Winter 1994 (2.4)
Keeps Water From Children
Private American Relief Efforts for Azerbaijani Refugees Are Stymied by a U.S. Regulation
by Jane Olson
Water is one of the most critical needs in the refugee camps-both for drinking as well as for sanitation. Tens of thousands of Azerbaijanis have lived more than a year under identical conditions to these here in Imishli. Kaiser Zaman of the UNHCR marvels that there hasn't been any epidemics. Photo: Oleg Litvin (Spring 1994).
After six years of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in western Azerbaijan, there is optimism, finally that a peace accord is near.
But it will be some time before the million refugees and internally-displaced persons, many of them from Nagorno-Karabakh, can return home. The "scorched earth" practices of both Armenian and Azeri military forces leveled villages throughout the beautiful mountainous region, an Armenian enclave that unilaterally declared independence in January, 1992.
Meanwhile, war-displaced families struggle to survive in every imaginable form of shelter: rusty, abandoned railroad cars, improvised "dug-in" sod houses on hillsides, rundown schools and other public buildings, trucks or tractor wagons and tent communities across the countryside sheltering from five families to 5,000 people.
The need for food, shelter, medical care and sanitation facilities will remain critical at least through the coming winter, and US policies are not helping. Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act of 1992, which regulated US assistance to the Republics of the former Soviet Union, forbids assistance to the government of Azerbaijan because of its blockade imposed on Armenia. This restriction applies not only to direct, government-to-government assistance but also to humanitarian efforts.
US Policy Interferes with Humanitarian Assistance
On a recent trip to Azerbaijan, we witnessed many examples of the negative impact of this US policy on both victims and relief workers.
For example, the International Rescue Committee, the largest US-based relief organization, stored thousands of dollars worth of tents, blankets and clothing in a warehouse with a leaky roof. Even though covered with plastic, the relief supplies got wet and moldy because the staff could not spend $700 for tarpaper to repair the roof. The warehouse, like most property in Azerbaijan, is government-owned. (Azerbaijan is just beginning to privatize.) Thus, to repair the roof would have meant assisting the government, which is not allowed under Section 907.
Trucks needed to transport and distribute relief supplies also are government-owned, and convoluted deals must be made with local drivers to "privately" lease trucks, needlessly delaying delivery of vital supplies.
Desperately needed latrine and shelter-building projects also have been delayed or derailed because cement and roofing materials can be obtained only from government sources.
And in the most dangerous example of strict interpretation of Section 907, Los Angeles-based Relief International was reprimanded for translating instructions on emergency medical supplies to Azeri doctors and health-care workers hired to serve at refugee camps. A staff person from the US Agency for International Development, which monitors compliance, considered the local doctors to be government workers, since the entire medical system and the university medical schools are state-owned. To translate medical indications, therefore, was to assist the government.
Clean Water-Desperately Needed
Even delivering water, the most dire need in every refugee situation, is being hindered. Azerbaijan, reportedly, has the worst water quality of the former Soviet republics. Children are deathly ill from diarrhea caused by poor water and lack of fuel to boil it. But the only company that can drill wells is government-owned.
There is hope: responding to complaints about the bureaucratic complexities and confusion caused by Section 907, Congress passed a bill giving the Administration 60 days to investigate the impact of the restrictions on private organizations providing humanitarian assistance. President Clinton signed the bill August 23.
It is always the most vulnerable groups who suffer from well-intentioned but poorly designed and applied government regulations. In this case it is the women, children and the elderly, who constitute more than 80% of the refugee population in Azerbaijan and throughout the world.
Jane Olson of Pasadena, California, is Co-Chair of Human Rights Watch / California and a Board Member of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children which visited Azerbaijan, June 8-18. In the last issue, she described the plight of Azerbaijani refugee women in "Families in Flight", (Azerbaijan International: Summer 1994, pp. 60-61).
From Azerbaijan International (2.4) Winter 1994.
© Azerbaijan International 1994. All rights reserved.