Everyday Battles Of Karabakh War Wounded

Karabakh Armenians disabled by the war with Azerbaijan are fighting for their rights.

Everyday Battles Of Karabakh War Wounded

Karabakh Armenians disabled by the war with Azerbaijan are fighting for their rights.

Thursday, 28 November, 2002

Eduard Abramian was wounded in 1992 in battles defending his home village of Maraga - spinal cord injures left this healthy, energetic man wheelchair-bound.

In a sense, though, Abramian and his family are very lucky, as he is one of the few disabled veterans of the 1991-4 Nagorny Karabakh war that have received a full course of medical treatment.

Abramian underwent two years' medical rehabilitation in Simferopol in Crimea, funded by the Karabakh Armenian government. With charitable help, he now has a flat on the ground floor of a house in Stepanakert, the regional capital, where he can move freely in his wheelchair.

Most importantly, in the Red Cross Rehabilitation Centre in the Armenian capital Yerevan, the war veteran received training in a new profession as a cobbler, which helps him to feed his family.

"You can't feed your family on a pension of 25,000 drams (less than 50 US dollars) a month," said Abramian. "My children have grown up: my daughter is a student, my son is in a military college, my youngest son is still at school. So a cobbler's job came as a blessing. Most shoes here are poor quality, they often fall apart. So there's more than enough work for me."

But if Abramian's story is a model case of rehabilitation it is unfortunately a very rare one. A vast number of those wounded in the war with Azerbaijan still suffer from psychological trauma and continuing illness as well as social and financial problems. And were it not for private charitable initiatives, their plight would be a lot worse.

Many of them embarked on a course of treatment, which was halted for lack of money. Kamo Avanesian, for example, was wounded in 1992 and treated for seven months in the Erebuin clinic in Yerevan. He was then transferred to a private clinic run by a Diaspora Armenian benefactor, Gevork Abgarian, in Marseilles. Kamo has the bone disease osteomyelitis in his left leg. But his stay in the French hospital had to be cut short for lack of money.

There are 2,139 people registered as being disabled by the war in the unrecognised republic.

The government gives them a number of benefits, including free medical treatment and education. A 1997 law gave them tax exemptions, but this has been wiped out by subsequent legislation. Every month they receive pensions of between 9,000 and 25,000 drams, as well as almost 7,000 drams in additional grants.

But this is still not enough for them to live on. "In actual fact, they are not socially protected," Eduard Agabekian, chairman of the commission on social issues in the Karabakh parliament told IWPR. "Under the market economy it's impossible to survive on such a tiny pension. And yet the state does have the funds to increase the level of social spending on invalids."

Aganbekian suggested money could be saved from the budget by cutting down on the government bureaucracy.

Another daunting problem facing the wheelchair-bound invalids is that Nagorny Karabakh's houses, offices and streets are entirely unequipped to cope with them. "It's simply awful," complained Armine Petrosian, who had medical treatment in the USA and was deeply impressed by the facilities for the disabled there. "Here in Karabakh we could create conditions which, if they are not fully up to international standards are at least close to them. It would help us feel that we are fully-fledged people."

The republic's ministry for development of infrastructure and urban construction told IWPR that the last plans to repair the streets of Stepanakert had been drawn up in 1998 and there was no provision for any new building work that would help the disabled move around.

There is better news for those requiring prostheses or artificial limbs. Over the past seven years, the town's orthopaedic technical centre has treated more than a thousand disabled people. The prostheses cost between 500 and 1,000 dollars and the patients get the chance to exchange them for new ones every two years.

The centre was set up by the international organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide but is now supported financially by the government.

The same group, headed by Baroness Cox, the British peer who is also the most active foreign patron in Karabakh, opened a rehabilitation centre in Stepanakert in 1998. Twelve physiotherapists were specially trained to work there.

The centre helps war invalids to recover their health, assists children with diseases such as polio and cerebral palsy and also treats people with speech defects. Around a third of the more than 400 patients the centre has treated have war wounds.

The staff say a major problem is that patients apply to them too late. "For the first time ever I've seen patients who have never received any help in their lives," said Christina Rafter, a physiotherapist from Great Britain. "It simply doesn't occur to people that they can get help. This centre is very important for patients like that and especially for the members of their families."

Rafter said she was impressed by the standards of healthcare in the centre, but the building itself needed improvement. Funded out of the government health budget, it lacks investment.

It is also confined to the city. "A big problem for us is we lack the opportunity to give the necessary help to patients in distant regions of Nagorny Karabakh who, because of their physical condition, cannot move around," said Vardan Tadevosian, director of the centre. "To arrange this we need to recruit two more nurses and buy a car, but we cannot do either because of lack of money."

The centre also runs a programme to reintegrate the disabled into society. They learn computer skills and study drawing and woodcarving. In August, the centre organised its first art exhibition.

Thirty-year-old Mkhitar Stepanian was confined to his bed by a spinal injury in the war. He took up woodcarving and began to sell a lot of his works. He now earns a good income.

Before the war, Eduard Abramian worked as a driver. When he was wounded, he set himself the goal of being able to drive a car once again. "I've made the car manually operated," said Abramian, who has no feeling in his legs. "Now I can travel freely to Yerevan and back. I am not locked up and I have remained the same fun-loving Edik. And that is very important."

Marine Mkrtchian is a journalist working with Nagorny Karabakh Television.

Karabakh, Azerbaijan
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