The collapse of communism and the rise of ethnic strife
plunged the southern fringes of the former Soviet Union into turmoil, particularly in the
Caucasus where some 1.5 million people had been forced from their homes in Georgia,
Armenia and Azerbaijan. Although there was sporadic media coverage of the fighting, the
world was largely unaware of the human suffering that followed for hundreds of thousands
of refugees and internally displaced people in all three republics.
But the refugees and displaced were not the only ones who are hurting.
The general populations of all three countries are also bearing a tremendous burden. The
infrastructure was collapsing, and in many areas of the Caucasus fuel and power supplies
are sporadic or non-existent. Trade and industry had ground to a halt, leaving hundreds of
thousands of families without jobs or income. Inflation skyrocketed and there were
shortages of just about everything. People were hungry, and the lines for
government-subsidised bread grew longer by the day. In Armenia, a half-kilo of butter was
the equivalent of a month's wage; a kilo of meat, two months' pay.
Following government level invitations, WomenAid International
established offices in both Armenia and Georgia in early 1993, marking the organisation's
first-ever assistance programmes for refugees and displaced people in the former Soviet
At least 350,000 people were displaced by ethnic conflict on
two fronts in Georgia, a country of 5.5 million people that was once one of the most
prosperous of all former Soviet republics. The first conflict began in November 1989
between the government and separatists in the South Ossetia region of northern Georgia.
The second - and largest - conflict erupted in August 1992 between the government and
separatists in the Abkhazia region of Northwest Georgia.
The displacements occurred in several succession waves. Up to 350,000
of Abkhazia's estimated population of 540,000 fled the region between August 1992 and
October 1993. Most of them, about 270,000 people, went to other areas of Georgia, while
the remainder fled to the Russian Federation, Armenia, Greece and other countries. The
majority of those fleeing were Georgians, who comprised 47 per cent of the population of
Abkhazia before the fighting - the largest single ethnic group, Abkhaz constituted only
about 18 per cent of the pre-war population, but today control Abkhazia. Other sizeable
ethnic groups included Armenians (18 per cent) and Russians (about 13 per cent).
In South Ossetia, about 16,000 people fled the ethnic fighting to other
parts of Georgia, while another 10,000 went to the neighbouring North Ossetia region of
Russia. In addition, at least 20,000 people have been displaced within South Ossetia
itself. The fighting also affected some 100,000 Ossetians living in Georgia proper. South
Ossetian authorities estimate that as many as 60,000 Ossets fled Georgia, most of them to
Refugees receiving desperately needed aid
Hundreds of tons of clothing, shoes, blankets, kitchen sets,
soap , detergent, food and heating stoves were sent to the displaced population. Valeri
Vashakidze, head of the Georgia State Committee for Refugees and Accommodation, estimated
that at least 60 per cent of all aid to refugees and the displaced in Georgia came from
international sources. Of the more than 250,000 displaced people in Georgia, approximately
70 per cent were living with host families, many of whom found it increasingly difficult
to support them. The rest were housed in schools, hotels, sanatoriums, hospitals and other
The effect of this influx on local populations, already reeling under
severe economic pressures, was dramatic. The population of the central town of Senaki, for
example, rose from 20,000 to 40,000 following the influx of displaced people, while the
regional center of Zugdidi swelled from 80,000 to 154,000 people. The state social
security network, which formerly provided assistance to some 1.5 million people, virtually
collapsed. "When we talk about assistance we don't mean only for the displaced
people", said Dr. Nino Uznadze, head of Georgia's International Humanitarian Aid
Commission. "Host families and many in the general population also need
UNHCR, the Russian Federation, Georgia and Abkhaz authorities
signed a Quadripartite Agreement on 4 April 1994 paving the way for the return of refugees
and displaced people to their homes in Abkhazia. The parties agreed that the return should
begin in the Gali district of Abkhazia, where the level of damage was much less and the
security situation better than in most other parts of the war-ravaged region. An estimated
80,000 people - most of them Georgians -
had fled the Gali district for other parts of Georgia. The return plan
assumed that some 40,000 of them would return to the Gali district. However progress has
been minimal due to a number of unresolved political issues between the Abkhaz and
Georgians. Recent fighting in the Gali region has led to most returnees fleeing the region
Land mines have been scattered undiscriminating by the warring sides,
particularly along the Inguri River in the Gali district. These weapons, many of which are
hidden in tea plantations and farm fields, pose a major threat to returnees as well as to
those who remain in the region.
At the height of the war in Georgia, WomenAid was able to
contribute 200 tonnes of food to "Operation Provide Hope", the 1993
American airlift of emergency aid for refugees in the Republic of Georgia. WomenAid
International's programmes in Georgia distributed approximately two thousand tons of
humanitarian supplies to internally displaced people (IDP's) and pre-school children in
kindergartens throughout the country. Street children were also assisted.
Refugee women and children
fleeing from Abkhazia had to travel
in bitter winter weather over the 2,780 metres high Chuberi Pass
Working once again in partnership with the UN World Food Programme,
vulnerable people, living in the highest villages in Europe, in the remote mountains of
Svaneti and Kodory Valley, Apkhazeti, received emergency food aid delivered by WomenAid
The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed
enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh left thousands dead, tens of thousands wounded and drove more
than one million people from their homes. In addition, the economies of both countries
were in ruins and hundreds of thousands of people were without jobs or incomes. As 1994
drew to a close, a fragile cease-fire remained in place in what had become the
longest-running conflict on the territory of the Soviet Union. However there was still no
immediate prospect that the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the fighting
would be able to go home.
In addition to many years of war, Armenia was staggering under the
effects of a de facto blockade by its neighbours that at times blocked nearly all
trade routes into the country, leaving it desperately short of food, fuel, seeds,
fertiliser and other essentials. With the collapse of the former Soviet Union, government
and regional administrative networks disintegrated. What was left of the economy was a
mixture of socialist, market and barter systems, under laid with what locals call a strong
"mafia" influence. More than 70 percent of the country's former industries had
shut down, and those that remained open were operating at only 10 to 20 percent of
capacity. The Armenian currency, the dram, was valued at 14.5 per U.S. dollar when it was
first introduced on 22 November 1993. By June 1994, it had depreciated to 400 per dollar.
During the same period, prices increased 23-fold.
The Armenian government estimated that 94 percent of the population of
3.5 million people were living below the World Bank poverty line of $1 per person
per day. The government was still trying to cope with the aftermath of the 1988 Armenian
earthquake that devastated much of the country, killed 25,000 people and left 500,000
people homeless. An additional problem was a refugee population of more than 300,000
people who fled the fighting Nagorno-Karabakh and other areas in Azerbaijan .
Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan arriving at a border
after fleeing fighting between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces
The general population as well as the refugees, found life
extremely difficult, particularly through the bitterly cold winters. When people are
sleeping in a room that's minus 10 degrees centigrade, on the ninth floor with no
elevator, no water, no electricity 24 hours a day and little food or fuel, it takes a huge
psychological toll and as each winter came, the ability of people to cope became less and
In 1994 WomenAid began operations in Armenia following a request from
the Government. Funded by ECHO and ODA, the first project provided 1600 tonnes of
supplementary food to 388,000 school children suffering from inadequate diet.
A further 500 tonnes of food and hygienic items were distributed to all
hospital patients. As the sole implementing partner of the UN World Food Programme
WomenAid also distributed almost 8,000 tonnes of food to 140,000 refugees and 100,000
vulnerable people throughout the country. Production of 'Narine', a medical food for sick
babies and infants, was revived by WomenAid becoming a hugely popular programme with
parents and medical staff everywhere.
WomenAid International's programmes in Armenia distributed over ten
thousand tons of humanitarian supplies to people in dire need.
An economic crisis, due to the collapse of the USSR, a devastating
earthquake in 1988 and a long war with Azerbaijan means virtually no money was available
to provide supplies or undertake repairs in schools, hospitals or institutions. No glass
for windows, no repairs for leaking roofs or water pipes, often minimal water and
electricity supplies had created appalling conditions. A major repair programme, funded by
ECHO, targeted 33 of the key national hospitals as well as 22 severely damaged schools.
WomenAid trained the workers, repaired roofs, glazed windows, manufactured and fitted
guttering and down pipes. In an environment of neglect and decay such a visible investment
in the country's future also provided an enormous boost of morale to staff, patients,
parents and children.
|The Republic of Armenia Ministry of Health
expresses its gratitude to WomenAid International for carrying out the Hospitals Repair
Programme during these difficult times in Armenia. I know that this programme is the only
one of its kind in Armenia on such a scale being implemented by humanitarian
organisations. I should like to mark the short time limits of the programme within which
the workers managed to do the repair-reconstruction works on a highly professional level.
Deputy Minister of Health, G
WomenAid also worked in partnership with the UN High
Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) installing drinking water pipes, irrigation networks and
building water reservoirs in refugee occupied villages bordering Azerbaijan.