Azerbaijan: deflecting the bullets
For the people of Gapanli village whose houses lie close to the line of contact between the armies of Armenia and Azerbaijan, the constant fear of stray bullets is part of daily life. Now, an ICRC programme is helping to make life safer.
Despite the 1994 ceasefire agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the two armies exchange fire across the line of contact almost daily, making life intolerable for the residents of Gapanli in the Azerbaijani district of Tartar.
Among those most at risk is Lala, whose story presents a bleak picture:
“I got married in 1987, on a beautiful spring day. The breeze was caressing the plain and the whole village of Gapanli turned out to celebrate. One of my best memories of those times is that we spent hours and weeks making bricks to build our house! Little by little the house grew, and by the beginning of 1988 we were able to move in.
Two months later, war broke out.
My house has become famous because it’s the last one in the village, just a few metres away from the line of contact.
The house was seized by enemy soldiers and then recovered by our soldiers, then recaptured by the enemy, looted, disfigured and, finally, liberated. In all that time, I only left the village for 22 days, to seek shelter in Yevlakh. My children were born there. When my son Elchin took his first steps I cried, because he should have learned to walk in Gapanli, not Yevlakh.
When the village was liberated, we came back, back to our house. It was disfigured and empty, but it was still our home. There have been many nights since then when I couldn’t sleep because of gunfire, but I’ve never even thought about leaving it. My life and my destiny are deeply connected to my house, to every one of the bricks I made.
When it’s safe enough, we put our cows out to pasture in the meadows. But the shooting forced us to rearrange the house, and basically we ended up living in the room furthest away from the line of contact. When the shooting got really bad, we had to climb out of the back window and hide in the cellar.
When the ICRC arrived last November, I knew they were going to listen. All those years of creeping in and out bent double, sitting in the dark at night, bullet holes in the walls, broken windows. And the fear. It wears you down after a while. And it's sad to think about the past, when the people on the other side were our friends and neighbours. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone and I’m really grateful to the ICRC for what they’ve done for us.”
Making lives safer
Working with the British Red Cross, the ICRC is running a US$2 million programme to help people become self-sufficient again, and to upgrade water and sanitation along the line of contact. It was while conducting a needs assessment for this programme that an ICRC team noticed Lala’s house.
"We hadn’t originally planned this project, but when we saw the house and talked to Lala and other villagers, we decided we simply had to do something," says Joanna Burton, an economic security delegate seconded by the British Red Cross who works at the ICRC office in Barda.
The team decided to modify the house so as to protect Lala and her family. Today, a solid stone wall protects the entrance. Windows in the wall overlooking the line of contact have been bricked up and replaced by new windows on the safe side.
"Lala's neighbours had been worried about her, so they were very supportive and terrifically enthusiastic about the project. In particular, they helped us find building materials as cheaply as possible," continues Joanna. "This is the first project of this kind. It’s simple and inexpensive, but it can significantly improve living conditions. We’ll be looking to see if other people have similar needs and how we can help them."
Lala is delighted with the changes to her house: "The place is cosier than before and we can even watch TV in the evening!"