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