Azerbaijan International

Winter 2000 (8.4)
Pages 38-39

Making Houses into Homes
Eni and UNHCR Team up to Help Refugees

Above: Refugee tent camps in Sabirabad supplied by the Norwegian Red Cross and funded by the Norwegian government. The tents, intended as temporary shelter, have long since worn out and replaced by mud-brick shelters that were built by the refugees themselves. Photo: IFRCRC, December 1994.

Azerbaijan has approximately 1 million refugees as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh war with Armenia. Many of them fled their homes with just a few moments' notice, grabbing the hands of their children and running out the door with nothing but the clothes on their backs. In towns like Kalbajar, 3,000 meters up in the Caucasus mountains, they trekked through mountain passes in the snow for several days seeking refuge. Some died from over-exposure to the cold; others still suffer from consequences of frostbite.

Azerbaijan's refugees still dream of returning home despite the fact that it's been nearly nine years now that some of them have been living in temporary quarters - tent camps, abandoned buildings, railroad boxcars and underground dugouts. Azerbaijan's governmental officials insist that one of the conditions of peace with Armenia must be that these refugees can return to their homelands.

Left: Many refugees moving to the new camp at Beylagan had been living in buildings originally intended for sheep and cattle. Note the piles of sheep manure carefully gathered to be used as cooking fuel. International.

In the meantime, Eni, through its subsidiary Agip Azerbaijan, is funding a $2.25 million project to help provide two new settlements for Azerbaijan's refugees - for approximately 400 families in the towns of Khanlar and Beylagan. UNHCR is administrating the project under the direction of Didier Laye.
Finally, moving day had arrived. Refugee families packed up their meager possessions - blankets, clothes, stuffed mattresses, a few pots, plates and utensils - and headed to Beylagan, a new settlement in central Azerbaijan. After seven years as refugees, they still didn't have much in the way of material goods, but many families carried with them small pots of plants - flowers and herbs like mint and basil. Some they would put in their windows. Some they would plant outside.

"It's quite natural," says Vugar Abdusalimov, Public Information Officer for UNHCR, which organized the shelters' construction. "Even in the worst conditions, you see refugees trying to plant herbs and flowers - trying to create a touch of color. People want to ornament their lives despite the misery they live in. It seems innate - this quest for beauty and aesthetics."

Left: Moving day in October 2000; most families don't have much to show in terms of material possessions for the past eight years living as refugees.

Restored Dignity
It's not like these new shelters are luxurious - or even all that comfortable - but they represent a measure of hope for refugees who have been living in appalling conditions ever since they left their native lands during the Armenian invasion.

"More than anything else," Vugar says, "it seems to be a question of dignity. Some of these people have literally been living in pig sties and stables for cattle. Many refugees have told me that they feel ashamed because they can't build a house for their family. Whenever a child gets sick, the father starts blaming himself, saying, 'I couldn't provide a house for my family; we left our home behind in an area that is now occupied by enemy soldiers.' The fact that they now own something - a house - is very important psychologically."

This new sense of pride is something refugees can build on, he says. "We are speaking about people who are trying to create a future for themselves. Again, bear in mind that the ultimate decision for these people will be the day when they are able to go back home. But until then, we have to think about putting these people in decent conditions and providing them with a setting where they can live and send their children to school."

Left: Agip Azerbaijan funded UNHCR as the umbrella organization to coordinate the $2.25 million project which will house 400 families and an estimated 2,000 people in two separate communities - Beylagan and Khanlar. Shelters were constructed by Relief International

Homes Left Behind

The refugees in the new Khanlar settlement come from the Kalbajar region. Before the Nagorno-Karabakh war, Kalbajar was home to about 60,000 Azerbaijanis.

"Kalbajar had a very beautiful landscape," says Abdusalimov, "probably one of the best in Azerbaijan - mountains, forests, springs. Some of the best spring water in Azerbaijan comes from Kalbajar; it's called Istisu (Hot Springs)." The region is also known for the longevity of its people, many of them living past 100 years.

Maryam Fakhr-Brandt, the UNHCR Community Settlement Consultant for this project, tells the story of the refugees' March 1993 flight from Kalbajar: "We heard about it from a woman who had lived in Kalbajar with her brothers. Right before the Kalbajar area was occupied [April 2], the people in her village were trying to decide whether they should evacuate. Naturally, they didn't want to leave, but the Azerbaijani army had already abandoned its position, and the people were afraid that the Armenian soldiers would soon occupy their town. No authority told them what to do. There were only rumors flying around.

"The villagers decided to leave. The woman's brothers told her to go on ahead with some neighbors, and that they would join her later. Since there were no vehicles to take, she left as quickly as possible on foot.

Left: Keys for the brand-new refugee shelters at Beylagan.

The road south to Aghdam was filled with soldiers, so the villagers had to flee in the other direction - over a 3,000-meter mountain - north towards Ganja. There was deep snow on the ground. Some people died from over-exposure to the cold. This woman made it to Barda, where her brothers finally caught up with her a week later."

Meeting the Need
Ever since the Armenian occupation, many of Azerbaijan's 1 million refugees have been living in miserable conditions: tent camps, abandoned boxcars, the locker rooms under empty stadiums - even sheds and buildings originally intended for cattle. Anything to provide a roof over their heads.

To help improve the refugees' living situation, the Italian oil and natural gas company Eni, via its subsidiary Agip Azerbaijan, has funded a $2.25-million settlement project. According to Eros Agostinelli, Agip's Resident Manager in Baku, the company got involved simply because so much needed to be done. "Azerbaijan's most serious problem is its large number of refugees," he says.

Agip began addressing this issue shortly after it arrived in Baku in 1995. Agostinelli explains the company's approach: "We don't want to just spread money on the ground for the refugees; we want to make an impact by putting that money toward a specific project that will really make a difference in their lives and improve their situation."

Most importantly, Agip didn't want to administer the project themselves - they wanted an experienced NGO to coordinate the various aspects of the project to ensure that they would be effective. "Our first choice was UNHCR, the United Nations Organization for Refugees and IDPs," says Agostinelli, "because of its experience and operations all over the world. We thought that establishing a partnership would become useful when similar problems occur in other countries. Another reason we were looking for a humanitarian organization was that we didn't want to give money directly to the government and perhaps be perceived as trying to gain influence."

Above: Diplomatic delegation visiting the UNHCR / Agip Azerbaijan shelter project in Khanlar which will house refugees from Kalbajar. The delegation was led by Didier Laye, UNHCR Representative (4th from left) and Eros Agostinelli, Manager of Agip Azerbaijan (9th from left) and included the Italian and British Ambassadors and representatives from the French and German Embassies and British Parliament. Water storage tanks are in background. September 2000.


UNHCR doesn't carry out all of the work for this massive project-it contracts with other NGOs in Azerbaijan, using their expertise in specific areas. UNHCR, under the direction of its Representative Didier Laye, then reports back to Agip on the progress that has been made.

Viewed as a "key study" by Eni, the project was begun in 2000 after Agip and UNHCR came to an agreement on exactly what it would do. "This wasn't the type of donation where we give them the money, and then they do what they believe is best," Agostinelli says. "We had to agree on all aspects of the project. As far as I know, this type of partnership was a first for Azerbaijan."

Azerbaijan's government-specifically Ali Hasanov, the Deputy Prime Minister for Refugees-also had a say in the project, Agostinelli explains. "We didn't want to do something that the government didn't agree with. First, the initiative came from us and UNHCR. Then the government made suggestions and recommendations as far as where the project should be implemented and which refugee populations needed the most help. That way we had all of the parties on board."

Funds are dispersed according to a pre-agreed schedule that has to be matched by project advancement. Agostinelli describes how it works: "UNHCR has to give us evidence of what work has been done and how the funds were spent before we release more money."

Left: Bombed-out home in the Kalbajar region of the Caucasus mountains. Azerbaijanis fled this region in Spring 1993. Many of them were able to find shelter only in what used to be a pig farm where they have been living ever since. Thanks to Agip Azerbaijan which has just undertaken a $2.25 million shelter project that the UNHCR is coordinating, some of these same people have been invited to live as a community together in new shelters in the Khanlar region. From that location, they can view the mountain range which used to be their home.

New Settlements

Originally, the plan was to build only one settlement site, in Khanlar. "Then we decided to divide the number of shelters between two sites, because one site would have been too large," says Agostinelli. "It would have made a huge village - much too difficult to manage."

Agip, UNHCR and the Azerbaijani government decided it would be better to build two refugee settlements, one in Khanlar and the other in Beylagan, each with about 200 shelters. If four to five people are assigned to each shelter, close to 2,000 refugees will be housed.

Agostinelli believes that these smaller communities will be much more manageable: "First you start with a limited amount of people and create a core community. They start to work, and then eventually others join them. The entire community grows in phases. Whereas if you did it all in one go with more than 1,000 people, it would hard on everybody. This way there's a better chance that it can be managed well and that the people's needs will be met."

The first phase of building shelters has now been completed in both locations. UNHCR used the services of Relief International for what is called the "hard sector" - shelters and other physical facilities. Relief International, based in Santa Monica, California, has had experience with building similar refugee shelters.

But the project entails much more than just housing, Agostinelli points out: "We agreed with UNHCR that the project should not be focused on only one aspect, building houses. It will have much more of an impact if it's combined with 'soft sector' assistance, 'soft' meaning health, education, vocational training, income generation activities and loans. NGOs like International Rescue Committee (IRC) are more involved in these aspects of the project."

Tough Decisions
With only 200 shelters being built, obviously not all of the Azerbaijani refugees who need help will benefit from the project. Deciding who does gets assigned to these shelters is not an easy task. "Unfortunately, there are a limited number of houses available," Agostinelli says, "and many people will be disappointed. That's why it's very important for us to try to be as fair as possible."

UNHCR has the responsibility of choosing families for the new shelters, based upon principles set forth by Agip. Top priority was given to families living in the worst conditions, especially those led by single mothers. Secondly, no one was forced to move if they were unwilling. Finally, established communities were to be kept intact as much as possible. For example, refugees who lived together in the same cattle farm were to be given houses close together so that their original community would not be dispersed.

To find the neediest candidates for the new shelters, a team from UNHCR, Relief International and IRC conducted a survey. Maryam recalls: "When we started the survey, we were given a list of the 300 families who had requested to move. But we didn't rely on the list. We went and spent time amongst the refugees and discovered that some of them who were living in the most pitiful conditions didn't know anything about the project. They weren't even on our list. So obviously we had to make changes."

NGO representatives found that refugees were living in sub-human conditions: abandoned pig farms, the locker rooms of an abandoned stadium, mud brick houses. In particular, they sought out refugees who had been disabled during the Karabakh war, families who had a lost a son or the head of the household or families that had many children. Kalbajar families often have four to five children each, sometimes spaced only one year apart.

Meeting Resistance
Surprisingly, some of the families who needed the most help were the most reluctant to move. Maryam remembers: "For some, it took a great deal of convincing to persuade them that we were offering them something beneficial. Their solidarity was amazing. If one Kalbajari said, 'No, I'm not moving,' then often the whole group said, 'We're not moving either.'"

But they had their reasons. Primarily, they wanted to stay close to their lifeline of family and friends. After all, more than anything else, that's how they have had survived throughout this tragic decade. In one case, five or six refugee families who were all related to each other didn't want to move. One man told the NGO representatives, "My wife and I are teachers. I'm afraid that we won't find work at the new settlement."

A female relative agreed, "If everyone else in the family moves, I'll move. If they don't, I won't either."
Of course, moving creates uncertainty even under the best circumstances. The refugees wanted to know what the new conditions would be like. For instance, refugee camps often have a shop where refugees can buy food on credit; moving to a different location might mean not being able to feed the children when cash is scarce. Or perhaps the refugee family knows a doctor in a nearby town who is willing to treat their children without being paid right away. At the new settlement, who could they depend on for help in the case of a medical emergency?

Also, refugees have come to rely upon the humanitarian aid that is doled out at the camps. Perhaps they receive free bread or flour once a month - would they still receive it in the new settlement?

A Better Life
NGO representatives tried to allay their fears by showing them photos of the shelters and explaining how much land each family would receive. When shown a panorama of the Khanlar site, refugees from Kalbajar recognized it as the land where they used to graze their animals, not more than 20 km away from their original home on the other side of the mountain.

Just because the land is familiar to the refugees doesn't mean that they automatically feel secure moving there. Even though there is a cease-fire in place, refugees wonder what will happen in the future. Will they be forced to flee again someday?

After asking a lot of questions and seeing photos of the new shelters, it was often the wives who convinced their husbands that it was the right decision to move. "I discovered that the women played a great role in the family," says Maryam. "The men automatically said, 'No, why should we become a displaced refugee for the third time? We're going to stay here.' But the women would ask more questions, such as, 'Would we have clean water? How much land would we receive? Is there a school there?' We found that if we could convince the woman, then they would persuade their husbands."

Some refugees requested changes in the master plans, she says, which shows a sense of initiative and leadership. "At first we had to address all of their concerns in the hard sector. We ended up modifying many things on the site - little things, like the design of the daycare or the location of the bathhouse. Sure - a bathhouse is a bathhouse. Naturally, any bathhouse would be much better than what they had. But if you put the bathhouse right in the middle of the settlement, some refugees would be too shy to use it. So we changed its location, making it more discrete."

Part of the appeal of the new settlement is its dual water system. Maryam explains: "The refugees will have access to potable water from a pipeline going from the Lake Goy Gol to Ganja - it's very good quality water. The authorities in Ganja have authorized us to extract water from the pipeline, and the refugees will have about 300 tons. Actually, that's a huge amount. We have never been able to do this before for any settlement. They will have a dual system - one will feed the settlement by gravity, the other one by pump and electrification."

As the shelters are completed, UNHCR will also put "soft sector" resources into place to help the new communities support themselves. Assistance with agriculture, education, health care and small businesses is crucial for building a sense of community, Agostinelli believes. "The success of this project must not be judged only on the shelters that have been built but also on the long-term development of the community. The responsibility for a donor and for a humanitarian organization is to try to set the right conditions for a settlement to develop sustainability."

Agostinelli describes the various ways that UNHCR and the NGOs will help build a thriving community. "We've already made plans to give the settlements medical facilities, medicine and equipment. Then, within the community, they'll try to identify the people who have had training in nursing. They'll give them more training so that they can run the clinic. For the schools, they'll find the teachers in the community and give them training to teach." The project will also provide furniture for the schools, books, educational materials and vocational training.

"For the micro-credit loans," he says, "they'll identify people in the community who are willing to start their own small businesses. They'll give them training in the type of business they want to undertake, and then give them a small loan to purchase the equipment that they need, to get them started."

Fighting Donor Fatigue
After eight years of supporting thousands of refugees, international donor support has been declining in Azerbaijan. Maryam theorizes: "I think most people from the outside get tired of hearing about the refugees - especially ones who have been made homeless in their own countries. And I think these people themselves get tired of asking for help. You can read it in their eyes. If you only give them the opportunity, they can be better than many of us. They have great potential - they've just lost their dignity."

Like several humanitarian projects in Azerbaijan, the Agip settlement project is designed to help Azerbaijanis eventually become self-sufficient. Vugar explains why this philosophy is so important: "You can't go on forever giving people food and blankets. You don't want to make these people dependent on you, so that they're just sitting around idle. At the end of the day, you don't want to have a guy with an outstretched hand.

"We believe that there will be a day when these people will be able to leave these shelters and go back to their land of origin. But until that day comes, these people have the right to live in decent conditions."

For Agostinelli, figuring out what goes into making a sustainable village is a new experience. "I've never dealt with the humanitarian sector before. It's a fascinating process. You really have to put a good deal of effort into it to guarantee that it will really turn out right. But it's an important sector for us because, as an oil company, we often work in developing countries that have great social problems. Establishing good community relations by undertaking worthy projects is important to our business."

Other UNHCR representatives who contributed to this article include Ulvi Ismayil, Senior Field Clerk; Naila Velikhanova, Senior Field Clerk; and Nijat Karimov, UNHCR Field Offshore, Barda Office Manager.

Azerbaijan International (8.4) Winter 2000.
© Azerbaijan International 2000. All rights reserved.

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