Azeri War-Wounded Fight Bureaucracy

Disabled veterans complain that they do not receive the benefits they are entitled to.

Azeri War-Wounded Fight Bureaucracy

Disabled veterans complain that they do not receive the benefits they are entitled to.

Monday, 17 December, 2007
Since the start of the year I’ve been cheated of 650 manats [770 US dollars],” said Eldaniz Gasimov. “For nine months I haven’t been able to get any money from the ministry of labour and social welfare.”

Gasimov is classed as a “category two invalid”, having lost a leg in the 1991-94 Armenian-Azerbaijani war over Nagorny Karabakh. There are three categories of disabled people, with one the most serious.

He lives with his wife and two children in one cramped damp room in a communal hostel.

As the family does not have its own bathroom, he has to use a nearby public bath-house to wash himself. He has slipped and fallen there on numerous occasions, and has broken his arm.

His wife has said she wants to file for divorce to escape the terrible conditions they live in.

Gasimov is one of the 7,000 soldiers of the Azerbaijani regular army who were wounded in the Karabakh war and who say their government has neglected them. According to the Public Union of Karabakh Veterans, there are around 13,000 disabled veterans – the additional number accounted for by interior ministry and security service troops.

Gasimov was only 18 when he was wounded in the western Azerbaijani city of Aghdam, just outside Nagorny Karabakh.

“In 1992 I was taking part in the battles for Aghdam,” he recalled. “In one of these battles, I came face to face with an Armenian tank. A fragment from a tank shell smashed my left leg. So I ended up with just one leg.”

After facing down death on the battlefield, Gasimov had to come up against his own government’s bureaucracy.

The second time he underwent tests to confirm his disabled status, he was nearly denied it.

“They didn’t want me to give me lifetime disability status. They said I should come back the next year,” he said. “I was so angry that I pulled off my prosthetic leg and banged it on the table. I asked them if I was some kind of magic creature whose leg would grow back by next year. After that they had to give me lifetime status.”

As a result, Gasimov receives disability payments worth 96 manats or 113 US dollars every month, of which 78 manats is the standard benefit and the rest a supplementary sum designed as compensation for benefits that have been abolished.

Up until 2002, disabled war veterans in Azerbaijan received a number of special benefits, including a 50 per cent reduction in household utility bills, housing expenses, telephone bills and nationwide public transport; full coverage of other expenses such as local public transport, medicines and artificial limbs; and exemption from taxes.

In 2002, some of the disabled veterans staged a hunger strike inside the building of the Karabakh War Invalids’ Society to press for a rise in benefits. Security forces surrounded the building before eventually storming it. Many of the protestors were beaten with truncheons and hospitalised.

After the protest, most of the subsidies were abolished and replaced by a single flat-rate payment of 18 manats a month, or about 20 dollars at current exchange rates.

The right to free prosthetic limbs was maintained, although veterans say that in practice they have to pay bribes to have them fitted, while the “socks” for amputated limbs which they are supposed to receive several times a month are only provided twice a year.

“This sum [18 manats] does not cover even ten per cent of the expenses which we used to have provided for,” complained Gasimov. “How can I keep my family of two children on such a pittance? How can I look them in the face when I don’t have a chance of providing them with the basic necessities?”

At the start of this year, as prices were shooting up, disabled veterans were encouraged by a decree from President Ilham Aliev raising the supplementary benefit from 18 to 65 manats a month.

Despite the edict, Gasimov says he has “not received a penny” of the extra money for the last ten months.

Rei Kerimoglu, spokesman for the Public Union of Karabakh Veterans said the social welfare ministry was refusing money to veterans under “contradictory pretexts”.

Elnur Kalantarli, press secretary for the welfare ministry, denied that there was a problem. “There are no violations [of the law] in this matter,” he told IWPR. “Karabakh war invalids receive all the money that’s due them. If they apply to the ministry with the right documents then there are no problems.”

Rufat Murshudov, deputy head of the ministry’s pensions department, said that only those war invalids who do not have a right to a labour pension are entitled to welfare benefits.

“Invalids in this group need to apply to the appropriate departments of the Social Welfare Fund and provide a document proving that they are not receiving a labour pension,” he said. “Then they will be paid the benefit that corresponds to their invalidity category.”

By law, disabled Karabakh veterans are entitled to free cars and housing, but many of them have not been able to take this up. One man who wished to remain anonymous told IWPR that he had been asked for bribes of 500 dollars to be allocated a car, and 5,000 dollars for an apartment.

Murshudov rejected such allegations, saying, “There is no question of there being any corruption.”

Gasimov says he is a patriot and would “go to fight in the front ranks” if the Karabakh conflict ever resumed.

“The state should take more care of its ex-servicemen, so that the soldiers of the future are not discouraged by government negligence towards war invalids, and go into battle to liberate Karabakh with confidence,” he said.

For himself, though, the dream is to leave Azerbaijan. “I would go to Turkey, Germany, America – I’d go to Africa, it’s all the same to me,” he said bitterly. “I just want to get as far away as possible from a country where they are contemptuous of those who spilled their blood or gave their lives for their native land.

“The only [other] way out is to hang myself or throw myself under a train.”

Vugar Baba is a freelance journalist in Baku.

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