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Karabakh Rebuilds Schools

Diaspora charities are helping in the reconstruction of the education system.
By Ashot Beglarian
Nagorny Karabakh has always been proud of its education system, with many Karabakhis from humble backgrounds going on to achieve intellectual excellence in other places.



Schools managed to continue working during the war of 1991-94 but the conflict severely damaged the schools of Karabakh, with many destroyed in the fighting.



In the last year both the government of the unrecognised republic and Armenian charitable organisations have stepped up efforts to help the struggling school system.



The government increased its education budget by around a fifth for this year to five billion drams [around 14 million US dollars], while far-flung Diaspora charities have made a crucial difference.



And the money is badly needed, especially in the villages outside the capital, Stepanakert, where the situation is particularly hard. A total of 206 of the republic’s 238 schools lie in the regions, but only half the 21,000 pupils study there, with the other half going to schools in Stepanakert.



The small village of Nngi, with a population of just 327, is an ancient settlement in the south of the republic. The village is surrounded by wooded hills on three sides and has a fine healthy climate. But the local secondary school is in bad shape.



It’s a two-storey structure that looks like a temporary shelter, but was actually built in 1931. On the first floor is a gym that does not function, because the floors are rotten and the plaster is peeling off the walls – meaning that the children play chess or drafts instead of doing physical education. There is no science laboratory, no library, a lack of textbooks and only one working computer.



“Just about every year we make running repairs,” said headmistress Nelli Grigorian. “But the building needs a complete overhaul. In fact we need a whole new school building.”



There are 54 pupils, with the largest class having just 12 children in it and the first and second classes studying together. There are 17 teachers, many of them part-time, but a lack of qualified specialists. English teacher Nanar Gasparian comes from Stepanakert, 20 kilometres away, to give lessons and gets paid 50,000 drams [about 140 dollars] a month, of which she spends 10,000 drams on transport.



Given the situation, there are no outstanding students in Nngi. Grigorian said that the state of the school had a negative impact on its pupils and on the village as a whole, which already lives under the threat of landslides that threaten all its buildings and could mean Nigi will have to be relocated.



The secondary school in Khramort in eastern Karabakh is in a much better situation, in large part thanks to charitable support from the Armenians of far-off Argentina.



Most of the buildings in the village, including its school, were destroyed by artillery shells fired from the Azerbaijani town of Aghdam during the war, but a lot of rebuilding work has been done since then.



“After the war the pupil’s section of the school was restored, thanks to money collected by the Armenian community in Argentina,” said headmaster Armo Mkrtchian. “This year the rest of the school and the gym will be restored with state funding.”



Khramort has a much larger younger population than Nigi and also has a kindergarten with 25 children in it. There are jobs here and little emigration – in fact people are returning to the village – something Karabakh president Arkady Gukasian is actively encouraging. “We have two objectives – for Karabakhis to live in Karabakh and for villagers to live in the villages,” he said. “Because the best traditions are preserved in the villages,” he said on a visit to the village of Norashen last year.



To encourage villagers home, several dozen schools throughout Karabakh have been rebuilt in recent years, and schools have been re-equipped, though more expensive items such as lab equipment and computers are still a luxury for most schools.



Charitable support is helping a mass re-equipment programme. More than five thousand students from four Armenian universities are involved in a programme which has equipped the villages of Karabakh with more than 12,000 books. The French charity Shen plans to supply 400 computers to villages in Karabakh.



Shen is also involved in perhaps the most important work – giving support and training to Karabakh’s hard-pressed teachers.



More than 82 per cent of schoolteachers of Karabakh are women. The profession is still low-paid, with teachers getting around 150-160 dollars a month. This means that there is still a constant deficit of people willing to go into the profession.



The education ministry is embarking on its own reform programme to re-train teachers in line with international standards and to overhaul the structure of the school system. That includes the transition of schools to a 12-class system, with children starting at six rather than seven in a preparatory year.



“Any closed system is doomed to die out,” education minister Kamo Atayan told a press conference last year.



Ashot Beglarian is an IWPR contributor and freelance journalist in Nagorny Karabakh.

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