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Border lives

By Jessica Barry

Armenia and Azerbaijan are emerging from a bitter territorial struggle that has claimed many lives and left much of their respective populations in dire circumstances. War damage to property, unemployment, loss of trade and economic decline are the battles of the day as a cease-fire holds but a definitive peace agreement has yet to be reached. The ICRC and the American Red Cross are lending a hand in the latest fight for survival.

Voskepar, a sprawling Armenian village of 1,300 people, lies within a stone’s throw of the Azeri border. It is typical of many isolated farming communities in the region. There are tombstones in the cemetery dating back hundreds of years and mines litter the fields and grazing grounds. The muddy farmyards smell of horses and dairy cows. Even in spring the people wear heavy woollen jerseys and thick stockings, for the weather remains chilly until May, and the summers are short.

Before the recent conflict, the local Azeri markets were the Vos-kepar farmers’ natural trading grounds. “We had a good relationship with people across the border,” says Hransush Aghbalian, the village mayor. “We even used to invite our Azeri friends to our weddings. Now, although there has been a cease-fire for over two years, our trade routes are blocked and everything has changed.”

People use many strategies to survive withered incomes and rising prices. They plant potatoes in their gardens, hang strings of dried green leaves from their balconies for the winter when vegetables are scarce and, as the seasons progress, they sell wild flowers, mushrooms and summer fruits by the roadside.

Neighbours in Azerbai-jan share the same plight which, fortunately, has not gone unnoticed. Working under the auspices of the ICRC, the American Red Cross is providing food and other assistance to struggling families as part of a new form of cooperation known as “project delegation” (see box p.10).


Joint forces

The project delegation in Armenia, the first of its kind between the American Red Cross and the ICRC, began in November 1994. The distribution of food parcels to 8,500 families living along the border in four districts in north-east Armenia was completed in August 1995. The current nine-month programme targets the same beneficiaries, but this time they are receiving more long-term assistance, such as soap and detergent, vegetable seed kits, flour, edible oil, sugar and jar lids for home-made jam.

“When we invited the American Red Cross to manage a project delegation in Armenia in 1994, we knew they would be an ideal partner,” remarks Zoran Jovanovic, head of the ICRC delegation in Erevan. “They have been working in the southern Caucasus since the 1988 Armenian earthquake and have highly capable logistics and management personnel who know the context of the work and the philosophy of the Movement.”

The success of the first American Red Cross project delegation led to the creation of one in Barda, Azerbaijan, four hours by car west of the capital Baku. Since the programme began in Nov-ember 1995 more than 7,000 families living in eight front-line districts have received food parcels every two months, as well as sugar, jar lids, flour and oil.

Since displaced people in the region are already receiving assistance from other sources, the project focuses on the most vul-nerable groups among the residents. Potential bene-ficiaries are identified accord-ing to five specific criteria: elderly people living alone; widows with several de-pendent children; orphans under 15; “first category” invalids (i.e. war-wounded and the severely handicapped); and the completely destitute who do not fit into any of the other categories. This last group makes up around 30 per cent of all those receiving aid.

A solid foundation

The project delegation programmes in Armenia and Azerbaijan have three main objectives. First, by providing for their most basic needs, it enables beneficiaries to use meagre savings for other essential purchases such as medicines and schoolbooks. Second, it hopes to discourage young people from moving to urban areas in search of employment. Third, it aims to strengthen the capacity of the Armenian Red Cross and the Azeri Red Crescent both of which are playing a key operational role in the two programmes.

The Armenian Red Cross, a highly competent and professional organ-isation with a strong leadership at headquarters level, received National Society status in November 1995. Armenian Red Cross staff readily admit that despite the horror of the Spitak earthquake which killed 25,000 people and injured more than 30,000 in December 1988, the disaster was instrumental in their subsequent development.

“When I joined the mission last December,” explains James Jones, American Red Cross’s project coordinator in Erevan, “I was able to recruit highly competent and motivated logisticians, field managers, monitors, distribution staff and statisticians for my programme. All of them were Armenian Red Cross workers who had received extensive training and gained vast operational experience while working with the Federation and other international humanitarian organisations both during and after the earthquake.”

The Azeri Red Crescent also received National Society status in November 1995 but few of its staff have had the same chance to work intensively on developing similar skills. Still, many of the district and branch personnel are highly moti-vated which makes for ideal training opportunities during the programme.


Project delegation

The idea of “project delegation” came about in response to a strong desire among many National Societies to play a more substantial and visible role in conflict regions where the ICRC is active. Under the scheme, the ICRC identifies a specific relief or medical project in an area where it is working and grants direct responsibility for its implementation to an interested National Society. That National Society sends a delegate who coordinates the field work and reports directly to the ICRC head of delegation. The ICRC provides logistic and administrative support and makes available the delegation’s communications facilities.


Beyond basics

The future for people living in the border regions of Armenia and Azerbaijan will remain uncertain as long as there is no final peace agreement and until the overall economic situation in both republics improves.

In Armenia the priorities are clear. “People are slowly getting back on their feet, but will need support with selected items of bulk food until next year’s harvest,” explains James Jones. “It is also time to implement small-scale reconstruction projects to repair war-damaged houses, school buildings, flour mills and other public utilities. This will help re-establish community life.”

In Azerbaijan, the programmes will be fine-tuned to meet beneficiaries’ specific social needs. Food assistance will continue for another year but emphasis will be on helping people to cope better by providing potato seedlings for kitchen gardens and the means to preserve more fruit and vegetables. Support may also be given to agricultural programmes to produce wheat for flour, which is greatly needed for making bread in the villages.

One of the most important and lasting benefits of the two programmes cannot even be measured in material terms. “The assistance you bring us is a great psychological support,” asserts Hransush Aghbalian, during a sugar distribution. “After all the upheavals of the last few years, it will take time for our lives to get back to normal. We cannot trade, our government pensions have not been paid for months and we are surviving on what we can grow in our gardens. If it weren’t for your help, we would feel abandoned by everybody.”

Jessica Barry
Jessica Barry is a freelance journalist.
She travelled to Armenia and Azerbaijan
in June 1996.

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