Karabakh Children's Home Reveals Strains of Life

Once an orphanage, the institution has evolved to care for the child victims of a broken society.

Karabakh Children's Home Reveals Strains of Life

Once an orphanage, the institution has evolved to care for the child victims of a broken society.

The children’s home in Nagorny Karabakh is a happy place where the children joke with visitors, but its existence reveals strains in society 15 years after the tiny territory’s independence war with Azerbaijan ended.

Karabakh, which declared independence from Azerbaijan unilaterally in 1992, had no orphanages in Soviet times. The war in which it broke free from Baku, however, left many children unsupported. Its independence has not been recognised, with the result that it’s dangerously exposed and unable to repair the damage from the war.

The home was founded under the name Zangak in 2000 by Anna Asatrian, a teacher from Stepanakert, to care for children orphaned by the conflict. Its role though has evolved into looking after the children who fall out of the bottom of the republic’s fractured society.

“I like it here. They feed us well,” said Artur, a blond boy of around six just back from school.

His cheeky pleasure was characteristic of children at the home, where the staff members treat their charges warmly and are clearly adored in return.

“We do not call [this place] a children’s home. We don’t like that name as if it was some kind of orphanage where the children are treated badly. This is where we go gladly and, honestly. We really love the children,” said Liya Sarkisian, a nurse at the house.

She has worked there since 2008 when it came under the control of the ministry for social support, which is charged with helping children left without one or both parents for whatever reason.

“Sadly, we do not have any statistics about the number of children left without parents in those years. The war was going on, and people had no time for numbers. The most important question was just to survive … Only now have we come to projects and programmes of assistance for orphans, and are slowly collecting all the information,” said Vilen Bakhshian, the ministry spokesman.

The home now houses 39 children under the age of 18 of whom three are orphans and the others have either been abandoned or have just one parent. The youngest of them is Olezhka, who is seven months old. Her mother, who was young and unmarried, abandoned her and left for Russia. The child was sent to the children’s home. She will be adopted by one of the school employees when she turns one, which is the minimum age for adoption in Karabakh.

The oldest child is Narine, who lacks both parents and will turn 18 this year. Nonna Musaelian, the director of the school, said Narine will be provided with accommodation under a state programme when she leaves.

Some 12 such school-leavers have already received accommodation under the programme.

“We don’t just give them flats. The flat is completed, furnished. Everything that is necessary for a home has been bought, so the children are not just going into an empty shell but a house they can live in. We plan that another 12 orphans will receive homes by the end of the year,” Bakhshian said.

Not all the children in the school are orphans, however. Nine-year-old Alyona Osipian is from a large family and her six brothers and sisters also live in the children’s home. Their mother is ill and cannot support them, and their grandmother also cannot manage such a large family on her own.

Although the school’s staff members are glad that Karabakh now has the resources to support such children, who might otherwise be lost to a life on the streets, they still regret the traditions that have been lost.

Raya Minasian, a pensioner who lives near the children’s home, told IWPR how she worries for the kids who live there.

“It breaks my heart every day when I see these little children running past our house to school and back. I never believed that a day would come in Karabakh when such institutions for children would be opened. Even in the times of the Soviet Union we were proud that Karabakh was the only place where children were not sent into orphanages,” she said.

“This cursed war, it changed everything. Children were left without parents. It became hard to make ends meet. How many concerns were left on the shoulders of women, whose husbands were killed? Yes, it’s shameful that children are sent to these homes, but on the other hand you can’t blame the people who do so. Some of them are dead, some were not capable. What can we do? And it’s good that the children live well there ... I even offer them sweets, but they don’t take them.”

The nurses agreed with her that it was sad how their country had changed, but said they did their best to make the children feel they had a real home, and that the children appreciate that.

“In Karabakh tradition it is not acceptable to give orphans to an orphanage,” said Sarkisian, the nurse. “Parent-less children should be taken in by their close relatives: aunts, uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers. Now it has become harder to live, not all families are provided for, and that is why our young children end up here. However, it is good for them here. If they go to their families for a day or two, they phone us, they miss us and want to come back.”

Karine Ohanian is a member of IWPR’s Cross Caucasus Journalism Network.

Support our journalists