshift refugee camps with few amenities and muddy playgrounds for their children.
The Russian government refused to grant visas for us to visit. The situation dragged on, and we were told the money we had been granted by the institute would be withdrawn if we did not find some way to use it. A contact in London helped Husain establish a contact in Turkey, where some refugee camps existed in Istanbul. Arrangements could be made to bring a group of 20 teachers and mental health workers from refugee camps in Ingushetia, and eight professionals from the camps in Turkey could join us.
The arrangement sounded ideal. The center team, which also included educator Venetta Whitaker from UMC and Gail Baker, Andra Ferguson and Rose Procter from Royal Oaks Hospital, would face a minimum of risk. The Chechen professionals would get training plus a break from their present dire living conditions.
When we arrived in Istanbul, we found our training conditions were less than ideal. The large, bare training room was cold, and our translator had to be able to speak English, Russian, Turkish and Chechen. Our translator for the first two days had a minimum understanding of English and had stage fright, which prevented him from speaking loudly. The only audio-visual equipment was an overhead projector, and our student body included fewer teachers and mental health workers and more professionals in related areas like administration.
There were five journalists in the group of 20 visitors from Ingushetia. Why so many journalists? It was difficult for mental health workers and teachers to get permission to leave the area, but Russians are leery of the damage to their image under communism, when they tried to control the media. Now they bend over backward to show they have become democratic and believe in freedom of information and personal rights.
The picture they were trying to project, however, did not conform to reality. Within Chechnya, there were tight restrictions on what reporters can see and report. For example, they were not allowed into the villages destroyed by the Russian army to interview survivors. The participants, even those who did not have direct therapeutic contact with traumatized children and adults, said our workshops would help them when they returned to the refugee camps. Even though training conditions were not ideal, we felt we made a difference.
Who are these refugees?
The southern part of the old Soviet Union was a veritable Babel Tower of languages and ethnic groups in conflict not only with the Soviet Union but with each other over territorial claims and old injustices. The one thing they had in common was their dislike of Russian rule. Some of these areas, like Georgia, became separate countries after the breakup of the Soviet Union, but seven groups remain provinces within Russia, including Chechnya and Ingushetia.
Both groups have a long history of resisting Russian rule and have been heavily punished for this resistance. When Stalin was conducting his purges in the 1930s, he had the leaders in this area killed. During World War II, many people in the area sided with the Germans, resulting in almost 400,000 of them being deported to Siberia. In 1957, those still alive returned, but by then many who had been left behind had moved with other Caucasians to other countries. Two million of them moved to Turkey.
The Caucasus Foundation, or Kafkas Vakfi, which supported our visit and provided space for our refugee students and us, was started by Turks who came from the North Caucasus in 1864. Although there are 20 different Caucasian ethnic groups, they feel that they have a common heritage and that Russia is a common enemy. Chechens are one of those groups.
In 1995, recognizing the difficulties their cultural groups were having in Russia, the Caucasus Foundation re-established relationships with Caucasians in Russia. They wanted to share some of what they had earned but limited their help to those who are suffering from war and were careful that what they did was not seen as military aid.
Besides giving help to refugees, they were lobbying in Europe to get Russia to stop its attacks on their subject people. They wanted a solution that stops the war. The organization supports Chechnya independence. The foundation doesn’t have the money to give as much help as is needed, but it has become a central resource for those who want to give additional aid and supplies.
"The Russians say that the only good Chechen is a dead Chechen, especially if it is a male. "I went to the University of Grozny and became a mechanical engineer. It was there I learned English. "I lived in Grozny, but at the beginning of the war, and I moved to my parents’ village. Then the Russians came to our village; they took 28 young people from our village. They just disappeared, and no one knows what happened to them.
"I had been wounded as a civilian in the last war by planes that came with bombs. If you have wounds, you have a problem because the Russians think you could be a fighter. That was in 2000, and I felt I had to leave. I went to Dagestan and was there for a week, but it was too dangerous. The security people were looking for people who might be fighters. Then I went to Backni, the capital of Azerbaijan, and couldn’t find work. So I came to Turkey. Like most people, I came in on a month visa but didn’t leave when my time was up.
"I worked illegally for little money, for long hours. Being illegal, I had no rights. When they discovered I was illegal, I lost my job. Then I came to this camp. I have tried to get to France or Belgium where there are other Chechen refugees, but I have had no success. I don’t know what we are to do. It may be many years before the Chechen problem is solved."
CHECHYA/RUSSIA CONFLICT Part 3
In part one I talked about my first experience with the Chechnya/Russian conflict, which centered around my contacts with the Moscow police training academy and two professionals from Chechnya who had worked with Chechnya victims of the conflict. In the second section I talked about some of the experiences of Chechnya survivors of the conflict. In this section I go into detail about our work with the children. (Remember in reading this I am reporting what I experienced in 2003).
The Camps of Chechnya
Families fleeing war of Eastern Europe find refuge in Turkish villages.
CHECHEN REFUGEE CAMPS, Istanbul, Turkey - Thirteen of us crowded into the tiny room furnished with a double-bunk bed and two small sofas. The room was about 12 feet by 12 feet with a niche for a kitchen and a closet-like area for a toilet. Our host was living in this one small room, which served three families. I assume someone slept on the floor.
Of the 150 people in this camp near Istanbul, 60 were children. Before they sought shelter here from the long war for Chechen independence against Russia, this camp was a series of cement structures that the Turks used as open-air picnic areas facing the Bosporus Straits. With no windows or doors on the structures, the living quarters were constructed with the clever use of transparent plastic sheeting and laths.
For the first two years, there was neither running water nor electricity, but nine months before my visit in 2003 both were installed. When our six-member team from the University of Missouri’s International Center for Psychosocial Trauma visited in November, there had been five days of rain. Water was dripping from one of the light fixtures, around which had been taped a plastic catch bag.
The woman who made the tea had a 5-year-old daughter, Fatima, who smiled once she got over the shock of seeing visitors. The Russians had put the woman’s husband to death by electric chair--one of many extra-legal deaths the refugees told us about. Our translator did not give us the details.
That evening, we went to Camp 2, which consisted of several large general-purpose rooms, a common cooking area and many small rooms off two hallways. This one lodged 150 people, including very few men but 75 children who had been allowed to stay up late to meet with us.
As they clamored to have their pictures taken, I thought, "What lovely children." They were full of energy, not frightened of us as outsiders and eager to talk with us despite the language differences. I did not pick up the level of hyper-alertness and tension I had found in other refugee camps I found in places like Bosnia and Kosovo..
The mothers also wanted to pose for pictures. They told us they felt they had been forgotten by the rest of the world and that anything we could do to call attention to their plight would be welcomed.
The Chechens in Turkey are a people who officially do not exist. They are not entitled to any aid from the Turkish government or education for their children. These refugees had no official status, which means no resident permit. The Turkish government had taken no steps against them, however, and ignores the fact that they are here. In the first camp, some of the children were in Turkish schools, but no record is kept of them and they are not given diplomas.
Besides pressure from Russia, another reason the government refused to offer help is that, if conditions were too good, there would be a massive influx of refugees from those areas.
Our team from the UMC trauma center was led by child psychiatrist Arshad Husain and consisted of Venetta Whitaker and me from UMC and Gail Baker, Andra Ferguson and Rose Procter from Royal Oaks Hospital. The U.S. Institute of Peace provided funds to bring 20 professionals from Ingushetia to Istanbul, and we had eight students from the camps in Istanbul. The Caucasus Foundation provided space and facilities for our training program.
The professionals who were our students knew little about stress disorders despite the fact that most of them were suffering symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Because of translation problems, we were not always sure how much of what we said was getting through. We were dealing with three major and one minor language, Russian, Turkish, English and Chechen. Despite the language barrier and the fact it was Ramadan, during which everyone fasts during the day, they took an active part in the program.
Training was sometimes pushed to the side because our students had so much they wanted to share with each other and with us about conditions in Ingushetia and Chechnya.
Ingushetia refugee camps
One of my interviews was with a film director financed by Doctors Without Borders to make documentaries about AIDS and the misuse of drugs.
"I also work for a" nongovernmental agency "that is suing the Russian government for its violence against human rights," she said. "I direct refugees with problems to the appropriate agencies to get redress."
This woman served as my client for a demonstration. She found it almost impossible to think of a safe place. We eventually created one, but I had to do additional work with her afterward because the exercise brought up so many memories of things she was trying to repress, including her memories of the Russians killing her husband nine years earlier.
Her daughter went back to Grozny and was assaulted in her room one night by men in masks who threatened to kill her. The daughter is now a psychology student who has learned English on her own, and she won’t go back to Grozny. She has tried to get a U.S. visa, but the government fears she will not want to return. My informant felt that Chechnya is losing its best and brightest youths, who are going abroad and won’t be available to help re-establish their country once the Russians leave.
"My organization keeps track of and makes videos about those who have disappeared," she said. "The Russians do address ‘cleaning,’ where they enter and kill whole families. Often the parents are ‘disappeared’ and children are left parentless. The parents must be gone a year before the children can be officially helped. Our organization helps the widows and educates the children."
Other students from Ingushetia described the refugee camps there as ragged jerry-built shacks and tents set along muddy roads. There is little education for the children in the refugee camps and no health help from the Russian government. Some Russian churches give food and other supplies. The food is mostly bread and flour. Unemployment is high, and the economic situation is desperate.
The Ingushetia government is cutting off gas and increasing administrative red tape to pressure Chechen refugees to close the camps. There is little humanitarian aid, but 98 percent of the refugees do not want to return to Chechnya. Many have had their homes destroyed, and there is always fear of people disappearing.
Human Rights Watch investigators report considerable pressure on refugees to leave Ingushetia and return to Chechnya. Pressure includes threats of arrest, withdrawal of food allowances, cutting off heat and electricity to their tents and forced removal. Human Rights Watch says returning people to an active war zone violates the U.N. Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.
Leader of the movement for independence
Gen. Aslan Maskhadov, former president of Chechnya and leader of the resistance against Russia, was quoted in 2003 as saying, "I would like to state again that we are not international terrorists or fundamentalists. We are Chechens fighting for our national independence. We did not invent the idea of national liberation; we inherited it from our fathers and grandfathers. We are carrying on with what they started centuries ago, when there were no such things as "international terrorism" and "fundamentalism." We simply want to free ourselves from the colonial oppression of a barbaric state, and this is what we are doing."
The army’s behavior against the Chechens has not gone unobserved in Russia, where human rights groups issued a challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin. A book released in October (2003) documented hundreds of cases of civilians killed or abducted in Chechnya. The volume is called "People Live Here," a reference to a sign frequently posted by civilians over the rubble of the republic’s capital, Grozny.
Several of the men I interviewed held administrative positions in Chechnya before fleeing the war. They felt there was much support for the Chechen people from European countries, especially France, Germany and Belgium. They believe pressure from Europe will cause the Russians to eventually grant Chechnya independence.
The presence of a team of professionals from the United States raised the spirits of both the local refugees and the refugee professionals from Ingushetia. That we would take the time and expense to come to them helped break through some of their sense of isolation.
Besides recognizing that techniques exist to help them deal with post-traumatic stress reactions, there was the hope that perhaps if these reactions were dealt with in their children, it could help break the cycle of violence that has bedeviled their part of the world.