Doctors of the World: soon a decade of humanitarian action in Chukotka

July 2000

Yvon Csonka
(University of Neuchatel, Switzerland)

Doctors of the World’s (DOW) first contacts with Chukotka were established in 1991, during the "World's [social] scientists contribution to the Russian Far North" expedition (Chichlo, ed., 1993). But the first humanitarian project was started in relation with a tragic event. In May 1993, the international expedition "Transsibering" ended with the crash of a helicopter on the north coast of Chukotka. Seven were killed, others wounded. To honour the memory of one of the victims, a circle of his compatriots from Switzerland offered DOW the means to start a program dedicated to the improvement of the health condition of the Native population of Chukotka. In 1994-1996, DOW supported, in cooperation with the region, the creation in Anadyr, capital city of the region, of a medical school where Native health agents could be trained at the levels of nurse, technician dentist or feldsher (field doctor); the French coordinators were Patrick David and Virginie Vaté. It has sent expatriate teachers, teaching aids and other materials, and has provided sponsoring and advice. The school is now up and running successfully, providing crucially needed health agents to replace the Russian immigrants who have left the region.

Since 1995, the French and the Swiss sections of Doctors of the World have cooperated in supporting a grassroot Native association active in the fight against alcoholism and dependence on tobacco. Alcoholism has wrought havoc among Native communities in the Russian North, and it has worsened in recent years. It causes acute social, psychological and physical ills, and it is responsible, directly or indirectly, for a disproportionate number of early deaths. The association Doverie ("Trust"), based in Anadyr, has met with considerable success applying the well proven method developed in Russia by Mr. Shichko. Recognizing an initiative worth encouragement, Doctors of the World has stepped in as sponsor and partner. Thanks to this support, Doverie now has its own premises, a three-room apartment equipped with communication and teaching materials, and does not have to depend on the – very limited, and at times nonexistent – good will of the regional authorities. Doctors of the World respondents for the project, Virginie Vaté in France and Olga Letykai Csonka and Yvon Csonka in Switzerland, visit Anadyr regularly and keep in touch with the association year-round. Doverie members were invited to participate in a session of United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations dedicated to health issues, and to make contacts at the World Health Organisation’s headquarters in Geneva.

According to plan, Doverie is now extending its action into the rural villages where most of the Native population lives. It also aims at establishing contacts with associations having similar purposes in other parts of the Russian North. To be able to rely almost entirely on local initiative, personnel, and experience, represents an ideal case for an NGO such as Doctors of the World, as it leads naturally to the next step: this will be for Doverie to gain its autonomy by seeking other sponsors, including local sponsors. In the meantime, it remains an important aim to find ways to transfer the experience gained by Doverie and by DOW to other areas of the Russian North.

Contacts :

Reference cited: Boris Chichlo, ed., 1993: Sibérie III: Les peuples du Kamchatka et de la Tchoukotka [Reports of the 1991 expédition]. Paris: Institut d’études slaves.