Azerbaijan International

Winter 1994 (2.4)
Pages 66-68

Humanitarian Relief in Azerbaijan:
An Assessment Two Years Later

by Kaiser Zaman with Susan Cornnell

Photo: Another harsh winter is coming and tens of thousands of Azerbaijani refugees are still living in conditions like those shown here. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent has recently undertaken the sponsorship of seven camps like this which housed 50,000 for nearly a year. The Iranian Red Crescent has "exhausted almost all their disaster preparenedess funds." Photo by Oleg Litvin. Spring 1994.

Last night, while stopped at a traffic light here in Baku, a young child approached my car pleading, "Help me, I'm a refugee". The light changed and I moved on as there were cars behind me. Besides, it was 10 o'clock, I was dead tired and in a lousy mood. But then I caught myself: "How is it that I could go 500 kilometers to help refugees in other regions of this country, and here's this desperate kid right here in my back yard and I've turned my back on him." I realized then that if I didn't do something for him, I wouldn't be able to sleep that night. So I drove around the block until I found him again.

It's been nearly two years since the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) began working with refugees in Azerbaijan. Despite the assistance of nearly 20 international humanitarian organizations and agencies, generally speaking, problems are on the rise. You now see children begging in the streets which didn't exist a year ago-not even eight or nine months ago. It reminds you of New York City except here you don't have to be afraid of the kids.

One Million Refugees
Azerbaijan has about one million displaced people out of a population of 7.5 million. One million refugees is an incredible logistics problem for any country, much less one whose base population is so small. Every seventh Azeri is displaced from his home and community, from his familiar social infrastructure and from his usual source of employment.

The effect on Azerbaijan's economy has been devastating. Food is an immense problem. Somehow, it seems worse this year than last because the people themselves have exhausted so many of their own resources. They've spent their savings and there's nothing more to sell or trade. Farmers have even sold off their sheep just to survive.

The greatest morality, understandably, is to find ways to feed yourself. Ethical values become extraneous when sheer survival is at stake. When people are forced into poverty and they're hungry, generally speaking, they don't pay much attention to the law. Up until now it's unbelievable how little crime there's been in Azerbaijan given the extent of the refugee problem. But the situation could deteriorate and lead to crime and anti-social problems.

Fortunately, the World Food Program became involved at the beginning of this year. Other agencies have also responded especially American and European non-government organizations (NGOs), as has the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). Between all of us, we've somehow been able to provide food to the community but it's not nearly enough.

Growing Vegetables
One of UNHCR's goals is to create economic opportunities. If we can provide people with a means of making a living, their own sense of self worth will be enhanced. We've just distributed four million kilos, that's four metric tons of vegetable seeds, all over the country. We're distributing 11,000 sets of gardening tools. For anyone who can find a small plot of land, we'll provide the tools and seeds. We're taking a calculated risk but even if some of the seeds don't get planted, or get to people who aren't refugees, or if even only half of them yield, still many refugees will have a chance to eat better.

It makes a difference if you can add a few vegetables like parsley, cucumbers, onions, eggplant, beets and tomatoes to your diet and introduce a little variety to your meals. It's especially important if you've grown them yourself. Just yesterday a refugee offered me some coriander. It tasted so good. I didn't even wash it. I was so pleased to learn it had come from seeds we had distributed a month earlier.

We've also just bought 500 sets of masonry tools on an experimental basis to distribute and see how that goes. If we sit and argue and discuss and conduct studies to see whether these things work, we'll lose another year. It's better to get the tools to the people and let them have a chance to start using them.

Health Conditions Deteriorating
Health conditions are deteriorating, too. Unfortunately, all the assistance from the entire international community is only a fraction of what is needed. It's a miracle there hasn't been an epidemic or a famine though you do see signs of under nourishment all the time, but not acute malnutrition.

Basically, people in Azerbaijan used to be quite healthy and robust. Sanitation was better. Water was better. Living conditions were better. There was more food. Now, they're living in very cramped conditions. All these factors have an incredible impact on health. Under identical conditions in poor countries in Africa or Asia, people would be "dropping like flies".

If there could only be peace, then the money wouldn't have to be spent on defense (more than 60% of the budget) and the government could catch its breath and restructure, reorganize and pay attention to running the society.

Education Plans
Lack of educational opportunities is one of the most serious problems facing the refugees. At the moment we're funneling a substantial amount of our own resources into education. We want to provide tent class rooms. Some insulated and some with electricity. If we can only provide a place for learning-chairs and desks-they can handle the educational aspects. Children need a chance to go to school. These last few years have been so disruptive for hundreds of thousands of children. They're losing their chance for any education.

The Bright Side-Under the Circumstances
It's not fair to complain about the conditions without commenting on brighter side of the situation here in Azerbaijan. Most people, for example, have shelter. Some, of course, have grossly inadequate shelter-living in tents, improvised shacks, railway cars, rooms dug out of the earth-but the vast majority have been provided for.

And it's incredible but you don't see the phenomenon of homelessness in Azerbaijan even though one million people have been forced from their homes and communities these past few years. Even in the most advanced countries in the world, you often have an overwhelming problem of homelessness. That's not a problem in Azerbaijan. People have each other. Relatives feel obliged and responsible because they know there is no governmental safety net. Everybody sacrifices and helps out. The result is that everybody has a place despite how inadequate it might be.

Coping Skills: Easy-going Nature
Sometimes, Azerbaijanis appear to be very relaxed and not very hard working. But maybe it's their easy-goingness and gentleness that makes them more tolerant and better able to survive. If you're very high strung and something goes wrong, you get very irritated and that would be even more harmful to the society. So this easy-going nature has served to diffuse a lot of their frustrations.

Another reason why our job has been reasonably easy in this country is that Azerbaijan has a reasonably good transportation and warehousing system. In Africa, for example, you can have baby food stacked up and rotting in the very same camps where kids are dying every day. Right in front of your eyes you can see the food spoiling. And you can't do a thing about it.

Here, fortunately, the weather is reasonably mild for most of the year and there are a lot of warehouses, empty buildings, and factories where supplies can be stored. The transportation network is good. Of course, it's not as good as western Europe. But it works.

When the last attack came this past spring, it was night. I called my colleagues and said we would have to move things the very next day. At nine o'clock the office opened and within three hours, the team was loading trucks. To mobilize in three hours and get the trucks packed-that's amazing. If you've ever worked in other countries, you know that's not easy.

Another advantage in Azerbaijan has to do with the nature of those who need help. First of all, this is not a "refugee" situation in the truest sense of the word. According to international law, a "refugee" is a person who has crossed a border into another country, and thus, by definition, is really a "foreigner". Of course, there's always less sympathy for foreigners. Government officials are obstructive and resistant. They don't want to deal with refugees. So it makes your job as a humanitarian agency very difficult even for the basic things like storing supplies in warehouses. But here, it's mostly a case of "internally displaced" people. It's their own people-Azerbaijanis displaced within their own country because they have had to flee the Armenians who have occupied 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territory. The war has been fought entirely within Azerbaijan's borders.

And the foreign humanitarian agencies which have come to help these people are quite well received. It doesn't mean there are no problems. But our difficulties don't relate to our being foreign organizations, but mostly to the lack of infrastructure.

International Assistance
On the whole, I must say the NGOs (non-governmental organizations) working here are genuine people. There's not much competitiveness among them, except a little which is of the healthy sort. Everybody, of course, struggles for money for their programs. I, myself, want more funds channeled into my programs than to any other UN agency. I can't be that generous. I have a job to do.

But we try our best to "be on our toes" so the donors can see the results and continue to fund us. So it's a healthy competition that forces us to be efficient. On the whole, I think there's a good relationship among the NGOs. We pull together when there's a need. Of course, American NGOs complain a lot about this Freedom Support Act. They're right-humanitarian aid should not be tied to political considerations. Azerbaijan should not be the only Republic singled out and denied US assistance.

Question of Fraud
People sometimes talk about corruption and fraud-to be sure, there is some. Even the President himself talked about corruption. It would be naive on our part ("those of us who do good work") to think that we are not touched by it. There may be a little bit, but, in general, I don't see evidence of large scale diversion of relief items and stealing. It would be impossible to prove it one way or another. The best thing we can do under the circumstances is to monitor the situation as much as possible, and do follow-up visits and check the distribution lists. But it would be impossible to tally it up and say, "We gave 253,000 blankets and here are the names of each recipient." Nor can we guarantee that someone hasn't received two blankets.

In my opinion, it's not so much corruption but a poor distribution system. The government and the administrative structure is too weak. Resources just don't exist. For example, an office should at least have a typewriter and some carbon paper. Such technology is old by Western standards. But most offices don't even have this things so personnel are still painstakingly copying everything by hand. The other day, I went and asked an office to give me a distribution list only to find that it was their single, only record. Had I taken it, they would have had no record at all. They don't have photocopiers. They don't have any of these basic things. So it's unfair to demand more than what the people in the country can deliver.

One of the main problems is that the population is dispersed throughout the country making any systematic distribution extremely difficult. Sometimes it's very hard to target the people who need help the most. As Azerbaijan has never had a disaster of this magnitude, they aren't well trained in disaster management and the country doesn't have much infrastructure to respond to such crisis.

Getting the Story Told
One of the other things that we need so much is for people in the international community to understand this problem. The "average Joe" in the United States doesn't know anything about Azerbaijan. If he knows anything, it's that he thinks that Azerbaijan has occupied Armenia and not the other way around. The other day at an international conference, a very sympathetic person came up to me and asked, "Tell me, why is Azerbaijan occupying Armenia?" Azerbaijan doesn't have the means to propagate its own viewpoint. It's essential that reports get back and reach the people who are concerned and will organize to do something to help us deal with this tragic situation.

Kaiser Zaman is head of UNHCR (United Nations Commissioner for Refugees) in Baku. His article "The Spirit of Johnny Appleseed: UNHCR Gives Seed to Refugees" appeared in our Summer 1994 issue, page 59. Susan Cornnell, staff columnist, also lives in Baku. She writes "Baku Diary".

From Azerbaijan International (2.4) Winter 1994.
© Azerbaijan International 1994. All rights reserved.

Back to Index AI 2.4 (Winter 1994)
AI Home Page
| Magazine Choice | Topics | Store | Contact us