Armenia and Georgia Count the Cost of Six Winters of Democracyindependence and Democracy Development Should Not Mean Abandonment. People Still Suffer

By Ascherson, Neal | The Independent (London, England), November 24, 1996 | Go to article overview
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Armenia and Georgia Count the Cost of Six Winters of Democracyindependence and Democracy Development Should Not Mean Abandonment. People Still Suffer


Ascherson, Neal, The Independent (London, England)


It is a hard and merciless landscape, this corner of eastern Armenia. The only birds are hoodie crows and magpies, flapping among leafless bushes. The clouds of a snowstorm slowly obscure the mountains of Azerbaijan and then the steppe which stretches up to the Azeri frontier, drawing in towards the drystone hovels where the refugees live.

We enter the house of the Russian woman. It is pitch-dark, cold as a tomb. The smoke of turf-clods smouldering in an iron stove makes the eyes stream but gives no warmth.

After a time, I can make out things. There is the outline of a tousled small boy, standing at a window stopped with plastic sheeting instead of glass. There is the white finger of an unlit candle on a cupboard, and a pale confusion on the floor which is the family bed. Finally, there emerges from the murk the silhouette of a tall young woman, leaning against the door-frame. She begins to speak - strange to hear the music of the Russian language in this savage place - but her face remains in darkness. Once she lived well, married to an Armenian in the Azeri city of Kirovabad. Then, in 1988, began the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh, followed by anti-Armenian pog-roms in the Azeri cities. The family fled, abandoning everything, and was settled in this wretched village once inhabited by Azeris who had been driven across the border when the killing started. The husband vanished. Without water, heating or money, two of her four children died of malnutrition. Oxfam has now provided the village with a water pipe, and the other villagers give the Russian woman bread when they can. But they are struggling to survive themselves and cannot always help. At first, she had electricity. But the post-Communist authorities cut the village's power off, and now demand from each family the equivalent of US$20 to reconnect the meter. A lucky refugee may get $7 a month in state support. The Russian woman's future is in every direction darkness. I have been travelling in Armenia and Georgia to see something of Oxfam's operations in the Transcaucasus, as the sixth winter since the collapse of the Soviet Union sets in. Few regions of the old Soviet empire have paid such a terrible price for independence, for the transition towards a market economy and for democracy - the last a very unsteady foal. That price has been paid in two kinds of suffering. The first is the plight of nearly 2 million refugees displaced by war, or by the 1988 Armenian earthquake. The second is the mass misery of ordinary people, whose lives have been devastated by economic collapse and the demolition of the old Soviet welfare system. In Georgia, nationalist risings have made some 250,000 people homeless. Most are Georgians and Mingrelians who lost their homes when Abkhazia rose successfully against Georgia in the war of 1992-3. In Armenia, there are some 300,000 refugees from Azerbaijan, and tens of thousands still homeless eight years after the Armenian earthquake. In Azerbaijan, which lost the Nagorno Karabakh war against Armenia and received nearly 750,000 refugees, there are enormous tented encampments three years after the end of the fighting. These are small countries: Azerbaijan is the most populous with 7.2 million inhabitants, and about one in ten of them is a refugee. Armenia, with 3.6 million, has about the same proportion. Georgia has about 5 per cent. The art of relief work includes understanding what you can't do. In Gumri, once Armenia's second city, where tens of thousands of earthquake victims remain homeless, a tuberculosis hospital had collapsed. The patients are still living in metal freight containers although the local authority promised two years ago to rebuild the place.

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