(Left to right)
Zaur Tsitsaev, Hans Elkerbout, René Caravielhe, Murad
Hans Elkerbout was born in Sukabumi, Indonesia, on 4 January 1949. After finishing school in the Netherlands, he went to Utrecht University where he gained a master’s degree in psychology in 1976. He then worked as a university researcher until 1980, when he switched focus, joining Amnesty International as a construction manager. He spent the next five years with the human rights organization, completing several construction and civil engineering courses during his time there. After this he worked independently on construction projects around the world: the Netherlands, Spain, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan and lran. In 1995 he joined Médecins Sans Frontières, managing the construction of a hospital in Albania.
Hans was an all-rounder when it came to construction. He could oversee – as well as turn his hand to – all aspects of a project: building, plumbing and electrics. In addition, he was calm, loyal and kind – someone who always put others first. He rejected violence and loved nature and animals, preferring nothing better than a walk through a forest or along a sun-kissed beach, lost in his thoughts. In May 1996 Hans completed his basic training with the Netherlands Red Cross and was seconded to the ICRC. He was assigned for three months to the Nalchik office in the Russian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria. After arriving in mid-October, he was posted to the neighbouring Russian republic of Chechnya where the main hospitals and other health facilities in the capital Grozny had been badly damaged during fighting. Hans’s job was to oversee repairs to one of the hospitals, a blood transfusion centre and a prosthetic workshop. As always, he settled quickly into his work, fully focused on what needed to be done.
During his time in Chechnya, he was based in the village of Novye Atagi, some 20 kilometres south-west of Grozny. The ICRC had opened a field hospital there in September. In the early hours of 17 December 1996, six ICRC delegates, including 47-year-old Hans, were shot dead as they slept in the ICRC residence next to the field hospital. Like Hans, four other murdered delegates had been seconded to the ICRC by National Red Cross Societies: Ingebørg Foss, 42, and Gunnhild Myklebust, 56, both nurses with the Norwegian Red Cross; Nancy Malloy, 51, a medical administrator with the Canadian Red Cross; and Sheryl Thayer, 40, a nurse with the New Zealand Red Cross. The sixth delegate was head nurse Fernanda Calado, 49, from Spain, who had worked for many years with the ICRC. Another delegate, Christophe Hensch, a Swiss national in charge of the ICRC's Novye Atagi office, was shot and survived.
Jean de Courten, the ICRC’s director of operations, called the attack a cowardly, “deliberate assassination”. No one has ever claimed responsibility. Following the tragedy, the ICRC evacuated its remaining 14 delegates from Novye Atagi to Nalchik. Local medical staff continued to care for patients at the hospital. Speaking at a memorial ceremony at Saint-Pierre Cathedral, Geneva, just days after the attack, ICRC President Cornelio Sommaruga said: “All six were dedicated to the ideal of solidarity with the victims of the Chechen conflict. They were fulfilling with exemplary enthusiasm the original mission of the Red Cross – to care for wounded – and they were doing it in the same spirit as the women of Solferino: ‘Tutti fratelli’ [We are all brothers].”
Hans was a gentle soul who was committed to the possibility of a better world, one free of cruelty and suffering. A world reflective of the tranquil natural landscapes where he so often found peace.
For the ICRC, as for other international humanitarian organizations working in the northern Caucasus, the year 1996 was fraught with security problems. However, nothing could prepare the ICRC for the tragedy that was to strike four months after the Russian and the Chechen sides agreed a ceasefire: the cold-blooded murder of six delegates, including Hans, at the Novye Atagi field hospital during the night of 16/17 December.
The year began with renewed fighting in the Republic of Chechnya between Russian federal troops and Chechen separatists. This caused successive waves of civilians to leave for neighbouring republics. Those who did not flee remained trapped in their homes for weeks at a time by constant shelling. In May, under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, representatives of the federal government, the Chechen government and the separatists met in Moscow and signed a preliminary ceasefire accord. Tension soon mounted again and resulted in a large-scale federal offensive in July. For three weeks, villages in southern Chechnya sustained heavy attacks, while military and civilian targets in Grozny came under almost constant fire. On 6 August separatist forces launched an offensive on Grozny and took control of the city after two weeks of bitter fighting. Federal forces delivered an ultimatum announcing their intention to storm the capital unless the separatists withdrew. Around 200,000 civilians fled the city.
The conflict had disastrous effects on public utilities in many localities, leaving the population without drinking water, electricity and proper sanitation for prolonged periods. As in the previous year, people in some parts of Grozny relied entirely on the ICRC to provide water. All the city’s hospitals were destroyed or badly damaged during the fighting, leading to our decision to open a field hospital in Novye Atagi.
Thanks in part to the diplomatic efforts of the international community, negotiations resumed, resulting in a ceasefire concluded in Novye Atagi on 22 August. On 31 August the parties signed an agreement in Khasavyurt, Dagestan, providing for the withdrawal of federal troops; settlement of the status of the Republic of Chechnya within five years; and the establishment of a joint commission to put the agreement into effect. Although differences persisted, there was no more fighting. In November the Russian president decreed the withdrawal of all federal troops, paving the way for elections to be held in the Republic of Chechnya early the following year.
Throughout the year, security was a major concern for the ICRC. The hazardous conditions led to staff reductions and tightened security measures. In July, after yet another security incident, the ICRC delegate general, accompanied by the head of our Moscow delegation and the head of our mission in the northern Caucasus, met the Russian minister of internal affairs in Moscow. The aim was to secure his support in avoiding further incidents. In October our new delegate general met the president of the Republic of Chechnya in Novye Atagi. Security problems were again discussed. More incidents involving ICRC staff and those working for other organizations ensued in November, mostly the result of banditry. Additional security measures were put in place, but to no avail. The murders of 17 December forced the ICRC to suspend all programmes requiring the presence of international staff within Chechnya; only a limited number of activities continued, carried out by the local Red Cross committees and the ministry of health.
It was a particularly tragic year for the ICRC. Earlier in 1996, three delegates – Cédric Martin, Reto Neuenschwander and Juan Ruffino – were brutally killed in Mugina, Burundi.