Helpers Become Hunted in Russia's Caucasus Foreigners Are Kidnapping Targets in a Lawless Region

Article excerpt

This is not the way international humanitarian work was meant to be.

Bumping over potholed roads in a windowless Land Rover armored to withstand point-blank fire from a machine gun, and with orders to stop for no one, United Nations refugee workers in southern Russia behave more like potential victims than potential saviors.

And that's what they are. As a flood of kidnappings-for-ransom has swept Chechnya and neighboring republics in recent months, foreigners have become especially juicy targets. Kidnapping is a traditional pastime in this part of the world. But it has undergone a dangerous boom since the end of the war in 1997 that left Chechnya devastated and Chechens impoverished. Most of those seized as hostages are local people - nearly 200 so far this year, according to the Chechen authorities. And most of them are freed quietly when their families pay up. But foreigners are a prize catch, and the going rate for their release is $1 million a head. That is what the French government paid earlier this month for four French aid workers, according to Chechen officials. And it's what the independent Russian network NTV paid for a camera crew earlier this year. Still languishing in secret Chechen cellars are two young British nationals who had been running an educational program, a German citizen, and a Slovak. The risks of abduction and death have forced almost all foreign aid workers out of Chechnya and neighboring Dagestan and Ingushetia. Even the International Committee of the Red Cross, the most intrepid of international organizations, has kept its foreign staff out of the region since six of its delegates were murdered in Chechnya a year ago. (See Page 6.) For awhile after that massacre other nongovernmental groups stayed on. But one by one they have pulled out their foreign staff, and all but one have closed down their operations completely. …