IRC Culture and Training Center: Chechen IDPs Embrace Their Culture
"When you are a refugee all customs are broken." The young Chechen woman was describing what it was like to live in a tent in a large IDP camp in Ingushetia. "We used to have our own homes," she explained. She struggled to describe, mashing her hands together, the confining tents that housed people and human functions in single rooms. "There is one tent for bathing, for one thousand people." She added, for ironical effect, "Personally, I prefer to bathe alone." She continued, "The Chechen people never liked to ask for anything. That was before. Now look at us. We need to ask for humanitarian aid for everything. I don't like to see people like this. I never imagined the Chechen people would be living in tents."
Broken customs for IDPs and refugees means a breakdown in ways of life. For all peoples ways of life refers to a broad range of functions and artifacts, from food preparation, sleeping arrangements and hygiene, to language and values. Ways of living, in fact, defines the word "culture," meaning the ways that humans and different groups of people construct meanings, symbols, and tools to adapt and survive in the environment in which they live. The problem for IDPs and refugees is that their ways of living are demolished often abruptly, and the means available to adapt to these changes is very limited, not quite within the grasp of choice. Yet, the people draw on what they know, who they are.
The struggle of the Chechen people against Russian domination has been going on for centuries. The most recent war started in 1994 when Chechens declared the independence of Chechnya from the Russian Federation, and though Russian troops withdrew in 1996 they again intervened in 1999 in an attempt to force the rebel Chechens into submission. These military activities have displaced hundreds of thousands of Chechens into neighboring republics and the rest of the world. At present approximately 150,000 Chechen IDPs are struggling to survive in Ingushetia, which is directly next to Chechnya. The Ingush people themselves, who are ethnically and culturally the closest relatives of the Chechens, number only about 350,000, so despite their close relations with the Ingush, Ingush hospitality can only be considered as gigantic. Here in Ingushetia only humanitarian agencies can support the existence and survival of the Chechen people.
The IRC Northern Caucasus program is meeting this challenge in many ways-providing shelter and water and sanitation services, distributing essential non-food items, and facilitating a comprehensive education program. Recently, IRC has taken significant steps to expand the scope and improve the quality of our humanitarian action. On September 8th, the Education Program opened a Culture and Training Center, staffed by six Chechen individuals, each unique and accomplished in intellectual training and experience, with backgrounds in ethno-psychology, journalism, academic authorship, poetry, languages, and teaching methodology. The Culture Center reaches the broader IDP community in Ingushetia, offering Chechen cultural education, presentations, performances, seminars and literature. The Center also serves as a training venue for teachers to enhance capacity to teach aspects of local culture, remedial education, non- formal education techniques, etc.
Opening ceremonies at the Center included painting exhibits and Chechen musical and drama performances. The opening was attended by a broad cross-section of stakeholders, including distinguished members of the Chechen and local humanitarian communities. Chechen children delighted the audience with dancing and singing, and an actress from the Chechen National Theatre staged a solo dramatic performance about the war that had many in the audience weeping into handkerchiefs. A folklore trivia game called "Golden Apple" rewarded the winner with, yes, a large golden apple.
In a short two months the Center has been busy serving teachers and the community. The first and second seminars for teachers, the themes of which were the Chechen language and Chechen ethics and customs, have already been held. With IRC assistance the Center director has published his original text, Chechen Language: Texts, Questions, Tasks, along with another text on Chechen ethics. The books will be distributed to teachers in IDP schools throughout Ingushetia and selected schools in Chechnya.
The Center has also staged a theatrical performance, "The Spindle of Life," the theme of which was problems of drug addiction among youth. IDP children from an IRC settlement school played all roles in the performance. While rare in pre-war Chechen society, youth narcotic and alcohol abuse, and physical aggression, particularly amongst boys, are becoming problems. Adults believe this is due to the "destruction of the Chechen upbringing and traditional moral and ethical family institution." And as one Center founder maintains, "The decline of the Chechen national culture is not only the result of the destruction of the cultural and educational structure but also the consequence of the fact that the majority of the Chechen population lives outside its natural region which was formed historically." This "decline," as he terms it, is a direct result of displacement, death, and social fragmentation caused by the war.
Chechen people and communities are apprehensive of current threats to their children, their identities and prospects, and many profoundly fear for their own survival, both individually and as a distinct culture and people. As Center staff appeal, "The problem of the Chechen people's survival as an ethnic group with its own language, culture and traditions has become urgent. Loss of the mother tongue and traditions by the future generation is a tragedy not only for the Chechens themselves but also for the whole of mankind, because each people and its culture are unique and particular." The IRC Education Program is responding to this urgency.
Katherine S. Layton is the Education Program Coordinator for IRC's programs in Northern Caucasus.