While the whole world was busy fighting against the catastrophe of the Covid-19 epidemic, and as other parts of the world were calling upon peace, on September 27, 2020 Armenians woke to the loud sound of bombs, shells and gunfire.
The Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh) Autonomous Republic is located east of the Lesser Caucasus Mountains. Since millennia, Armenians have lived on those lands; they create educational and cultural centers, and built historical and cultural monuments. Ancient Greek sources denote Artsakh as one of 15 states of historical Armenia. Yet, and although populated by more than 80 percent ethnic Armenians, Artsakh was joined to neighbouring Azerbaijan for political reasons under Soviet rule.
Over 30 years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Armenians of Artsakh have been fighting to keep their identity and their right to self-determination, and have dreamt of living in long-term peace. Since the end of the war in the 1994, the people of Artsakh have constantly been living under its shadow. These people have rebuilt the same village, school, church and cultural house many times over.
Today, Artsakh and its population of 150,000 may be experiencing the most difficult phase in its history. Over 44 days, Artsakh turned into warzone. Almost all of its towns and villages were shelled. More than 90,000 women, children and the elderly from Artsakh, somehow escaping the clutches of fire, found temporary shelter in Armenia. Nearly all left family members behind on the frontline; husbands, sons, brothers, fathers.
During the war, Armenians within Armenia, Artsakh and the Diaspora, together with the Armenian government and the Armenian Apostolic Church united their efforts and resources to support the basic needs of the displaced population. The organization of temporary accommodation, food and clothing for the displaced population were prioritized. People from Artsakh were relocated in all regions within Armenia, including the capital Yerevan. It is noteworthy that families from even the most remote Armenian villages hosted the displaced people. Many of these large families were themselves living difficult lives: yet, despite their own difficult living conditions, they were able to both solve their everyday problems and host these vulnerable displaced people.
The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs worked day and night to coordinate and facilitate initiatives relating to the organization, of accommodation and other necessities of the displaced families. The business sector contributed greatly as well, with many hosting displaced families in their hotels and guesthouses.
Following the trilateral agreement signed on November 9, 2020, the majority of the displaced population returned to various settlements in Artsakh. According to surveys conducted by UNDP Armenia, there are more than 30,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Armenia from Artsakh, These people lost everything: their houses, gardens, and animals, their neighbourhoods, their friends, their livelihoods. They now mainly live in separate rented apartments, with rent and utility costs covered by the state.
Today, the Armenian government is making great efforts to alleviate the burdens of these people. However, the aftermath of the war leaves us with many urgent political, social, and economic and public psycological problems that remain to be solved in Armenia.
Due to post-war shock, to put it mildly, it is quite difficult for the state to inject targeted and effective assistance in all spheres, especially when taking into account resource limitations.
The role of international benefactors, various international organizations and local NGOs in trying to alleviate social problems is significant. The UN and its various agencies, as well as Russia, France, European Countries and the United States and other countries, provide a large amount of humanitarian aid. Together, these various entities provide a solid ‘’backbone’’ for the state. They work with and in some cases alongside local self-governmental bodies and local NGOs for data collection, needs assessment and distribution of humanitarian aid.
The Armenian Apostolic Church also provided accommodation and humanitarian assistance for a large number of families in their diocesan camps in various regions of Armenia. A typical model of providing this type of collective shelter was the Vayots Dzor diocesan camp in Southern Armenia, which hosted more than 150 people from Artsakh. The project was implemented with the support of local NGO Syunik-Development. The last family left the shelter a few days ago. Part of them back to Artsakh and those who lost their homes in Artsakh find separate houses or apartments in different settlements of Vayots Dzor region. Currently NGO carries-out in depth surveys to find-out how many of these families want to live in rural communities to be engaged in horticulture, cattle bradding, beekeeping, etc. Projects will be designed in the mentioned fields for these IDPs in rural areas.
During the first days of the war there were 2927 displaced people from Artsakh to Vayots Dzor region where Syunik-Development NGO is operating. Currently, after the agreement there are still 1300 displaced people, mostly from Hadrut and Shushi cities which are under the Azerbaijani control.
Thanks to Syunik-Development NGO, its international partner organizations, friends of the Diaspora and individual benefactors, necessary renovations and winterization of the Vayots Dzor diocesan summer camp were done in a very short time; windows were changed, bathrooms were repaired, and kitchen utensils, household appliances, and electric heaters were purchased.
The camp housed a temporary school, where teachers from within the camp and from neighbouring villages provided lessons. A mobile dental clinic was established by the Armenian Community in California, providing round-the-clock services. Much needed psychological services were offered as well. Syunik-Development NGO staff and various volunteers organized sports and intellectual games for the children in the camp. Though nearly impossible, those housed in the camp attempted to go about their daily lives, with women and kitchen staff preparing juices and canning goods as per usual, and ensuring that children led as normal a life as possible.
During the pandemic it became clear that at the grassroots level; at communities, there were lack of mobilized youth able to support local government and community members in organizing information campaigns, helping in providing humanitarian aids, organising community based needs assessments, etc. Therefore, from the first days of the war Syunik-Development launched the establishment of Rapid Response Working Groups in Vayots Dzor region consisting of young people from local communities. Members of these groups are called Community Outreach Workers.
Syunik-Development NGO organized urgent workshop and capacity building activities on emotional intelligence, DO NO Harm and effective communication for its staff, volunteers and community outreach workers who directly work with displaced people.
During this period community outreach workers with financial support of Syunik-Development NGO and local Diocese distributed 850 Non-Food Item Kits, more than 500 food packages, 1300 packages with games and stationery for children, 600 art therapy packages, and 450 self-protection packages for Covid. Currently, they carry-out the second survey to find-out how many of IDPs will stay in the region and if they will stay what is their needs, what kind of opportunities are there for their sustainable house holding.
Several workshops were organized for displaced people as well to help them to overcome the psychological consequences of war and to promote in public health in the region in general. Local people with IDPs also participated in these workshops. Workshops served as a platform for communication and community integration as well.
As a local Armenian NGO, one of the most important missions of Syunik-Development NGO is to provide reliable information on the situation in Armenia to all our partner organizations, partners and friends around the world, to identify and coordinate resources to address the needs of internally displaced persons.
As always most challenging situations, the assistance of Syunik-Development NGO partner organizations is very important and valuable. Although the problems caused by the epidemic are many for our partners from Europe, US, Canada, as for the entire globe, nevertheless they immediately reached out to help, thus remaining faithful to their vaunted principle of humanitarianism.
Having ‘’very sensitive’’ economic and social environment pandemic and war are ”cold shower’’ for Armenian Economy at all levels and spheres. Armenian Dram is declining and as a mostly importing country there is a huge inflation rate. It is also logical that there will be no interest for new investments from the international business sector in the post war country in near future. As in the whole world, and especially in Armenia, the most affected field of pandemic, then due to war is tourism.
Activities that promote agriculture, agribusiness, and cultural and natural tourism by Syunik-Development NGO will serve to promote rural economic opportunities across the region, including in some of the most marginalized areas.
Currently, Syunik-Development NGO develops project concepts and mobilizes resources to provide economic alternatives to displaced people in Southern Armenia through agriculture engagement, tourism and hospitality activities. Vocational and skills training on wood workshop, handicraft, batik, making souvenirs with Armenian and Artsakh symbols are implementing for increasing self-employment of women.
We must try harder to restore our war-torn economy in Armenia and Artsakh. We need to pay more attention to the education and development programs of the young generation. Economic development, education, the realization of the potential of young people, adaptation to modern technologies, using all our means and putting our efforts together will have a profound effect on the building of a new development cycle in Armenia.