Azerbaijan International

Winter 2002 (10.4)
Pages 72-75

Article from Autumn 2000

Bare Cupboards
Refugees Struggle to Feed Their Families
by Farida Sadikhova and
Arzu Aghayeva

When choosing the theme for this issue [AI 8.3], we knew that we couldn't cover food in Azerbaijan without talking about those who need it most - the refugees. Nearly 1 million Azerbaijanis (one out of every eight people) were forced to flee their homes because of the conflict with Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Hostile foreign troops still occupy nearly 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territory. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Azerbaijanis live in refugee camps throughout the countryside, still waiting to return to their native lands.

This past July [2000], we visited Sabirabad, about two hours southwest of Baku, to learn how refugees cope when there is so little to eat and no cash to buy food. For the 10,000 refugees who live in this, the largest of Azerbaijan's refugee camps (Sabirabad Camp No. 1), much of the day is spent doing manual chores: hauling water, washing clothes by hand, gathering wood or dried manure, making their own bread and trying to keep their families together. These exhausting tasks are carried out by individuals who are already weakened by malnutrition. Nor does weather help matters, especially in summer, which can be blisteringly hot. Amidst all these obstacles, we wondered: how do they manage to survive?

Ismat Aydinova, 34, is from the village of Ishigli in the Fuzuli region. After fleeing from her home during the Karabakh War, she ended up at the Sabirabad Refugee Camp in 1994 along with her husband and their three daughters. Today her children are 15, 11 and 8 years old. They live together in a one-room mud-brick shelter that they built with their own hands.

Left: Weak tea is a common sutstitute for food in refugee camps. Refugees drink it to stave off hunger when there is little else to eat (Photo: Vugar Abdulsalimov).

One of the greatest differences between the home she used to have and the refugee camp where they now live is simply not having enough food. Ismat remembers: "We used to have a big garden in our village with all kinds of fruit: cherries, pomegranates, apples, pears, peaches and quince. We also grew vegetables like tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, onions, eggplant and various green herbs. We didn't have to go to the market because we already had everything we needed. We could cook whatever we wanted: kabab, eggplant dolma, bozbash [a meatball soup].

"We also got milk from our sheep and cow. We made our own yogurt, so my kids could have ayran or dovgha (yogurt-based beverage and soup) any time they wanted. Those were their favorite foods."

Water was nearby and crystal - clear. "We had our own well and could drink ice cold water from it," says Ismat. "We also had artesian water running from taps."

Day - To - Day Struggle
Returning to this former life seems like a dream for refugee women, who now struggle to put any food at all on the table. "We can barely make ends meet until the end of the month," says Ismat. "That's when the government gives us 20,000 manats per person, plus an extra 9,000 manats for each child. Overall, we receive 120,000 manats, totally about $30 each month."

Left: A refugee family with only bread and tea for dinner. Self-portrait from Saatli Camp No. 1, 1997 (Photo: Refugee Portrait, 1997).

Monthly rations from humanitarian agencies such as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRCRC) typically amount to 5 kg flour, 1/2 kg sugar, 1 kg navy beans or rice and 200 g tea. There is rarely any assistance with meat, fruit or vegetables.

So what do you eat? we asked. "In the morning we have curds [similar to cottage cheese]," says Ismat. "Just curds, bread and sweet tea. Nothing more. "Sometimes we eat twice a day, sometimes once, sometimes three times," she says. "It depends on how much is available to eat. When I say we have a meal, it doesn't mean that we have something that can satisfy us. They're more like snacks. Our largest meal is lunch, which may consist of potatoes or occasionally, soup.

"Yesterday for lunch, we had boiled potatoes. One potato per person. In the evening we had tomatoes. Just tomatoes. Not fried, just tomatoes by themselves, because they're cheap."

The refugees' diet depends completely on what's available at the time. Most of the time they make soups from tomatoes and potatoes. Sometimes they have fried onion with eggplant, beans or some sort of pasta. Usually, they get these extra items with credit at a produce stand in the camp.

Tomatoes, Tomatoes
"In the summer we eat mostly tomatoes," another refugee mother confesses. "They're cheap, so we eat them all the time - summer and winter. In the winter, we prepare dishes made with canned or pickled tomato-soup or scrambled eggs with tomatoes." Again, eggs are usually bought on credit which is paid back when the monthly assistance comes in.

Photos (Left): Water is always a problem in the camps. Here Pari Guliyeva, a refugee from Zangilan, washes dishes from an improvised container which must be filled each day.

Right: Preparing tea in a samovar outside the train boxcars where this refugee woman and hundreds like her have claimed as temporary shelter. Saatli region (Photo: Vugar Abdulsalimov-UNHCR).

Neighbors comment that in winter they often eat pickled cucumbers and tomatoes with bread or make a thin broth with rice or noodles. Even basic cooking ingredients like butter are nearly impossible to get, though many of the residents used to make their own.

Ismat recalls, "At home, we used to always have butter made from real milk. It was imported from Moscow. But here we buy vegetable oil. It's much different from what we used in our village. The taste and quality is different. We have no other choice here; we have to use vegetable oil."

Very Little Protein
Refugees eat very little meat, often no more than once a month. One kilo of meat (lamb) costs about 10,000 manats (about $2). Refugee mothers often buy only small portions of meat so that the family can eat it at two or even four meals. The meat may be ground and stuffed in grape leaves to make dolma, or made into a broth with potatoes, "sous". This month they had not yet received any aid yet, so they had not had any meat.

Ismat likes to spread out the meat to last four meals. "I buy it in four small portions - then I can cook a meat dish four times a month," she says.

Other ingredients are also bought on credit. "In our camp, there's a small store that belongs to a refugee," Ismat says. "We buy things there like bread, pasta, tea, sugar, rice and flour, in small portions. We don't pay for the products right away; we buy them on credit. For example, when there's nothing to eat except bread, I have go and ask the store owner to give me rice or pasta." "The store owner has debt lists for all of us," another refugee mother admits.

Only Bread to Eat
Flatbread, the refugees' staple food, is made by hand - a time-consuming and labor - intensive process. Ismat bakes two or three loaves of bread every other day. She makes a yeast dough from flour, yogurt and a pinch of salt. There's a tandir oven nearby, which is shared by ten neighboring families in the wintertime. The oven is made of dried mud. It's not built underground like some tandirs are. There's a special cover on it, a sort of roof, to protect from the sun and rain.

"To bake the bread, we gather twigs and small pieces of wood, place them in the tandir and build a fire," says Ismat. "We slap the flat pieces of dough against the inner walls of the tandir oven, making them stick. About five minutes later, they're ready to take out. We never throw away the burning ash from the tandir. We take it home and use it to warm up our mud-brick shelters - especially in the fall and winter."

Some of the neighbors buy wheat and have it ground into flour. "We buy wheat in Sabirabad," says a neighbor. "It's 500-700 manats (about 25 cents) per kilo."

There's a mill in Sabirabad where the refugees can get the wheat ground. Some people bake bread in a tandir, some on a saj (an iron disk for baking bread or lavash). Some have simple kerosene burners, and a few privileged ones have access to an electric oven. There's a tendency to make more bread in the winter - eight or nine loaves to last most of the week. But in summer the bread quickly gets moldy, due to the heat.

No Refrigerator
Lack of refrigeration is a problem, especially during hot weather. "I don't have a refrigerator here," bemoans Ismat. "I had one before I became a refugee, but I couldn't bring it with me when we fled. I barely managed to get the kids out safely. Some people in the camp have refrigerators, but most don't. So I can't keep food. If I make fried potatoes or pasta, we have to eat it all right away because there's no way to keep the leftovers. Otherwise, we end up throwing them away."

Ismat says that she and her neighbors have improvised a partial solution: "Our neighbor Orkhan, a 10-year-old boy, dug a well in the ground, about 6 meters deep. There's water down there that's not fit for drinking because it's very salty. But we can manage to keep our cheese and bottled water cool just by lowering it into the well. Things stay cool down there. When we need them, we just pull them up."

Dirty Water
There is no indoor plumbing in these camps. The water hauled from nearby taps is undrinkable, refugees say. "We drink tea instead of water," says Ismat. "The water is full of dirt, and not drinkable. When my kids are thirsty, I never give them water - just tea with a bit of sugar. It's safer.

"There are water taps in the camp," she explains. "One for every 20 houses or so. We get the water from those taps; it comes from an open ditch or canal. They say it gets purified in the cistern, that chlorine is added or something like that. But the purification system is not very good, as the water is obviously dirty."

Even so, there are long lines, making the process of getting water a very time-consuming chore. "The water is available twice a day: from 8 to 9:30 a.m., and then again from 5 to 6:30 p.m.," says Ismat. "I usually go get water about 7:30 in the morning, or sometimes earlier. I get up early and go stand in line. If you go at 8:00 a.m. you'll get stuck waiting and not be able to return until 9:30. We usually carry the equivalent of about ten pails - about 50 liters - to our homes.

"Then we boil the water, otherwise we wouldn't be able to use it. Even then, it's still not pure. We used to have electricity 24 hours a day, so we didn't have a problem with cooking or boiling water. But in the past year or so, sometimes the electricity cuts off and we have to build a fire on the ground."

Keeping Clean
The water hauled from the taps is used for more than just cooking and making tea. "I use water from the communal faucet to wash dishes," Ismat says. "After we eat, I wash the dirty dishes in a wash basin. If the plates are not that greasy, I simply rinse them in cold water. When they're greasy, I wash them in warm water."

Taking a shower is a luxury that only comes once a week. "We don't have a bathroom in our house," she explains, "but there's a bathhouse in the camp. It's not so big, about the size of a two-room apartment. It's divided into two parts: one section for men, the other for women. It's open one day a week, from 3 to 10 p.m. It's always crowded." Some refugees opt to wash with a little water in a bucket at their homes. It's a very common practice.

Poor Growing Conditions
A casual observer may ask, "If refugees have so much trouble getting food, why don't they just grow it themselves?" It's not that easy, says Fariz Ismayilzade, Resource Center Coordinator at the International NGO Hayat. "When we talk about refugees, we have to remember that they had a completely different lifestyle in their native lands.

"They had pastures, they raised sheep, they planted gardens and crops. When the refugees moved to camps, they lost their traditional lifestyle. Even though they have enough space, the growing conditions in the camps are very poor. They can't grow the things that they used to grow in the mountains. So they've had to change what they eat.

"Refugees in Sabirabad and Saatli may have access to a market," he continues, "but they don't have any money. I've seen ducks and chickens running around in those refugee camps, so apparently some of the refugees have a little 'property' of their own. But inside their houses they don't have anything. They eat from day to day and are unable to store anything."

"What can we grow here?" Ismat asks in frustration. "First of all, we don't have any money. Second, the soil is very salty, so nothing grows. When my youngest daughter sweats, crusty salt appears on her skin. I think it's because we live on very salty soil."

Showing Hospitality
If you visit an Azerbaijani refugee camp, you will immediately notice that the refugees still believe in showing hospitality, even though they can't lavish food upon their guests as they once did. Fariz recalls taking some Italian journalists to one of the Sabirabad camps last year.

"We stopped at some boxcars parked on a railroad siding in the middle of nowhere, where six refugee families were living. As we were leaving, I saw one of the refugee women offer some lavash [paper-thin bread] to the journalists. The bread was really dark, probably made from the worst quality of wheat. Obviously, it was all she had. I tried to offer the woman 10,000 manats (about $2.50), but she refused it. She wouldn't accept any payment, despite her destitute situation."

It's not uncommon for refugees to offer guests, especially foreign guests, whatever they have, even when they don't know where their next meal is coming from.

Having enough dishes is also a problem. "We own a total of five glasses with saucers, five or six plates, and a couple of dishes," Ismat says. "Sometimes when we have guests, I want to treat them to tea, but I don't have enough glasses."

If there's a special occasion at the refugee camp, such as a wedding, the host usually buys food on credit, trying to make the spread as festive as possible. These days at weddings, refugees usually serve dishes like sous (a stew of meat, potatoes and chickpeas in a tomato sauce) and dolma (stuffed grape leaves), but not usually pilaf (rice).

There might also be apples, pomegranates and quince, plus soft drinks like Fanta or cola. Guests who come to the wedding usually offer presents of money to help pay for the wedding. So often the conversation at the table is not about how nice the wedding is but rather about the good times that they're missing from the past.

Constant Heartbreak
Perhaps the worst aspect of facing these daily challenges as a refugee is having to watch your own children go hungry. "Look at my kids!" Ismat exclaims. "They're so skinny and pale. Sometimes, it's only bread that we have to eat for two to three days in a row. Bread and absolutely nothing else. In the summer when so often there are only tomatoes to eat, my children complain of terrible pains in their stomachs. Maybe it's because they're constantly eating the same food, or maybe it's because the tomatoes are so acidic or even spoiled."

Ismat says that sometimes her children are too weak to get up and do the simplest tasks. "My kids are not very strong. Sometimes when I ask them, 'Go and bring me this or that,' they say, 'Mom, I'm too weak, I can't go and bring it.' They simply don't have any energy.

"Kids like to eat fruit. But the last time my kids ate fruit was a month ago - they had some plums and a pear. Some fruit sellers from the town came to our camp. We happened to have a little money and bought some fruit. When we don't have any money, sometimes I go and exchange a kilo of flour for 2 kilos of fruit.

"It's very difficult for mothers to see their children go hungry. I don't know what to do when my kids ask me for something to eat. My younger ones often cry and say: 'Mom, they're selling watermelons over there. Please buy us some!' But I don't even have 500 manats (11 cents) to buy a watermelon.

"When I can't give my kids what they want, I feel so depressed. My heart breaks, but I try not to show it. I just tell the kids that I can't buy it. I try to explain our situation to them.

"Sometimes my kids smell a neighbor cooking kabab and they come running: 'Mom, there's a good smell coming from that house. I want to eat what they're eating, too!' I try to distract them, saying: 'No, it just seems that way; they're not cooking anything.' I try to make them believe that they didn't smell anything. It's a lie, but I have no other choice.

"Often when I see that my kids are hungry, I give my share of food to them. My youngest daughter notices and asks: 'Mom, why aren't you eating?' I tell her: 'Don't worry, I've already had my share.' How can I eat when my kids are hungry?"

Most refugee kids learn from an early age to keep quiet about their wishes. They see the situation. They understand. There are no jobs - nothing. The neighbors are all in the same situation. Everyone is poor.

Risk of Disease
Malnutrition makes refugee children vulnerable to another threat - disease. With no money for medical treatment or supplies, refugee parents watch helplessly as their children suffer from diseases like scabies, influenza, malaria and tuberculosis.

Fariz says, "In the Sabirabad refugee camp, I met a woman who was 35 years old, but she looked more like 50. She had two little children. I was showing a foreign journalist around. Suddenly the woman started screaming: 'Come here! Come here!'

"When we went over to where she was, she told us that she had tuberculosis and that nobody was helping her. She called her kids to come out of the house. They were so thin and probably had not had any meat in a long time. She said that her children would soon have tuberculosis, too. She was desperate and wanted to ask local and international organizations to help."

Decreasing Aid
What do the coming years hold for Azerbaijan's refugees? At least in the immediate future, prospects look grim. Refugees will tell you that during the past eight years they've been living in the camps, the situation has gone from bad to worse. "We don't receive as much food as we used to," they say. "Plus our children are growing up. They need more food and they need clothes."

Food rations are being cut back or eliminated altogether. "We used to get yellow peas as humanitarian aid," says Ismat. "Sometimes we would exchange the peas for curd: a kilo of curd for a kilo of peas. A kilo of curd costs 1,000 manats (equivalent to about 25 cents). But now we've been cut off from receiving the peas. We don't know what the future will bring. We don't know what we're going to eat."

Food isn't the only provision that's been cut back. "We used to get 30 liters of fuel as humanitarian aid each month. We use the fuel in the stove to keep the house warm. We received it as part of the humanitarian assistance from Iran. But now the supply of kerosene has been cut off because the aid has been decreased. We're concerned about how we're going to keep our house warm."

A New York Times article reports that the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) budget for Azerbaijan has been reduced from $12 million last year to $4.7 million this year [1997]. Fariz says that other organizations are also reducing the amount of goods given out to refugees. "Instead of giving out direct humanitarian assistance, NGOs [Non-governmental organizations] are developing more and more training programs. Most humanitarian organizations think that the crisis period of refugees - 1993 to 1995 - has already passed. For example, the humanitarian organization Hayat has been doing training on conflict prevention, legal rights and business skills. Instead of giving out food, as we were doing in 1994, we're doing more training."

Even though the Azerbaijani government reached a cease-fire with the Armenian forces in 1994, there is still no peace agreement, so refugees are not able to return to the lands that they consider home. Many of them have been waiting for eight years. Though still eager to return, most of them doubt that it will happen anytime soon.

"When neighbors gather, we often talk about food shortages and curse those who drove us to such poverty," says Ismat. "We often talk about the 'good old days' when we ate kabab, kufta and dolma. We want to go back to our lands and grow vegetables and fruits there. We don't want to stay in this camp forever."

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