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Russian Wildfire Relief Takes Backseat To Donbas Aid Convoys

  • Mark Krutov

A resident weeps in the village of Shira following fires that swept the southern Siberian region of Khakasia earlier this month.

A resident weeps in the village of Shira following fires that swept the southern Siberian region of Khakasia earlier this month.

MOSCOW -- For about two weeks now, wind-whipped wildfires have been raging across the Siberian region of Khakasia. At least 34 people have been killed and thousands left homeless as the fires have scorched hundreds of thousands of hectares.

Russian authorities say about 5,000 rescue workers are battling the blazes, which are still burning and dangerous in the unpredictable weather.

"It is a horrific scene," Yelena Markova, a volunteer coordinator in Chita, the capital of Zabaikalsky Krai, which has also been hit by the disaster, told RFE/RL.

"Horrific! Burned out cars and homes. All the buildings, the livestock. Burned-out farms and the bodies of the animals. Horrific. It is just elemental -- impossible to convey in words. The city of Chita is enveloped in smoke. The surrounding forests are burning and there are many victims. Many people have lost everything."

President Vladimir Putin on April 21 visited a shelter for the victims in Khakasia with Emergency Situations Minister Vladimir Puchkov, pledging the government's full support in coping with the disaster and rebuilding.

'Everything In Donbas'

But volunteer activists in St. Petersburg say their efforts to get much-needed food, medicine, and other supplies out to the disaster zone have run into obstacles.

And one of the main reasons is that most of the Emergency Situations Ministry's trucks are busy forming "humanitarian convoys" for the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine.

The 17th humanitarian convoy for southeastern Ukraine is put together in Russia's Rostov region in early March.

The 17th humanitarian convoy for southeastern Ukraine is put together in Russia's Rostov region in early March.

Vesna, a nongovernmental organization, has about 2 tons of relief assembled in its warehouses. Vesna activist Daniil Teodori says the group has "read the open appeals" from those in the fire zone and "collected what they called for."

"We selected food that is easy to transport, that fits into our budget and that won't go bad -- canned goods, grains, tea, coffee, and so on," Teodori says. But requests to Puchkov's Emergency Situations Ministry for help getting the donations to Siberia have so far fallen flat.

"They told us that they don't have any transport because 'everything is in the Donbas,'" Teodori says. "That was the end of the discussion. Later we got into contact with another department and they started calling us back and saying they could get us a helicopter from Moscow. 'We'll give you something -- just calm down.' But we haven't heard from them since."

On the day of Putin's visit to Khakasia, the Emergency Situations Ministry managed to deliver its first convoy of relief to the fire zone -- about 50 tons of food and medicine, according to the state-owned TASS news agency.

By comparison, Moscow has sent 24 "humanitarian aid" convoys to the breakaway parts of eastern Ukraine since August 2014. The most recent one arrived in Luhansk on April 16 with more than 660 tons of supplies, according to Russian state media.

Locals Working 'Nonstop'

Activist Markova in Chita says that, despite the scale of the disaster, local relief efforts have been effective. She praises local administrations for "helping us greatly.

"We are collecting assistance throughout Khakasia and Zabaikalsky Krai," she says. "We are working nonstop, distributing these things, this humanitarian aid. There are many collection points open in the city [of Chita] and in other areas."

She notes that many victims have been able to get a standard emergency-relief payment of 10,000 rubles ($194) and local authorities are working with Moscow to get more federal money.

Markova also explains that many local volunteer firefighters are working effectively because of assistance they received in 2014 from the international NGO Greenpeace. "We have volunteers who are very well equipped, with professional equipment," she says. "Last year Greenpeace representative Grigory Kuksin visited us and he completely trained them."

Kuksin is a veteran of efforts to provide relief in the wake of devastating fires that swept the Moscow region in 2010 and again in 2011.

"The surrounding forests are burning and there are many victims. Many people have lost everything."

"The surrounding forests are burning and there are many victims. Many people have lost everything."

St. Petersburg activist Teodori says that his group's efforts to collect donations have been hampered by the war in Ukraine. The fires have received relatively little coverage in the national media compared to, for example, the flooding that devastated the southern city of Krymsk in 2012.

"Compared to the collections we did for Krymsk, of course, the help has been less," Teodori says. "For the most part, it has been individual people and the charity store Spasibo."

He adds that his group's efforts were not helped by comments from Nikolai Rogozhkin, President Putin's envoy to the Siberian Federal District, that the fires were started by political opponents of the Putin regime.

"Local journalists eagerly distributed information about how and where to donate, but then government officials announce that the fires were set intentionally." Teodori says. "Our volunteers -- whose contact information is publically available -- immediately start getting messages like, 'You are doing a bad thing at a time when Novorossia is dying; you are bad people.'"

"There has been a lot of aggression," he adds.

Robert Coalson contributed to this report from Prague
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