When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1989, many of its smaller countries were left floundering. Azerbaijan was one country that really felt the cold winds of change. In 1991 it fought a war with another newly independent country, Armenia, over the Nagorno-Karabakh region in the south-west of Azerbaijan. Many thousands were killed and more than a million were displaced. About 800,000 of these people still live in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps; Azerbaijan has the highest percentage of IDPs per capita in the world.
Many IDPs live in abject poverty, in accommodation with no warmth, ventilation or privacy – it is not uncommon for a dozen or more families to use just one toilet.
There is a high incidence of respiratory illness in Azerbaijan, and no-one is quite sure why this is. Numerous theories abound, from the amount of grain grown in the country to pollution levels and even the high number of mud volcanoes within the country. Whatever the cause, the problem is huge – within refugee and poorer communities, most families have at least one member suffering from these to life threatening degrees.
Poverty makes life difficult for vulnerable groups – the disabled, elderly, single parents, and orphans. Orphans often suffer more because the law says no-one who is not a blood relative of the child can be given parental guardianship, which prevents adoption.
Since 1997, WIN has worked among the IDP families, mainly by sponsoring children. At the start, the people were located in one area, near to the capital, Baku, but many people have moved away from the camps to rural villages in an effort to find work. Some have tried to return to their homelands, even though there is still tension, fighting and occasional sniping there.
People take whatever dwellings they can afford. One family set up home in a dilapidated wooden shack beside a railway. To make it habitable, they had broken up a wooden pallet and turned the slats from this into floorboards.
WIN’s representative, Tofiq, has to travel vast distances over dreadful roads, often in unbearable temperatures. A four wheel drive vehicle is essential; his current car is a Lada Niva, a make known as “the Russian Land Rover”, but it is reaching the end of its life and we are currently raising funds to help him replace it.
As well as sponsoring children, we also raise money for a feeding programme in a kindergarten, ensuring the children get a good meal every day, (for many, the only meal of the day) and we help a hospital for the mentally ill. We are trying to set up an occupational therapy unit there, enabling the patients to make arts and crafts such as jewellery that can be sold, eventually making the project self funding.
Long term, the Azeri people and their government should be able to address all their needs themselves. In the short term, they need our help to set them on their way to that state of being and, through child sponsorship, fund raising and encouragement, this is what WIN has set out to give them.