A generation that does not know peace: children and youth living on the Armenian-Azerbaijani frontline

12 August 2015 Nana Gamkrelidze

In the first of a series of blogs from the Caucasus Nana Gamkrelidze explores the impact of a resurgence in fighting along the Armenia and Azerbaijan border on youth, and the importance of including youth voices in peace projects.

“Sometimes my wife and I explode firecrackers at home, so that our kids get used to the sounds of shootings.” This comment came from a local resident of the village of Aygepar, Armenia, when we were discussing how the conflict affected children and youth living in the borderline villages of Armenia. The most disturbing thing about his words is that they are so commonplace.

The Nagorny Karabakh (NK) conflict is one of the longest-running and uncontrolled conflicts in the OSCE area. Since the ceasefire in 1994 there have been no major military hostilities along the Line-of-Contact around NK and the international border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, although exchanges of gunfire and active sniping take place on an almost daily basis along the front lines creating the situation of ‘no war – no peace’. The frontline communities living along the border suffer the consequences of conflict like no other group in the region; they are particularly exposed to regular shooting incidents and landmines. But I think it’s the children and youth living in the villages along the border who are quite often the forgotten victims of the ongoing ‘no war – no peace’ situation between these two countries.

In 2014 we began a project aimed at studying and publicising the security concerns of the communities living near the Armenian-Azerbaijani frontlines. Community members can report incidents via text message to a database which tracks and visualises them using Google maps and Google earth. As well as incidents targeting adults, a number of incidents directly targeting and injuring children and youth from both sides have been reported from the communities on the frontline – and children continue to face the indirect but traumatising consequences of the conflict.

In August 2014, the situation along the border escalated to a situation of ‘more war – less peace’ between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Several kindergartens were closed down in both Armenian and Azerbaijani communities, although parents often noted that they were not sure whether children were any safer at home. For example, in one of the borderline villages the kindergarten windows have been blocked up with concrete so that the bullets cannot penetrate the building and injure small children. It’s probably safer to be there during the shootings than at home with their parents and families.

Adults often state that they have got used to the frequent shootings, sounds of gunfire, shattered windows, damaged walls and staying indoors for long hours during the exchanges of fire between the military positions. But children cannot understand the necessity to stay at home in the dark for several hours. They do not know why they cannot play outdoors and why they have to sit in the classrooms without windows. They have never known peace; for them, this is the natural state of being. But as their parents often say, although it is not the right environment for youth, leaving is not an option – this is their home and they have nowhere else to go.

I have heard many times from the local residents of the frontline villages, as well as the representatives of civil society, that international organisations working in the area should work more to provide some kind of psycho-social rehabilitation services to the children and youth – especially to young adults who are the biggest resource for their communities to develop civil society, provide future capacity for employment, and so on. This is true, and certainly needed. But it is not really enough to simply treat them as vulnerable and damaged victims of conflict and passive members of society. it is time to involve youth in understanding and analysing the causes, and to view them as actors in the peacebuilding process and instead of merely providing protection, give them the confidence and capacity to deal with the problems and challenges in life.

One of the new parts of our project is to work with conflict-affected children and youth and engage them in the process of programme development. Incorporating youth perspectives on safety and security within their communities in our programming is important to help address the diverse needs of all generations living within conflict-affected areas. Empowering and supporting young people to participate in shaping their own future has the potential to not only make them more confident, active members of society and increase their income-generating opportunities, but will also lessen the chances of them becoming engaged in violence.

Excluding youth from peacebuilding processes and ignoring their vision while designing programmes will only contribute to their alienation from active community life. This may lead to them becoming less tolerant, more passive and vulnerable who, unlike their parents and grandparents, do not remember the periods of peace and have never met or been friends with their counterparts living on the other side of the border. Engaging them in peacebuilding processes at that stage will be either too late or next to impossible.

“It is time to involve youth in understanding and analysing the causes of conflict, and to view them as actors in the peacebuilding process.”

Nana Gamkrelidze