IFRC

Azerbaijan's displaced children

Published: 13 August 2002 0:00 CET

Nigar Garibova in Baku, Azerbaijan

Have you ever seen the eyes of a homeless child? What makes their smiling eyes so sad that you cannot quench the unbearable anguish oppressing your heart?

These were questions I had been asking myself while travelling from one refugee camp to another in the Saatli, Sabirabad and Bilasuvar districts of Azerbaijan, where more than 32,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) are settled in the seven so-called Southern Camps.

The Southern Camps were initially set up by the Iranian Red Crescent in 1993, after an armed conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan resulted in a huge population movement. Some 800,000 people were displaced and made homeless. In 1994, the International Federation took over full responsibility for the Southern Camps, which at that time gave refuge to some 55,000 IDPs.

In May 2001, with the final round of distribution of the ECHO-funded Food Relief to IDPs project, the Federation shifted activities from emergency relief to a more development-oriented operation. The Federation continues to provide support to the IDPs settled in the Southern Camps focusing on community-based programmes and activities.

The Swedish Red Cross and the Federation are supporting six projects implemented by the Azerbaijan Red Crescent in the IDP camps. The projects deal with support to children, women, skills training, food distribution, special assistance and Red Cross and Red Crescent development. Special focus is being placed on mobilizing the women and children, and supporting and encouraging them to participate more actively in community-based programmes.

The child support component of the programme implemented through the Azerbaijan Red Crescent volunteers, 120 in total, targets some 2,205 children in all seven camps. Staff and volunteers of the project organize after-school activities for children by involving them in drama, art, folklore and sport. Training provided to the Red Crescent volunteers on the Fundamental Principles, psycho-social rehabilitation of IDP children and health promotion issues is also a part of the project and focuses on ways of involving children in activities through different games and plays.

"Nearly ten years of camp life is too much for anyone. We already have an entire generation brought up in the tents and mud-brick dwellings," says Solmaz Maharammova, the Azerbaijan Red Crescent coordinator overseeing the children's project. "It was not easy at all to take children away from the streets and awake their interest in the activities within the project. So, we started our work step by step. And the very first step was mobilization of volunteers. The project would never have come true without our volunteers who did a really great job helping us to organize meaningful activities for the children."

Fizuli Husiyev, Gulovsha Huseynova, Ulker Guliyeva, Ayaz Guliev and Isfandiayar Mamedov, some of the Azerbaijan Red Crescent's young volunteers working with the children say: "We felt as if we were the ones responsible for the young generation in the camps. Who else if not us? When we were kids, we had been involved in different types of activities both at school and later after classes. There were a number of various circles, sport clubs, and we had a lot of options to meaningfully occupy ourselves. Our parents also did their best to give us as much as possible to broaden our horizons. Here in the camps, children have very limited opportunities for development."

While talking to the volunteers, I noticed a little boy lingering nearby. People are referring to him as "cucumber". Ilham Iskenderov, an Azerbaijan Red Crescent officer, tells me how he came to have that name. "A little while ago we organized a drama performances for the IDP children promoting healthy food and malaria awareness. This boy, Araz Shamiyev, played the role of cucumber, and he performed so perfectly that everybody started to call him Cucumber. We had another boy playing the cucumber before Araz but he has moved home with his family. Now they live in their newly reconstructed house in the rehabilitated village of Shukubeyli. We miss him a lot, but he's home now. What else would one wish for these displaced people?"

Aziza Azizova, the mother Yaver, Elvin and Brilyant, all of whom benefit from the Red Crescent programme considers it the most important component of the whole community development programme. "We mothers appreciate the efforts that the Red Crescent makes to keep our children busy while out of school. It's so hard to keep our eyes on our kids, when we have to solve so many problems during the day. Here in the camps everything takes twice as long to accomplish: cooking, washing up, washing and hanging out the laundry. Under these circumstances, our children are very often left on their own. I am so happy that my children participate in different activities like drawing competitions, dancing, puppet shows and sports."

The Azerbaijan Red Crescent, with the help of sister societies, also facilitates the return of IDP families from the Southern Camps to their homes in the village of Shukurbeyli, a small village that was, on several occasions caught in the cross fire of military conflict. They conduct children's programmes in Shukurbeyli to bring the repatriated children together through activities including dancing, singing, painting, and sport competitions.

I wondered, how the repatriated IDP children felt at home and if they missed their friends left in the camps. I addressed my question to a group of schoolchildren playing in the school yard and was summarily told off by a bright-eyed boy of nine named Saig Muradov. "We are not IDPs anymore! And of course we miss our friends in the camps. But we wish they joined us here soon and not us join them there again."

I asked him what home means for him. "Home for me is my dream come true," he declared passionately. "Lucky you! You should be very proud to work with the Red Crescent. It must be so exciting to make so many people's dream come true."

Saig thought for a while and then added: "When you meet my friends in the camps on your way back home, please tell them from me that everything will be OK in the end!"

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