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To the rescue of Armenians

Information mission led by Bernard Kouchner, former minister and co-founder of MSF and MDM, Patrice Franceschi, writer and former president of the Society of French Explorers and Alain Boinet, president of Défis Humanitaires and founder of Solidarités International on invitation of the Aurora Foundation.

Logbook. I took part in this information mission on a personal basis and my comments are my personal opinion. I hope that they will be useful to humanitarians and other stakeholders involved in the humanitarian field.

Alain Boinet.

Russian soldier at one of the roadblocks in the Latchin corridor ©P.Franceschi

Russian soldiers stop us and ask for our visas. These are essential to take the Latchine corridor to reach Artsack, also called Haut Karabagh, 7 hours away from Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.

We are here with Bernard Kouchner, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Health, Patrice Franceschi, writer and former president of the Society of French Explorers, and myself, invited by the Aurora Foundation with Nicola, Yanna and Narine, who are leading this information mission on the various aspects of the situation following the 44-day war that began on September 27, 2020 in Artsack or Nagorno Karabagh, between Armenians and Azeris. This ended on 9 November 2020 with an agreement concluded by Russia which put an end to the war.

At the roadblocks along the road, the Russians are well equipped with armored vehicles and entrenched in their fortified bases along this corridor that is now the only entrance and exit because the Azerbaijani army surrounds Artsack.

Halo-Trust deminers in action around Stephanakert and demining plan to clear cluster bombs ©A.Boinet

In the surroundings of Stepanakert, capital of the Artsack, which the Azeris have shelled with cluster bombs [1], explosive devices scattered here and there pollute large areas and localities.

We are joining a team from the NGO Halo-Trust, specialized in mine clearance and which has to clear an 800 m2 area. Other teams are operating elsewhere and one of their cars recently exploded on an anti-tank mine, killing its four occupants instantly. About ten men are raking a garden, side by side, with their sound detection device. They advance cautiously, signaling with colored stakes explosive devices in the grass, which are then disarmed and destroyed. This is vital, as these devices can kill or maim at any time over many years and paralyses the resumption of activities.

At the end of the day, during a dinner with Ashot Ghulyan and Davit Babayan, Minister of Foreign Affairs of this small, unrecognized and self-proclaimed territory, behind the words we feel the weight of defeat, encirclement, isolation, uncertainty in the future, but also a fierce determination to stay alive in their ancestral land. A little provoking, it calls out to us. Those who say they are with us must support us. And we feel that this message is also addressed to Armenia.

Rehabilitation of the war-disabled at the Lady Cox Reabilitation Center supported by the Aurora Foundation. On the right, Bernard Kouchner and the director of the Rehabilitation Center ©A.Boinet

The next day, in the buildings of The Lady Cox rehabilitation centrer, we discover young people injured during the conflict and disabled. They cannot stand, walk or sit down, they cannot urinate neither. More or less paralyzed for life, physiotherapists help them to rehabilitate vital functions allowing them to regain autonomy, motor skills, flexibility and strength. The faces are severe and concentrated on effort and pain. Bernard Kouchner and the director of the Centre take stock on the needs of the center that the Aurora Foundation [2] supports and for its extension projects.

Will these disabled people be able to regain their motor skills so that they can, one day, return to work and support a family? There are also children, civilians, autistics who have been monitored for a long time. More than a thousand of them benefit from the care of this center, the only one existing in Artsack while the need for care exploded.

College n°10 bombed and closed in Artsack ©Nelly

Here, as in Yerevan, we are talking about 5000 people killed on the Armenian side. An official of the European Union representation in Armenia evokes in front of us the figures of 3500 Armenian deaths, 99% of which are soldiers and 500 to 700 bodies not identified yet. The majority of them were volunteers, students in particular.  The number of injured seems difficult to estimate at this time. There are also missing persons and prisoners that the ICRC [3] is actively looking in conformity with its mandate. On the Azeri side, there might be 2800 dead and 50 missing, not to mention the Syrian jihadists who came to fight with the support of the Turkish authorities.

In this new war [4], the Armenians would have lost at least 70% of the 11,400 km of Artsack territory, driving out the population and losing the corresponding economic resources. Originally inhabited by 150,000 people, 40,000 are still displaced today, mainly in Armenia. During a lunch with him, the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Armenia, Shombi Sharp, discuss the official figure of 22,500, admitting that it may be around 30,000. Many houses and schools have also been destroyed, such as this college No. 10 in Stepanakert, which now remains closed.

Many Artsack Armenians have gone into exile, fleeing their villages and cities like Shusi, the cultural capital, losing about 1500 monuments of their historical heritage out of 4000 in total. One of the most urgent priorities is the construction of houses and housing to accommodate the forcibly displaced families, and then to provide them with employment. The consequences of the war are numerous and weaken the population in many areas: health services, jobs, agriculture, security, electricity. There is no doubt that after this war, the population of Artsack is weakened and that it will not be able to cope on its own without external aid in the long term.

At the northern exit of Stepanakert, on the road to Asteran, we discover on the top of a hill the symbol of this self-proclaimed republic. It is a huge ochre statue representing the faces of a man and a woman who, according to tradition, declare “We are our mountains”. Mountains are everywhere here in this part of the South Caucasus.

In front of the monument symbolising Artsack “We are our mountains”. ©A.Boinet

A visit to the cultural center Charles Aznavour and the Centre francophone Paul Eluard is essential. It is an exceptional place of cultural expression in this climate of anxiety. A choir of women and men sings marvelously in Armenian as if their voices were rising from this land. Young dancers are busy rehearsing together the best of what they have learned. A breathtaking jazz orchestra transports us into the musical atmosphere of Ray Charles and Duke Ellington.

Young girls, learning French with Nelly, their teacher, sing a song as vibrant as it is moving: “Your beautiful days will be reborn again, after winter, after hell, the tree of life will grow for you Armenia”. Nelly, their young teacher, tells us. My mother worked here a long time ago with MSF. She encouraged me to learn French and I am now a teacher of this language, which makes us close to you. Even though Russian is a compulsory language in the school curriculum because Russia is close by and Armenia was a Republic of the USSR for more than 70 years (1920-1991).

Official dinner with the young Minister of Health, former military doctor, Michael Hayriyan who informs us that an official website will be created to list all the needs of the population in order to facilitate aid and its coordination. As is customary in this region of the Caucasus, he raises his glass for a toast. “The war is cruel, but we are optimistic,” he says. We toast, the French say “health” and the Armenians “kenas”, meaning “life”! Bernard Kouchner raises his glass and answers “That’s what we are here for, kenas”.

Nurses in formation at the Stephanakert Medical College ©A.Boinet

Before leaving for Yerevan at 7 hours drive, we visit the Medical College where we train nurses  in 3 years, including displaced students coming from the territories taken over by the Azerbaijan army. On the way back, again the 6 or 7 Russian check points where the controls are as attentive as on the outward journey.

Basically, we were lucky, because to pass through we need a visa delivered by the representation of the “Republic of Artsack” in Yerevan with the agreement of the Russians and, it is said, of the Azeris in the case of foreigners. It is not the same at this time for MSF-France whose Armenian staff can still pass, but no longer expatriates. Obviously, this ban on access is contrary to the rules of International Humanitarian Law, which requires the parties to the conflict to allow humanitarian aid to pass through. Similarly, the Azeri authorities have refused to allow two sections of MSF to come and treat people in Azerbaijan!

As we drive towards Yerevan in the middle of the snowy mountains, we learn from the media that the Prime Minister, Nikol Pachinian, is denouncing an attempted coup d’état by the army. The effects of the military defeat are repercussing on the Armenian political scene!

On the return to Yerevan, meetings and visits follow one another at a strong rhythm. Meeting at the Faculty of Medicine with the rector and 120 students on the theme “Crisis management at the global and regional level”. Bernard Kouchner is named doctor Honoris Causa and pleads for solidarity between Armenians. Patrice Franceschi draws a parallel between the situation in Artsack and the struggle of the Kurds in Syria. For my part, I present the international humanitarian action, its principles, its action and the needs identified in Artsack.

UFAR students killed in Artsack and minute of silence of our delegation with the French Ambassador and the Rector ©A.Boinet

A meeting at the French University in Armenia (UFAR) is particularly interesting and moving. The UFAR [5] presented by its rector, Bertrand Venard, has 1400 students between bachelor’s and doctorate levels. In partnership with the French Universities of Lyon III and Toulouse III, it delivers Armenian and French degrees. It now has a major development project for 2000 students on a new 12,000 m2 campus. The Ambassador of France, Jonathan Lacôte, warmly introduced Bernard Kouchner by reminding the importance, at the time, of the United Nations resolutions (43-131 and 45-100) that the Minister carried for the access to victims with the lawyer Mario Bettati. Bernard Kouchner then emphasizes that the purpose of these resolutions was precisely to make the victim a subject of international law.

Then we have a minute of silence for the UFAR students, whose photos adorn the entrance wall. All volunteers, some of whom, about a quarter, were doing their military service. They died in combat this autumn in Artsack. There were 22 volunteers, 10 died and 3 were wounded. It is as many fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, families and friends who have been hurt.

It is with this moving memory that we have an audience with the President of the Republic, Armen Sarkissian, despite the pro or anti-Prime Minister Street demonstrations and the ordeal awaited by the army, because forty senior officers have demanded the departure of Nikol Pachinian after the defeat for which they all blame each other.

The dinner that will take place next with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ara Aivazian, in the presence of the French Ambassador, will be more geopolitical and the occasion to celebrate the anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Republic of Armenia and the French Republic signed on behalf of our country by Bernard Kouchner on February 24, 1992.

Conclusion.

At the end of this mission of information and solidarity, we cannot say that Artsack is dealing with a humanitarian emergency in the sense of what we know in Yemen, Syria or the Central African Republic. The comparison would rather be with Romania, after the revolution of December 1989, or with Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In the time we have had, it appears that there are real needs in the field of health, medical equipment and particularly the rehabilitation of the war-disabled. On the other hand, there is a lot to do in the field of construction, mainly of houses and dwelling to accommodate displaced families, as we did in the past in Sarajevo, knowing that there are competent companies on site. Another area is the very lively French-speaking world and culture in general, books and audio-visual equipment. There are certainly Foundations, as the Aurora Foundation does well, NGOs, hospitals, cultural institutions, professional organizations, companies that can help to meet these needs now.

I would like to share here a reflection on humanitarian aid whose principles include neutrality, impartiality and independence which rightly stipulates that aid must be delivered solely on the basis of the vital needs of populations without any other selection criteria and this is true for the Armenian and Azeri populations.

However, the most threatened populations who are in a minority because of their ethnic or religious affiliation in a hostile environment are a criterion to consider. We can then think of the Tutsis, the Yezidis, the Rohingyas, the Uigurs, the Kurds, the Armenians of Artsack and others. Humanitarians must also take into account this objective risk factor and long-term vulnerability in order to help these populations with appropriate attention. How to forget that the Armenians were victims of the first genocide at the beginning of the century perpetrated by the Turkish authorities responsible at the time for the death of more than a million human beings.

I am not an expert of this region of the Caucasus and Armenia, but I have had some experience of crises for 40 years. If we wanted to stabilize the Artsack, perhaps we would have to start negotiations to delimit the territories of both sides. This was done well during the Dayton Accords signed in Paris to settle the territorial question between Serbs, Croats and Bosnians in Bosnia and Herzegovina. An attachment to Armenia, already requested in the past, could be a solution if the populations agree. Why not for Artsack, whose recognition the National Assembly and the Senate in France have recently called for.

In Artsack, what one feels at first is the feeling of insecurity for the present as well as for the future. Faced with this insecurity, the best response is always solidarity, ours.

Alain Boinet.

We are pleased to send you the 50th edition of Défis Humanitaires published for the past 3 years. This year, we have several projects to develop the website and we need your support to continue our mission of information and reflection at the service of humanitarian action. You can participate personally by making a donation on the HelloAsso platform. Thank you in advance for your support for this project, which is intended for you.

To find out more about the humanitarian situation in Armenia:

Consult the United Nations Inter-Agency Response Plan for Armenia

Testimony of Olivier Faure on the return of the Artsack. We are publishing this document just and loudly as we would for any other politician witnessing the situation in Artsack.

Video of our visit in Artsack published by the Aurora foundation

Video of our visit in Armenia published by the Aurora foundation


[1] The cluster bomb (cluster munition) is a container carrying many projectiles that strike a large area. Some of the projectiles do not explode and remain dangerous. Humanitarian organizations such as Handicap International/Humanity and Inclusion and the Red Cross have long been denouncing this type of weapon. A treaty has been adopted by more than a hundred countries, including France, to prohibit and destroy them

[2] Aurora Foundation – auroraprize.com

[3] The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) based in Geneva is in charge, in particular, of visiting prisoners with the agreement of those holding them and of searching for the missing.

[4] New war. A first war took place between Armenians and Azeris between 1992 and 1994, during which the Armenians took control of predominantly Azeri territories forcing the Azeris into exile. This new war allowed the Azeris to regain control of 7 districts. To better understand this situation, please refer to the specialized sites on this subject.

[5] UFAR: http://www.ufar.am