Karabakh: Seeking a Normal Childhood

Day care centres struggle to rebuild young lives blighted by war.

Karabakh: Seeking a Normal Childhood

Day care centres struggle to rebuild young lives blighted by war.

Every day, more than 40 Stepanakert children wake up and hurry to a day care centre which has become a place of refuge. While the building is not far away, the road seems arduous as many suffer from chronic ailments such as heart problems, paralysis, deafness and epilepsy.

Before Zangak (which means Bell in Armenia), opened in Stepanakert three years ago, the concept of a care centre for handicapped children was entirely unheard of in Karabakh. "Once there was a woman at the doctor's office who said she wouldn't buy her sick child the chocolate the doctor had prescribed, saying she couldn't even afford to buy bread," said Anna Asatrian, who chairs the Union of Handicapped Children, the umbrella organisation for this unusual centre.

"That made me sad. Eventually I formed a group of associates and together we set up this kindergarten for handicapped and underprivileged children."

Almost nine years have passed since the ceasefire that halted the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorny Karabakh. Since then a whole generation of Armenian children has grown up in the unrecognised republic, their childhoods blighted by war and by the hardship of the years that have followed. Physical deformities, congenital handicaps and mental disorders are still all too common amongst children.

There are currently some 25,000 children in Nagorny Karabakh, more than 400 of whom suffer from disabilities.

The Karabakh Armenian government has launched a programme to encourage families to have more children and help large families in the republic to survive. For every third and subsequent child, it puts 700 to 2,000 US dollars in a bank account, which the child can only claim when he or she reaches the age of 18.

Some two thousands accounts have already been allocated. More than 40 have been opened so far this year and the government has earmarked 800,000 dollars for the programme for 2003.

This month, the government raised the amount to 3,000 dollars if a family has nine or more children. Thirty-five large families in the republic have had houses built for them and two families with a tenth child have been given a car.

Recently, the Karabakh parliament also passed the first draft of a new law, which gives governmental assistance to needy children who have no parental protection. The legislation promises them benefits such as free education, healthcare and housing.

As the range of problems faced by children is too big for the government to handle on its own, most of the burden falls on international and non-governmental organisations, NGOs.

"Since we aren't open 24 hours, some parents won't let their children come. That way, they only encourage the youngsters to beg on the street," said Asatrian. "Some parents actually do it on purpose. Young beggars feed themselves and their families. We try to talk to those parents and persuade them not to do this."

The centre can help solve that problem if it achieves its next goal, which is to find funding to open a live-in boarding school for 30 children. Other projects - to send children for medical treatment and renovate the building and its facilities are on hold because, like most NGOs in Karabakh, the centre is pressed for funds. It employs an instructor, two assistants, a nurse and a cook, who are paid around 30 dollars a month for their duties.

"One of our wheelchair-bound children, Varujan Agajanian, died last year aged 15. We paid for his funeral," Asatrian recalled. "Varujan had no father, and his mother is mentally ill, so I mobilised all my friends to help. We got the planks from somewhere and made a coffin for him, while someone else brought cloth to line it."

Many NGOs are still coping with the direct aftermath of the fighting. The international medical organization Médecins Sans Frontières opened a centre for psychological rehabilitation in Stepanakert in 1994.

The centre's staff say that the number of children suffering from psychological disorders surged right after the war. Their symptoms included fears, pathologies and problems such as nightmares and stammering. Teenagers who are still suffering from witnessing the horrors of war as children are still visiting the centre.

The Nagorny Karabakh office of the International Committee of the Red Cross has been running a landmine awareness programme for several years, teaching locals to look out for potentially lethal devices that were left over from the war. Earlier this month the office started a new programme called Safe Children's Playgrounds. They plan to build 30 new playgrounds, located far from minefields, in villages throughout the republic.

Another local charitable organization, the Centre for Children's and Young People's Creativity aims to combine social and artistic goals. Children are taught different arts and crafts and their works are exhibited around the world. For the staff of the centre it is another way of providing Karabakh Armenian children with a normal childhood.

"Vagrant, unattended children on the street are a sign of social disorder, even a threat to society," said Lyudmila Barsegian, director of the centre. "The more youngsters come here and get involved in creative activity, the more confident we are about our future."

Ashot Beglarian is a freelance journalist based in Stepanakert, Nagorny Karabakh. The author has asked us to say that he will be pleased to give any more information about the charities mentioned in this article. He can be contacted on the address ashotbeg@yahoo.com

Karabakh, Armenia
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