Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenian War Wounded Wait for Better Times

Invalids of war have to get by on limited resources in Karabakh.
This is how we live,” says Gennady, shyly inviting us into his small apartment. He is a veteran of the Karabakh war, and a father of two.

“I don’t need anything – neither money nor fame, nothing,” he said apologetically, but with a certain note of despair. “In all my life I’ve never just clung to life, as some do. I wasn't afraid of death, and it's all right if I don't get rich. I just want my kids to live normal lives. I pray to the Lord for just one thing– that they don't live the way we did. We've seen too much blood…”

Gennady, a Karabakh Armenian, fought intensively in the 1991-94 war with the Azerbaijanis for control of his native territory. He started as a machine-gunner with a diversionary group operating behind enemy lines. He was wounded and shell-shocked, and won several medals.

Now, with the status of a “category three invalid”, he doesn't have a permanent job and lives in poverty, relying on his disability benefit of 70 US dollars a month, which is far from enough to cover the family budget.

His is not an isolated case. War veterans who were praised as heroes for their actions on the battlefield often find themselves unprotected on the home front, facing barriers of indifference and bureaucracy in Karabakh.

There are several hundred war veterans in Nagorny Karabakh, approximately 160 of whom were seriously disabled by their wounds and are classed as “category one”.

Wheelchair-bound David Hakopian from the village of Badara in the Askerian region entered the war as a 14 year-old volunteer, and was badly wounded.

When you talk to David today, you are infected by his cheerfulness, as if his disability is an illusion and like a fairytale hero, he will suddenly stand up and perform some gallant feat. Yet you also get the impression that for people like him, much remains locked up inside and the war has never really ended.

Several dozen people like David in Nagorny Karabakh suffered fractured spines. Most of them belong to an organization called Vita which has been active in the Nagorny Karabakh capital Stepanakert since the ceasefire of 1994. Many get treatment at the Baroness Caroline Cox Rehabilitation Centre.

In recent years, Karabakh war veterans, most of them “category one invalids”, have been given the chance to go to the Crimean resort of Saki in Ukraine for treatment and recreation every year. People from all over the Soviet Union go to the town, which has facilities for treating spinal injuries. This year, a group of 22 disabled people went there on a grant from the Karabakh government.

The injured veterans need continuous treatment, but there is a shortage of pharmaceuticals and medical supplies in Nagorny Karabakh. By law, category one and two disabled have the right to free medical supplies, while those in category three get a 50 per cent discount, but the right medicines are not always available.

Bako Saakian, elected president of Nagorny Karabakh in August – the republic is not recognised by the outside world – has said he will make it a priority to improve the lot of disabled and other veterans, as well as relatives of those who died in the war. An 11-storey apartment block was recently made available to the families of Karabakh army officers and veterans.

An increase in benefit payments is expected next year. Legislative changes last year improved the benefit system by allocating flat monthly cash payments instead of compensation for specific services. In addition, all disabled people in Karabakh were given the same level of benefits as those living in Stepanakert, who had been getting more.

However, non-governmental organisations say that there is still much to be done. The Union of Warrior Liberators, which has operated since January 2000, has set itself the goal of improving conditions for the wounded veterans and the families of dead or missing soldiers.

Another group, the Centre for Civic Initiatives, provides assistance for veterans, former prisoners of war and their families. They arrange computer courses, recreational and educational programmes, and debates. The centre’s psychologist provides both group and individual counselling.

Despite all this help, war veterans mostly have to rely on their own resources.

Mikhail Sarkisian, served as commander of an artillery platoon and thanks God that he survived.

The veteran says he doesn’t place any reliance in the Karabakh government or in the non-governmental organisations. At the same time, he says he has nothing to complain about, as he has a house and garden, a large family and a good job. His children help him, too. Two of his five sons have already served in Karabakh’s armed forces, and the third is currently in the military.

“We should rely mainly on ourselves. We have rich countryside all around us. All we have to do is work, not be lazy and not wait for help from others or for charity. I regard anyone who didn’t abandon their motherland in those difficult war years as veterans,” he said.

“The hands of the government do not reach everyone in need. Personally I don’t expect help from anybody. As they say, God helps those who help themselves. My arms and legs are intact; I have a head on my shoulders. What else do I need in order to provide for myself and my family?”

Ashot Beglarian is a freelance journalist in Nagorny Karabakh. The terminology used in this article is IWPR’s, not the author’s.

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