Women in Azerbaijan

© Nana Chukhua/ICRC

Despite the 1994 ceasefire agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the two armies exchange fire almost daily over the disputed Nagorny-Karabakh territory, making life difficult for those living along the contested border.

Nana Chukhua, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) economic security delegate in Azerbaijan, talks about the challenges of living and working in such a context:

What is life like for these people living under the threat of gunfire?

These are traditionally farming communities and the main problem they face due to the shootings is the lack of access to their land.

There’s a lack of alternative job opportunities, people’s income comes from livestock and agriculture. But as many fields along the contested border are exposed to shootings it puts their lives at risk to try and cultivate them.

Some people farm during the night and some people manage a bit during the day, but for maybe 10 per cent in every village their fields are too exposed, the risk is too high and they can’t work at all.

Has anything you’ve seen shocked you?

I remember the first time I was taken to meet some families living along the contested border. One family in particular, living in Gazian in Terter district, I will never forget.

It was a young family with three children. They were squatting in a house which was owned by someone who had gone to Russia. It was winter and there were no proper windows, no water or firewood. The poverty and hunger was so evident. There was no smell or sign of food.

One of the young children was sick and although it was completely unnecessary, the mother began to explain how their situation was so desperate. She started crying and her two-year-old came over to comfort her and tell her not to cry.

When I asked how they survived, she said with support from their neighbours. The only social assistance they received was around £80 per month. They didn’t have any land to cultivate and they had no money, livestock or other assets. Occasionally, her husband got a little bit of income as a daily worker, helping irrigate other people’s fields.

In each village there are five or six families in such extreme situations – it’s really shocking.

What is the Red Cross doing to help people?

The ICRC and the British Red Cross are working with the Azerbaijan Red Crescent running a programme to help people in a number of ways.

For families whose homes are really exposed to the fighting we’ve built protective walls around the entrance so they can come and go more safely. We’re also providing alternative water systems for those who were dependent on wells along the border.

For the most vulnerable people – those who have partial or no access to farmland or any other assets to help them survive – we provide cash grants. We are giving around £600 for households to invest in their livelihoods, such as buying cows and sheep or setting up a small grocery or clothes shop. We also give £280 for families to use as they please – most use the money for things like paying off debts or buying food, household items, clothes and medicine. Cash grants are good for people’s dignity and much better than just handing out food parcels or seeds and tools.

We also do projects to benefit the whole community, such as providing a tractor which reduces the amount of time they have to spend cultivating their land and therefore reducing the risks they have to take.

And we provide tents for ceremonies such as weddings and funerals – they are an important part of the culture and people often get into debt if they have to hire a venue for such an occasion. Now they have nice tents which they can use for free.

What is the most difficult thing about your work?

The most challenging thing for me and the rest of the team is the fact that not everyone in the village receives the cash grants. It’s hard telling people they don’t meet the criteria as they are not the most vulnerable, even though you can see that life is not easy for them either.

I accept that we can’t help everybody, but still it’s hard turning people away. However, I do believe we are helping alleviate the suffering of those in the most desperate situations.

One of the best things about the programme is its transparency and the fact the community is a part of the selection process, every step of the way.

So even though some people are angry at not being selected, if you ask them if they are the worst off in the village they will admit that they are not. For me this an important part of my work, talking to people and helping them understand, if they haven’t been selected, the reason why.

This programme really helps the most vulnerable become a little bit closer to their neighbours in terms of quality of life.

Find out more about our work in Azerbaijan