HQ: If I remember correctly, the last time you visited Chechnya was in July 2005. What were your impressions of Grozny this time around?
SD: For those who have been to Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, in the last few years, it looks as if Chechnya is being rebuilt at an impressive pace, especially along wide avenues and main roads. There are far more people on the streets, seemingly going about their business, than there were, say, a year or so ago when the scale of the destruction was staggering and the place looked like a ghost town. Local markets throughout Chechnya were doing brisk business mainly in foodstuffs, basic attire, household goods and some children's toys. This does not mean that life was by any means back to normal; Chechnya, for example, still does not have running water to most households.
HQ: As I understand it, Chechnya is very isolated from the rest of the 'international community' and the Russians are trying to increase this isolation. What are your experiences of this?
SD: It is still a very frustrating business trying to use a mobile phone in Chechnya, and virtually impossible to use a landline. You can buy a mobile in the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia and use it to dial everywhere within Russia and the Caucasus but not inChechnya. You have to buy your mobile in Chechnya to use it there but it will still be hard to reach others living beyond the borders of the republic. Very few Chechens own a computer and if they do they rarely have the opportunity to go on the Internet. Obviously officials, NGOs and of course the military can, but the ordinary citizen cannot and that really does make the Chechens feel even more isolated.
HQ: You lived with a Chechen family while you were in Chechnya a few weeks ago. What is the prevailing mood among the Chechen people?
SD: The Chechens have adapted to their new life, after many of them endured years in exile and in refugee camps, with amazing resilience. Their stoicism, their courage and their respect for their religion and their customs were clearly their inspiration and their salvation. I had the privilege of staying with a Chechen family in their newly built but unfinished home in Grozny. When one of the children was being quite innocently naughty the mother made him apologise and tried to explain how he had spent most of his life in refugee camps. I replied that had her children spent their whole life in a palace they could not, in my opinion, have behaved better. They were hospitable, they said their prayers in perfect Arabic, and they were really so sweet.
HQ: How did you feel living among the Chechens and witnessing their daily lives?
SD: If you go into Chechnya expecting to feel sorry for the people then give that up before you enter amongst them. But you can feel sorry for the state of their hospitals, their welfare provisions and the state of health of so many amongst them. I visited many hospitals in Grozny and I was shocked by the state in which I found them. Being chief executive of MARCCH, a charity dedicated to the welfare of Chechen children, I was really heartbroken by the state in which I found so many of the children - in desperate need of medical help - and how they are being looked after in hospitals.
HQ: As chief executive of MARCCH, what did you find to be the condition of the children in Chechnya and how will MARCCH address this?
SD: There are, as we speak, children in neo-natal units whose lives hang in the balance in dire need of basic equipment and having to manage with such inadequate substitutes that I challenge any hospital anywhere not to outdo them. Dr Aslakhanova, the energetic and very dedicated deputy head of the children's hospital in Grozny, who took me on a tour of her hospital, left her high-powered well-paid job in Moscow to look after the children in Grozny, but as she battles against the odds to save lives she appealed to us for our help for a few basic, but vital, medical tools and pieces of equipment to enable her to save more lives. She, in fact, handed me a list of six items on a list of what the hospital most desperately needs. This is why MARCCH is dedicated to raising funds to try and buy however many of the items that Dr Aslakhanova has on her list.
Before the wars started in 1991 the population of Chechnya was about one and a quarter million. It is now about three quarters of a million. The birth-rate is beginning to rise but in every family there is at least one child who is injured or handicapped or quite severely affected, physically or psychologically. TB is still taking its deadly toll. This is why MARCCH is pleased and proud to have been of some help in delivering to the ministry of health in Chechnya 300,000 syringes and why I went to Grozny as chief executive of MARCCH to verify that the shipment had arrived and was about to be used. We were able to do that because Muslim Aid paid for every single syringe and Medecins Sans Frontieres, very generously, provided all the backing needed. But more needs to be done. The ministry of health in Grozny wants us to provide vaccines urgently. Needless to say, we hope to respond to this request too to the best of our ability. For the population of Chechnya, any life needlessly lost is keenly felt by a population already far too depleted by war.
HQ: What more needs to be done for the children in Chechnya?
SD: Children in Chechnya are still in need of vital surgery that is just not provided by inadequate medical health provisions. Handicapped children lack prosthetics; deaf children lack hearing aids or teachers to teach them. Psychologically-disturbed children are confined in hospitals amongst the general adult population.
As for those children who were orphaned by the war, the authorities have recently indicated that they do not favour orphanages in principle and that therefore orphans should be reintegrated into the community and preferably reabsorbed by their extended families where that is possible. MARCCH of course welcomes any effort to ensure that children grow up within their own family groups and communities, and we hope that the government will take all the necessary steps to ensure that once the orphanages are abolished some children are not left in government-run centralised locations to endure bureaucratic limbo. There are bound to be children, especially those who are either physically or mentally handicapped, who might not very readily find homes to welcome them and who are therefore bound to be disadvantaged by this new development. Though MARCCH favours the maintenance of a number of well-run orphanages we shall wait and see how this change will affect the children- for better or worse.
HQ: When donating, many people are worried that their donations will end up in the government's coffers or in the hands of criminals, as a lot of donations do. What do MARCCH do to ensure that their moneys do go to helping the children of Chechnya?
SD: MARCCH normally authenticates every source of any request for help and we rely on the ministry of health in Chechnya or a reliable humanitarian presence in the area, such as Medecins Sans Frontieres, to verify what is needed; then we get invoiced for providing it from a reliable manufacturer or agency, and if we are successful in raising funds for that specific amount for that particular purpose we verify by going there and seeing for ourselves that the money was translated into effective action.
HQ: What other work would you say needs to be done in Chechnya?
SD: There have to be greater efforts made to clear various areas of the debris of war, not just to allow rebuilding to take place, but also to clean the environment of substances harmful to the population. The water and soil should be examined with greater care to trace any pollutants or any toxic waste. There is no doubt that this kind of work will greatly impact the public for the better. It is very nice to see buildings go up and it is even nicer that they are inhabited by a healthier population too.
HQ: Would you like to leave the reader with a particular message?
SD: It does make a huge difference getting people used to seeing Chechnya occupying its rightful place on the humanitarian map so please use your voice, your pen or your wallet to ensure that a space is created to fit the needy. At the moment that need is very much there and it is huge but I am sure we all hope and pray that one day it will not be so. No one will be more pleased to fold up and go home than all of us at MARCCH.