United Nations, 16 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- UN relief agencies regard the humanitarian situation in the North Caucasus as the worst facing internally displaced people in Europe.
But the plight of hundreds of thousands of Chechens in the region continues to defy easy solutions. After two wars in the past decade, Russian federal forces continue to battle regularly with Chechen rebels.
Human-rights groups allege that abuses committed by both sides continue unabated. At the same time, Moscow has been pressing a campaign to return Chechens from neighboring republics in an attempt to restore normalcy.
"I've seen many devastated cities, but Grozny is really one of the worst."
The UN's undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and its emergency relief coordinator, Jan Egeland, traveled to the region last month to address the mounting concerns of relief groups. He secured commitments by Russian authorities to respect the principle of voluntary return for up to 70,000 Chechens living in neighboring Ingushetia.
In particular, Russian officials say there will be no 1 March deadline to close down tent camps housing an estimated 7,000 Chechens.
Egeland told RFE/RL that he hopes to build on the pledges with greater efforts to improve conditions for Chechens.
"We will hold them to their promise, which is that there will be only voluntary returns to Chechnya and that we will now concentrate on enabling this voluntary return because we all want people to go back, to rebuild their communities."
Egeland said the emphasis of humanitarian efforts is now shifting to devastated Chechnya itself. He says a recent UN donor appeal for $35 million will focus on providing basic protection for hundreds of thousands of Chechens: "Eight hundred thousand are in need of assistance in Chechnya in some way or the other. Many are homeless. Others need food. Others need medical assistance."
The scale and severity of the Chechen conflict contributed to the flight of more than 250,000 civilians from the republic by the year 2000. Many have returned, while others are believed to have joined a surge of refugees from Russia -- more than 23,000 -- to the European Union and future member states last year.
Egeland visited the Chechen capital of Grozny last month. He said he visited an overcrowded resettlement center with poor sanitary conditions but a regular supply of food. He also visited an overcrowded maternity hospital. Egeland, a former chief of the Norwegian Red Cross, said he was taken aback by the destruction.
"I've seen many devastated cities, but Grozny is really one of the worst," he said. "There is hardly a building that has not been damaged, and thousands of buildings, thousands of apartment houses, have been completely destroyed. This is a sign of the fierceness of this conflict."
The United Nations and many other international relief agencies do not maintain staff in Chechnya because of long-standing security concerns.
Egeland says a crucial matter for all humanitarian agencies is learning the fate of Arjan Erkel, a local official with Doctors Without Borders who was kidnapped 18 months ago in Daghestan. Egeland said Russian officials on all levels say they are working to resolve the case.
Relief workers need assurances, he said, that they are not being targeted.
"There are many things that would have to happen for us to stay overnight. We need to take a full security assessment if we get assurances that the situation has become more stable. However, I should hasten to say that there are still security incidents every week -- bomb attacks, skirmishes, shootings, mines in the road, and so on."
Separately, UN officials, partner groups, and Russian officials met on 9 February to address some of the bureaucratic problems facing aid groups in their efforts to maintain services to Chechens.
Russian authorities have offered returning Chechens 350,000 rubles -- about $12,500 -- in compensation for lost property. About 40,000 families are eligible, says Egeland, but many have not yet received the money. He believes most of the disbursements will come as part of a larger reconstruction program inside Chechnya.
United Nations agencies -- the World Food Program, the World Health Organization, and UNICEF -- and aid partners hope to increase their efforts to assist immediate reconstruction needs.
"We will have increased visits to Chechnya, and we will increase our assistance inside Chechnya, which would be a reflection of people moving back and needs now being predominantly inside Chechnya and not in the neighboring republics," Egeland says.
But aid efforts will continue to be shadowed by incidents of terrorism in the North Caucasus and Moscow. Chechen extremists are regularly blamed for such attacks, like the recent bombing on a Moscow subway train, but the impact falls on displaced civilians as well, says Egeland.
"It just adds to the tension. It adds to the antagonisms among those involved, and it adds also to all of the pressures on refugees and others to go home."
One sign of promise, he said, is a rise in the number of efficient local nongovernmental organizations in and around Chechnya. NGOs active in helping child survivors of mine accidents include Let's Save the Generation and Voice of the Mountains.