Death, devastation, and suffering are as plentiful as dirt. Hope is a scarce and precious commodity.
That's how a three-man team of Southern Baptist mission workers described life in and around Chechnya, the republic in the Caucasus region south of Russia. Many thousands have died and untold thousands have fled their homes after Chechen rebels waged an unsuccessful war for independence from Russia.
Southern Baptists will give more than $120,000 in relief aid to help Russian Baptists and local authorities provide food, clothing, shelter, and rehabilitation for some of the refugees who have flooded out of Chechnya.
Missionaries Mark Edworthy and Richard Bell traveled with International Mission Board human needs consultant Jim Brown for eight days in early June along the outskirts of Chechnya to see war's ugly results.
The team got only as far as Nal'chik, in Russia's Karbardino-Balkarskaya republic, some sixty miles from the Chechen border. But the conflict's effects - including waves of ethnic Russian refugees fleeing attacks in Chechnya - have spilled across a wide area there. The team visited four cities and about a dozen relief agencies (such as the Red Cross and orphanages) and spoke to numerous refugees to gather information.
"The refugees have fled for their lives," said Brown. "They've been driven from their homes and seen family members killed and houses blown up. They've been terrorized, brutalized, vandalized, murdered, kidnapped. Families are still in shock because they haven't been out of Chechnya very long and basically have lost everything. They know they're not going back."
Based on their reports, Southern Baptist missionaries have launched a series of ministries to respond to the region, where thousands of refugees eke out a subsistence living in refugee camps, with local families, in abandoned buildings, and huts.
Most of the families, the team reported, consist of mothers and children "living day to day on food packets provided by churches and occasionally other supporting organizations. Nothing is consistent or reliable in their lives. But they are beginning to put trust in Russian pastors as they reach out in love and kindness."
"Refugees will find hope as Southern Baptists direct strategic funds through local Baptist churches in efforts to feed, clothe, house and organize camps for refugees and their children," reported Edworthy, who is based in Poland. "Each human needs project has a clear strategy for gospel sharing and church planting."
Additional requests expected from city and regional governments in the area likely will include school and recreational equipment for refugee children and equipment for handicapped refugees.
Even amid the suffering, the team found evidence God is at work through Russian Baptists in the cities of Georgievsk and Stavropol. More than 200 refugees gather at one weekly service in Georgievsk; thirty more meet in Stavropol, where a Russian church planter is working.
"I was an atheist but now I have heard from God's Word that I can have hope in Jesus Christ," a middle-aged refugee woman told the team in one community Bible study.
Russian Baptist pastors told the team many people in the region are thirsty for spiritual understanding. One pastor told them his church's telephone service, which offers a five-minute Bible message, gets about 1,000 calls every day.
Many relief workers also have found faith in Christ, despite serving in depressing circumstances. "The Word of God is alive to me," one Red Cross worker told the team. Another stated: "I was an atheist and now I believe."
But the sheer volume of refugees and other factors will call for massive amounts of help for years to come.
In 1995 some half-million ethnic Russians lived in Chechnya. Following the wars in which the Russian Army participated, the estimated number has fallen to fewer than 30,000. "Every Russian we interviewed stated clearly that he did not plan to return to his former home," Edworthy said.
"We are full of refugees. We cannot see the end of this bad situation," a Russian city official told the Baptist team. Another official said local schools have been forced to hold classes in shifts because of the many refugee children now attending.
"Refugees are castaways with no rights and no documentation," one mayor told the team, reflecting the tense situation that exists across the region because of the human influx. Another city official estimated some 300 children orphaned by the war now live in his area; many thousands more struggle to survive across the region.
A byproduct of the team's meetings with city and state officials: heightened credibility for Russian Baptists in the area.
"Such meetings help raise the public awareness and opinion of Baptists who are often categorized with 'cults and sects' operating in Central and Eastern Europe," Edworthy said. "The meetings also gave Baptists the chance to hear government officials' requests and to share concrete plans to alleviate the pain of the refugees."
The team called on Southern Baptists to pray that more workers and resources will be found and that God will start a church-planting movement to make the gospel accessible to many thousands of people in the region.
Contributions to assist with the refugee relief effort may be sent to: International Mission Board, Hunger and Relief Fund - Chechen Refugee Relief, P.O. Box 6767, Richmond, VA 23230.