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A permanent home? Hopes for peace in borderline communities in Armenia

21 December 2015 Nana Gamkrelidze

In her latest blog Nana Gamkrelidze reflects on the results from consultations with communities in Tavush, Armenia.

“People from the conflict-affected region of Tavush (Armenia) are an inspiration to the residents of other communities. They show their determination to stay in their villages, protect their land and keep the local culture alive.” – This quote, from the mayor of a community of Armenians, during the presentation of community safety concerns to various local and international actors in Yerevan held on 20 November 2015, highlights a crucial factor in hopes for peace in the area.

Between August and November 2015 Civil Society Institute, Saferworld’s partner organisation in Armenia, organised a series of community-based needs assessment trainings aiming to build the capacity of the local population to assess and prioritise the problems of their communities and suggest potential solutions. The trainings took place in the borderline villages of Armenia that are exposed to frequent violations of the ceasefire agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan. As a result of the training, community members identified several high-priority issues in their respective villages and developed proposals for addressing those problems. The proposals mainly focused on infrastructure initiatives, including the installation of street lighting, the repair of village roads, water system rehabilitation, the renovation of kitchens in village kindergartens, the improvement of local healthcare facilities, and the provision of income-generating opportunities for the local population.

Considering the fact that daily skirmishes and shootings are the biggest problems for the frontline communities, it was quite remarkable that most of the above-mentioned initiatives did not exclusively focus on community security and safety. I personally expected that the majority of community initiatives would revolve around the construction of protective walls close to the houses and schools and a desire to build safe playgrounds where children can play free from the fear of being hit by bullets. On the other hand, the action plans developed by villagers emphasised the fact that despite the current unbearable security situation on the frontline, local people still see the borderline communities as their permanent homes; they do not intend to leave or raise their children elsewhere, and instead of thinking about temporary solutions to the security situation, they demand longer-term improvements to the quality of life.

The fact that even after the severe military escalations in August 2014 and September 2015 the frontline villages on both sides of Armenian-Azerbaijani international border have not been entirely depopulated indicates that there is still some hope left for a lasting peace among the people living on the frontline. Some of the village mayors claim that during the last decade people have become more active, and they are now able to prioritise the most urgent issues and communicate their concerns to government and international organisations in a constructive and consistent way; unfortunately, the responses are often uncoordinated or inadequate.

In November 2014 the government of the Republic of Armenia passed a law on “Social Assistance to Borderline Communities”, envisaging the partial compensation of damage to civilians’ property from gunfire or shelling as well as the expenses on natural gas, electricity and irrigation water for permanent residents. Thirty-one borderline communities will benefit from the state budget allocations. In 2015 compensation for uncultivated fields and damaged buildings was provided to the local residents, although given the frequency of shootings and skirmishes on the frontline, it is virtually impossible to register and/or compensate every single shattered window or broken roof, not to mention the irreversible psychological damage caused by living in constant fear and distress.

Locals often mention that lately the interest of international organisations, local NGOs and the private sector towards the borderline villages has increased significantly. More international organisations have launched programmes and projects aiming to improve the quality of life of these communities. However, there is a visible lack of coordination among the civil society organisations as well as different government agencies. As one of the community representatives put it: “The international organisations, government and local companies need to finally agree what they expect from these villages – do they want us to leave our homes or stay and strive for a better life? If they expect us to stay, then they need to provide sufficient support.” Indeed, the problems of security, unemployment, poor infrastructure, and access to basic services still remain. The vast majority of these issues are too big to be addressed by one organisation or agency; there is an immediate need for a joint action, eliminating all possible gaps and overlaps in the delivery of assistance to respond to the most urgent needs of the borderline communities. If civil society organisations can improve coordination, and the government of the Republic of Armenia can continue to provide necessary support to communities, then their will to remain in their homes may be a pathway to local peace.

Find out more about Saferworld’s work in Armenia and Azerbaijan.

“Villagers emphasized the fact that despite the current unbearable security situation on the frontline, local people still see the borderline communities as their permanent homes.”

Nana Gamkrelidze