As It Happens·Q&A

Thousands of children flee Nagorno-Karabakh as violence ramps up

Thousands of children and their families have been forced to leave their homes in the disputed mountain region between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Almost a month of fighting, shelling and missile attacks have left Nagorno-Karabakh destroyed.

'I think it will not be a very happy winter for Armenia at all,' says Guram Matiashvili of Save The Children

Children are seen in a secondary school gym in Barda, Azerbaijan, where they are settled after fleeing Terter during the military conflict over the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)

Thousands of children and their families have been forced to leave their homes in the disputed mountain region between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Almost a month of fighting, shelling and missile attacks have left Nagorno-Karabakh destroyed.

Guram Matiashvili is trying to help the children arriving in border towns like where he is, in Goris, Armenia. He works with Save the Children, the aid group that recently reported that these displaced children are showing signs of distress.

The Artsakh Armenian children have not only left their homes, but many have made the journey without their fathers, who are widely believed to have stayed behind to fight in the war.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have long been in disagreement over Nagorno-Karabakh. About 30,000 people were killed in a 1991-94 war. Armenians say it is part of their historic homeland, while Azeris consider the land to be illegally occupied and must be returned to their control.

U.S. President Donald Trump's administration announced the latest ceasefire between the two countries, but before it could begin on Monday, the fighting resumed

The Nagorno-Karabakh Ombudsman estimates that almost half of the region's population, or 75,000 people, have already fled the province to border towns.

According to Save the Children, shelters in Armenia have almost reached full capacity. Eighty per cent of the displaced people are children and the rest are women and the elderly, the group says. 

Matiashvili spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about the situation families are finding themselves in at the border. Here is part of their conversation.

Guram, how many children are you and your colleagues trying to help in Goris right now?

I can say approximately [there are] about 2,500 to 3,000.

Who have they come with? Are they on their own?

Artsakh Armenians ... were continuously arriving [in] different parts of Armenia.... Goris is the closest to the border of Nagorno-Karabakh. A lot of spontaneous arrivals have arrived [in] Goris and they come actually with mothers, grandmothers, grandfathers.… [Men] stay in Nagorno-Karabakh for, I think, [the] war.

We're talking about people, children and a great deal of distress. What are the families telling you about why they had to leave?

While we were interviewing the families, they were talking about the missile attacks, drones, cluster bombs targeting their towns, their religious [sites]. That was the reason that they had to leave their country for Armenia.

Zhanna Petrosyan, 35, from the village of Tsapatagh of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, and her seven children stand next to their belongings in a centre for refugees Yerevan, Armenia, on Saturday. (Karen Minasyan/AFP/Getty Images)

Do you have any idea as to what conditions they were living in? How close the fighting and the violence was to where they were?

It was very close to their towns and religious [sites].… I can say that the first thing that we identified during our rapid impact assessment is that [the] children need ... professional psychosocial support. They are in very distressed conditions.

These kids are going through a lot, as are their parents. Is there anything you can tell us about what they were living through before they became spontaneous arrivals or refugees? 

This situation [goes back to] Sept. 30, [when] the Azerbaijan military began massive attacks across the entire line of contact between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh. The massive missile attacks in the direction of Nagorno-Karabakh resulted in civilian casualties.

As a result of continuous heavy shelling on Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, and on other towns [like] Hadrut, Artunish [and] Shushi, civilian infrastructures have been so severely damaged or destroyed.

At this moment I can report that about 18 schools were destroyed. The rapid escalation of hostilities has led to the southern displacement of the population, with people fleeing with little or no belongings. That was the situation.

This is a Kindergarten in Goris town, south of Armenia, which is being used as a collective centre for shelter and support since the escalation in violence. At this stage of intervention, Save the Children is on the ground providing psychological first aid to parents and distributing non-food items and cash vouchers. (Srbuhi Ohanjanyan/Save the Children)

Anything you can tell us about the circumstances in which they're living?

I can tell you about the Goris town. All these spontaneous arrivals are settled in so-called collective centres, hotels, hostels and Kindergarten [classrooms]. They are currently receiving humanitarian aid from government and international NGOs.

What kinds of materials do you have to support them? Do they have food? Do they have blankets?

Yeah, they have blankets. We are providing the food. All of our activities, we are co-ordinating with the local government.

There is a huge need to have hygiene kits, so we are providing hygiene kits. There is a huge winter period in Armenia. Nights are cold … so we are providing warm clothes. [We're doing] this much for now.

Are you anticipating you'll see more women and children arriving?

I think, yes.

Elderly members sheltering in Goris town. (Srbuhi Ohanjanyan/Save The Children)

What do you anticipate as we move into winter? What are you thinking? Are you expecting more of these people, more Armenians, to arrive leaving Nagorno-Karabakh?

Yeah, I think that there will be more.

But, you know, at this moment, about 10,000 facilities are destroyed in Nagorno-Karabakh. So even if we imagine that war will be over at this moment, these people can't return to [their] homelands.

There's nothing to go back to.

Yeah, so they can [go] back only when the war is over and after the huge reconstruction.

What does the winter look like for them then?

Oh, I think it will not be a very happy winter for Armenia at all. 

You said the men were left behind. Do you know what's happened to them?

They are in war, so I can't tell you.

They stayed back to fight?


How do the kids feel about not having their fathers with them?

They have very sad eyes. You know? Very sad eyes. They always are talking about their fathers. [They] keep talking about fathers. 

It's very sad, but we have psychologists in place. They are working with children, with their mothers. We are doing our best to support them in this condition.

Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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