Darbnik: A new home for Armenian refugees

Almost 90 percent of the population of Darbnik village in the Ararat Region of Armenia is made up of refugees from Azerbaijan, Iraq and Syria.

Written by Gayane Mirzoyan, from Armenia

Lying just 10 kilometres from Yerevan, over the last 28 years Darbnik village has become home to refugees from three conflicts. In the early 1990s, Armenians fleeing the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict in Nagorny Karabakh came here from Azerbaijan. In 2009, social housing appeared for refugees from Iraq, with 46 Armenian families from Iraq receiving accommodation. Several years later, they were joined by Syrian refugees.

Before the conflict in Nagorny Karabakh, the village – which used to be called Shorlu – was home to an Azerbaijani population. Its inhabitants then became refugees. Today, Darbnik village has 2,342 inhabitants. Almost all the families that came here were forced to start their new life in Armenia ‘from scratch’.

Finding safety

In 1989, Julietta Arutunian was forced to flee Baku, Azerbaijan, with her two daughters and grandchildren. Despite help from her neighbours and friends, remaining in Baku was becoming dangerous.

“Our block had 60 flats, and we were all friends. I’m still in touch with some of our neighbours on the Internet. But in 1989, the attacks against Armenians began. One day, a crowd armed with axes began to break down our door. We phoned Bakhman, our local policeman, an Azerbaijani – he helped us to get out,” Julietta recalls.

Julietta’s daughter, Rada, managed to escape thanks to her courage and quick wit. With her excellent command of the Azeri language, she was able to convince the crowd of attackers, as well as the officials on the way to Baku airport, that she was not Armenian.

In a cruel twist of fate, when they arrived at their relatives’ home in Kokand, Uzbekistan, the family found themselves in the midst of another conflict – that in the Fergana Valley. “We had to hide under the table from the shooting. We had fled one danger, only to end up in the middle of a new one,” Rada recalls. On 1 January 1990, she gave birth to her daughter Ellada. In March of that year, the family moved to Yerevan.

The first refugee families were housed in an old college building in Darbnik. The Aruntunian family of seven was forced to share a single room in the halls of residence with a shared bath. Suddenly, ordinary everyday comforts turned into an impossible luxury.

“My brother and I slept in a box. One night, there was a fire. Our little ‘bed’ instantly caught fire and I had to be rushed to emergency care,” Ellada recalls.

Rada’s eldest daughter, Regina, and her four children still live in a flat lacking basic utilities. They live on child benefits and the decrepit building is unsafe for habitation.

“I’m scared of the children going out on the balcony – it could come crashing down at any minute,” she explains. “The courtyard is not safe, either. But we have nowhere else to go, so we stay there.”

After reams of letters from refugees, the state finally allowed the flats in the building to be privatised. The property is not in a decent state, yet for the refugees, who did not own a home, this was still good news.

A new wave of refugees

The Arutunians’ neighbour Karine Bagdoyan came to Darbnik from the Syrian city of Raqqa. Before the outbreak of civil war in Syria, Karine recalls, there were around 80 Armenian families living in the city. In 2013, Raqqa was occupied by the Islamic State terror group, which declared the city its capital. Karine and her family were forced to flee their native city.

Karine’s husband works repairing cars. She and her mother-in-law raise the couple’s two children. In October 2017, Raqqa was finally liberated, yet Karine’s family is unlikely to return: the once flourishing city now lies in ruins.

Ani Margaryan left Baghdad in 2004. In Iraq, the men are typically seen as the breadwinners in the family, she says. Now she is the only one earning a living in her family, which she is able to do thanks to her sewing machine – a gift from the United Nations Mission in Armenia.

“My father always taught us that unless you work hard, you will have nothing. He wanted us to understand that money doesn’t just come out of nowhere, he wanted us to be able to earn it for ourselves. He didn’t just hand us loads of cash. He gave each of us our own small business – a hairdressers’, or a small shop. We lost everything in Baghdad, but now each of us has been able to pick ourselves up and carry on,” Ani says.

Ani met her husband in Armenia after he lost his first wife in Iraq. The two children from his first marriage came to live with him and Ani, and the couple now also have two children of their own.

“I remember Iraq with such warmth. We never used to notice who was from where. But after the government was overthrown, chaos broke out, and it became too dangerous to stay there. When they began to kidnap children, we got really frightened and left,” Ani explains.

After several years spent renting flats in Yerevan, the couple was finally given accommodation in the new building in Darbnik. Ani became active in pushing for better services in the village.

“When we first arrived, there was not much here. There was no football pitch, no kindergarten, no convenient transport. We began to put pressure on the authorities to sort things out, and eventually, minibuses appeared instead of the dusty buses, and began to run every half hour,” Ani recalls.

Unheard Voices is part of International Alert’s work on the Nagorny Karabakh conflict. The project brings together journalists from across Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorny Karabakh to report on stories of ordinary people who have suffered as a result of the conflict, whose voices are not usually heard. The purpose is to ensure their voices are heard both at home in their own societies and on the other side of the conflict divide, allowing readers to see the real faces hidden behind the images of ‘the enemy’. To view materials from all sides, challenging stereotypes and isolation.

Gayane Mirzoyan, from Armenia, is one of the journalists taking part in this project and wrote the above story.

Read about the project

Read more stories from other journalists in the region:

This project is funded by the European Union as part of the European Partnership for the Peaceful Settlement of the Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (EPNK).

The materials published on this page are the views of the journalist and does not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of International Alert or our donors.

Becoming a family of refugees

Written by Albert Voskanyan, from Nargorny Karabakh

Memories of a previous life: Starting a family, the Karabakh conflict and forced relocation

We drove up to the home of Abrik and Aida Agasyan in Martuni, Nagorny Karabakh. The Agasyan family home is in an area called Rusin Takhy which literally translates as ‘the place of Russians’. Aida was there to give us a warm welcome, she smiled and invited us in to meet her son Grigory and daughter-in-law Rita. Then her husband Abrik arrived, a short grey-haired man about 70 years old. I introduced myself and explained why I was there. I felt Abrik was a little cold. But I thought, “it’s okay, I don’t want to rush things, he’ll probably come around later.” It turns out I was right.

Refugee and internally displaced persons (IDPs) – categories of people that appear in all conflicts and unfortunately there’s no escaping that. A person can live their life, build a home, start a family, have children – everything may seem to be going well. But at some point everything falls apart and they are forced to leave the place they call home and move somewhere new. In any new place you’ve got to get used to your surroundings and integrate into a new community. But let’s return to the Agasyan family.

Aida, born in the village of Mushkapat, Martuni district, had just turned 18 when she got married to fellow countryman Abrik. He was born in the village of Haghorti but moved and was living in Baku, Azerbaijan. The young couple got a flat and lived in the village of Akhmedly, Azerbaijan. Abrik worked in a Baku fridge factory and she was a housewife.

They had two sons, Grigory and Vladimir, and life was good. The children were growing up, going to school and Aida started working as a passport officer in the Narimanovskiy district. Grigory took up freestyle wrestling and started taking part in competitions and even won prizes. Years went by quietly but then Sumgait happened. The tragic events that happened in that town turned Armenian lives upside down and convinced many to leave Baku.

The Agasyan family were no exception: in November 1988 they left by plane to Yerevan. But before they could leave they were kept under guard at Baku airport for three days, along with many other Armenians. Living conditions were tough. In the end their neighbour Kyamal, who was a policeman, helped them get tickets and they were able to fly out. To this day they warmly recall how he helped them.

I asked Aida to talk a bit about life in Baku and Martuni, about the war and life after the war.

“We didn’t live badly in Baku. Our neighbours were all of different nationalities: Armenians, Azeris, Russians, Legzins, Tatars and others. At no time did any of them get into conflict with each other. Our area was generally working class, and what does a working man need but to make enough for some bread to feed his family? But after Sumgait, it wasn’t that relations got worse as such, but there was definitely a lot of tension. A district police officer lived on the ground floor of our building – when people got anxious in Baku he said that we shouldn’t leave because things would soon go back to normal. No one attacked our home and we didn’t receive any threats, but deep down we felt that things had been thrown upside down and decided to leave. What was never really in question was where we should go – to Nagorny Karabakh, Martuni, where my husband and I both had roots. Jumping ahead a little, I’ll say that after we moved in 1989 we went back to Baku to resolve legal issues that had to do with our flat. We were able to take the rest of our things including our car, a Moskvitch-2140. When we were packing our things none of the neighbours came out to help. But it has to be said that they didn’t interfere either. One or two of them did come up and ask if maybe we’d reconsider staying.

We exchanged our Baku home for the one we’re living in now. The owner was an Azeri called Knyaz. We filled in all the official forms and officially completed the transfer. We were able to bring over all our things to Martuni, and Knyaz did the same moving his things out. He took everything with him to Baku.”

Life in Karabakh – The war

“During the war we suffered a lot: Martuni and the surrounding villages were shelled from the ground and bombed from the air. Once a plane dropped a bomb next to our garden. At that moment I was melting butter. The force of the explosion demolished the balcony, blew out all the windows and a door fell on Abrik who was at home at the time. After the explosion it took me a long time to recover.

“In fact, during the war all three men from our family fought at the front but thank God they all survived healthy and uninjured. Our men came back from the war but so many did not, sorrow met so many Karabakh families. It’s a real tragedy,” said Aida with a sadness in her voice.

At that point Rita brought tea and biscuits. Fruit from their garden was already on the table. We sat down to drink some of their delicious tea and the conversation turned to present day. I found out that Aida is a pensioner, receiving 40 thousand Dram, Abrik receives 55 thousand (1 USD = 481 Dram). Outside they keep chickens and about twenty sheep. Not an extravagant life, but they also don’t live in poverty. The conversation came back to their life in Baku. Abrik tells me that for a long time his boss was Ayaz Mutalibov [first president of Azerbaijan] – which was quite a surprise. He explained that Mutalibov switched to party work and that way started to climb the career ladder.

Their son Grigory (Grisha for short), was sitting on the couch and at first didn’t get involved in the discussion. After we finished our tea I turned to him and he started to open up. In 1989 Grisha was called up to the army where he served for two years. After demobilisation he came to Martuni where his parents and brother were already living. The atmosphere was very tense in Karabakh as all the men were at their posts, defending their homes. The next day, Grisha signed up to the local self-defence unit. He finally left the army in 1997. His younger brother Vladimir and father Abrik also served.

Life after the war

In Baku Grisha had taken up freestyle wrestling at the Spartak sports club and was always travelling to take part in competitions where he’d win prizes. He also completed his Masters in Sport. After the war he trained children for a number of years in Martuni and was in charge of the freestyle wrestling group. He then moved with his family to live in Russia permanently, but came back to Martuni about three years later.

I found Grisha’s life in Baku, his friends, schoolmates and his attitude to the war very interesting.

“It’s hard to tell you definitively about my attitude to the war. My opinion was this: sooner or later this conflict was bound to happen. The preconditions were already there and the tragedy at Sumgait was only the spark. I moved to Karabakh which was the right thing, it being the land of my ancestors, but there were problems. The locals all knew each other very well, who was whose grandchild and who was from which family. But for them we were refugees. But that’s not right. We’re as much from Karabakh as anyone and we’re Armenians, it’s just not right to divide us like that. During the war a lot of our guys died – which is very bad,” said Grisha.

“I had to fight but I never imagined that my son would have to see the same thing that I lived through. Artur, my son, was called up for active duty in July 2015. On 1 April 2016, when the four-day war began, he was with his friends in Talish. During the offensive their post repelled enemy attacks, for which he and his friends were awarded medals and he was awarded the higher rank of lieutenant. My second son Abrik is currently in the defensive army. My third son, Arsen, is in his fourth year at the Olympic Reserve School in Armenia. At first he was a wrestler but he’s now moved to more classic Greco-Roman fighting, and according to his trainers, he has a lot of potential.”

“What can I say about life in Baku and my friends? I was training to be a tailor, and at the same time managed to work at the Volodarskiy Baku clothing factory. Work was only part-time but the money I earned was ok. After leaving I went back to Baku to pick up my diploma and found out my classmate had been picking up my stipend for me, so he was able to give it all to me when we saw each other. Before leaving I sat down with my mates, and then they saw me off,” said Grisha.

Grisha and Rita’s daughter Milena, now in her third year, arrived home from school. Her parents told me that she goes to a music school, so I asked her to sing me a song. Rita of course put her daughter into the national costume who, without hesitation, sang a song in Russian.

As we were leaving, the Agasyan family all come outside and warmly said their goodbyes. It struck me that Abrik wasn’t frowning anymore and, with a big smile, shook my hand to say farewell.

Unheard Voices is part of International Alert’s work on the Nagorny Karabakh conflict. The project brings together journalists from across Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorny Karabakh to report on stories of ordinary people who have suffered as a result of the conflict, whose voices are not usually heard. The purpose is to ensure their voices are heard both at home in their own societies and on the other side of the conflict divide, allowing readers to see the real faces hidden behind the images of ‘the enemy’. To view materials from all sides, challenging stereotypes and isolation.

Albert Voskanyan, from Nargorny Karabakh, is one of the journalists taking part in this project and wrote the above story.

Read about the project

Read more stories from other journalists in the region:

This project is funded by the European Union as part of the European Partnership for the Peaceful Settlement of the Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (EPNK).

The materials published on this page are the views of the journalist and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of International Alert or our donors.

The longest letter

It’s me, Samir. Samir Kachayev. This letter will definitely be the longest letter I’ve ever written. I’m going to try and tell you about my life.

I was born in Shamakhi, Azerbaijan, in 1994. As my father tells it, my auntie – my father’s sister, thought it would be fun to test him. “Brother, you have another daughter.” I already had a sister, Sabina. Father replied “Well thank God – a girl! And it’s good she’s a girl – girls are children too! What’s wrong with her being a girl?” Then my auntie admitted that in actual fact he had a son, me.

My Childhood

They say I was very naughty and a bit of a bully. I would take a stick and knock flowers and whole branches from trees. And then I’d get really upset when my mum would explain that trees are living things, that it hurts them and makes them cry when I hit them like that.

But more than anything I loved to throw stones. Quite a few neighbours’ windows suffered as a result. I was three years old when, after arguing with my auntie, I threw a rock at her head. It cut her forehead, which started to bleed. I suddenly got scared and started calling out for my grandma to come help her. Sabina then ran to my father, to tell him what I’d done.

Dad came home with a stick, and having told the others not to interfere, hit my hands so hard that I wouldn’t pick up a rock let alone throw one.

One time, before I started going to school, dad was doing something outside and I was hanging around irritating him. Dad gave me a slap, telling me to stop bothering him. Walking away I said “Dad, there’ll come a time, when I’ll grow up and you’ll get old.” “And, what?” he asked. “Then, you won’t be able to handle me. And you see this hammer here…” Dad replied, “then you probably understand why I hit you. I know that when you grow up I won’t be able to cope with you so I’m rushing to teach you something now.” Years passed before I really understood what my dad meant.

A serious child

At school, I was considered to be an obedient and responsible pupil. I think I learned to be responsible after seeing how much effort my father put in to prepare me for school. Months before even starting he taught me to read, write and count. My schoolteacher, Nelly Ivanovna, was a close neighbour, but she never cut me any slack.

I studied hard until the sixth or seventh grade but then somehow lost all interest. Maybe because of that girl I was always sneaking a look at. I went to school only to see her, although when we met I had no idea what to do with myself. I finished school, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell her. I was too afraid. My friend Abid was the only one who knew.

Vet, barber or sculptor

Until I finished 9th grade, my parents worried that I would end up without a career or any prospects.

My auntie’s husband was sitting with us once and suggested I should try becoming a vet. I loved plants, animals and nature in general and agreed without hesitation. But then I failed the entrance exam by just a few marks and so my veterinary career finished before it begun, leaving my father to worry even more.

Another time, my dad’s uncle came to stay. “Nephew, what are you worrying for?” he said to my dad. “It’s not like he’s run out of career options. Send him to a barber and let him learn how to cut hair and shave. Muslims have a lot of hair, so he won’t go hungry.” My father loved the idea. He even bought me all the equipment I needed, and I started practising. It actually didn’t go too badly, and my dad became my first ‘client’.

But the search for career options didn’t end there. I was still at school and now had the option to be a barber in reserve.

Once, Father was sitting in his usual place in our garden. Not having anything else to do I was making a model of mickey mouse out of plasticine. Dad took a look and didn’t believe I’d done it all by myself. He took it apart and asked me to make another one – which I duly did. After that, dad started to pay more attention to my models. He went to Nelly Ivanovna’s son, Ilgar, for advice because he graduated from the Art Academy. He told me I had talent and should develop it.

Another planet

In our school years Sadig, Abid and I couldn’t be kept apart.

However hard it was to say goodbye to the guys, I was very excited about my future prospects. The academy was like a different planet for me. And I discovered an inner-peace I’d never known before. Within two years I had learned my craft so well I was enthusiastically sculpting as much as I could. I would arrive at the academy no later than 9am and sometimes didn’t lift my head from working until 11pm at night. When you begin sculpting, it’s hard to tear yourself away or take any breaks at all. Maybe it’s because of that I managed to finish 30 sculptures, mostly from bronze. That’s enough for an exhibition.

Students at the academy weren’t like those at other universities. We didn’t go out much, we weren’t loud in town, and if we did go out we’d meet at the new excavations by the Maiden Tower and talk. But our favourite past time was drinking tea in the workshop. Of course, it was me who brewed the tea, with thyme, carnations, or dog-rose – I know my teas.

And I made new friends. At the beginning Anar and I became friends. Not only because he was ethnically Lezgian like me, but also because we both liked peace and quiet. It was nice to spend time with Anar just in silence.

Zamik would often say “you shouldn’t be this well behaved” when in actual fact he was really well behaved himself. He had one flaw however – he refused to use bins and anything he threw away would end up on the floor. Once he bought a card with credit for his phone and threw it away on the ground. I didn’t say anything but quietly picked up the card and, seeing as there were no bins around, put it in my pocket. This seemed to have had a big effect on Zamik. “Better if you’d just sworn at me or something,” he said. After that day, he stopped littering.

I successfully passed my Bachelors, only a few marks away from the top grade. I then decided to apply to do a Masters. I didn’t tell anyone at home so they wouldn’t be disappointed if I didn’t get in. But I did and as soon as the list of successful candidates was released, I called my dad to tell him I was a Masters student. Father was so happy: “Oh you son of a bitch, why didn’t you say anything?” I told him I wanted it to be a surprise.


Then I joined the army. The guys got me two books and I asked Mum to bring them to the swearing-in ceremony. When you’re in military service there’s almost no spare time, especially on the frontline, but I still tried to find time to read. One day our barracks were searched and my books were confiscated. I was very upset – they had been gifts after all.

At home, they knew that come March I would have a holiday and were expecting me after the 10th. But I arrived earlier and managed to surprise them. They were so happy. When it was time to go back, Mum baked me enough cakes for the whole platoon. I left on 15 March. When I was saying goodbye to my father for some reason I quoted Kochetkov: “Take forever to say goodbye, when you leave even for a moment.” My father froze and Mum worried – “why would you say that?”

Mum in general is quite superstitious. And it turned out that a year ago, when I was in my fourth year, she had a dream in which I was shot, which stressed her out a lot. Her dreams had a habit of coming true. She only told my sister. I tried to calm her down when I was leaving: “It’s just pretty poetry, there’s really no hidden meaning to it all,” I said.

I spoke with them again on 29 March when I called to thank them for the delicious cakes. I told them not to worry, that everything was ok, and military service is all routine. That day I also talked to Zamik but didn’t manage to get through to my aunt or Sabina.

In the army, my best friend was Mushvig. We would write to each other when we were sent to different positions. Recently you could feel more tension on the frontline and all units were being sent forward. Answering a letter from Mushvig from 1 April, I asked him to be careful.

That night we got the order to advance. When the fighting began, the rain of oncoming bullets made it impossible to lift your head. The last thing I saw was the commanding officer, Hasrat Almazov, getting to his feet and screaming “Forward!” and we went to attack.


This article is dedicated to the memory of Samir Kachayev, killed in April 2016 during the so-called “Four Day War” and posthumously awarded the Medal for Bravery. This letter was written based on the recollections of his mother Atina Kachaeva, his father Ziyaddin Kachaev, his classmates Abid and Sadig and friends from the Academy Zamik and Anar.

Unheard Voices is part of International Alert’s work on the Nagorny Karabakh conflict. The project brings together journalists from across Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorny Karabakh to report on stories of ordinary people who have suffered as a result of the conflict, whose voices are not usually heard. The purpose is to ensure their voices are heard both at home, in their own societies and on the other side of the conflict divide, allowing readers to see the real faces hidden behind the images of ‘the enemy’. To view materials from all sides, challenging stereotypes and isolation.

Samira Ahmedbeyli, from Azerbaijan, is one of the journalists taking part in this project and wrote the above story.

Read about the project

Read more stories from other journalists in the region:

This project is funded by the European Union as part of the European Partnership for the Peaceful Settlement of the Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (EPNK).

The materials published on this page are the views of the journalist and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of International Alert or our donors.

Who are Armenia’s protesters, and what can we learn from them?

© JAMnews

Photo credit: © JAMnews

In the last two weeks, Armenia has been gripped by an uprising that has been dubbed a ‘velvet revolution’. Strictly speaking, this may be a misnomer, but the name has stuck because it conveys the movement’s core principle of non-violence.

While experts are having a heyday dissecting its politics, exploring future scenarios, and warning of potential pitfalls – all useful things – an equally fascinating question is who are those unexpected, stubborn and well-organised people in the streets?

Young people

The faces of the protests are refreshingly young. Even the leader of the movement, Nikol Pashinyan, a 42-year-old MP, has just become one of the youngest political leaders in the world. Students, teenagers, tech workers – often described as apathetic, cynical and lazy – only add to the surprise factor and ‘charm’ of the uprising. No one saw a revolution coming or could discern the romantics and idealists in them who would take on a stale yet resourceful state machine and not take no for an answer.

Youthful and fun they might be (all-night dancing and street-blocking BBQs might be favourites), but don’t confuse them with a music festival crowd. With extremely efficient organisation, tactical shrewdness and discipline, they’ve made their way into textbooks on non-violent movements. Their self-control to avoid confrontation, even when presented with police violence, methodical engagements with politicians, and respect for the constitution make them an unknown but formidable political force.

Any analysis of what drove them to the streets and kept them within their carefully devised strategies risks being simplistic. But understanding what ‘clicks’ with young people, what shapes their worldview and inspires them to act is key for channelling their positive energy and purposefulness into consolidating the movement’s gains.

© JAMnews

Photo credit © JAMnews


Another feature making the events a modern civil movement classic is women’s participation. Armenian analyst Mikayel Zolyan observed that he’d not seen an event so ‘gender balanced’: “There were almost as many women on the streets as men, and at certain points the women even outnumbered men (especially given that men were more likely to be detained or beaten up by the police).”

Indeed, the number of women who joined and led protests is astounding. Bearing in mind that Armenian society is traditional and that women’s primary social role is viewed through a wife-mother prism, taking a political stand and making demands takes a lot of courage and integrity. As millions of women around the world have recently been inspired into speaking up, the women protesters in Armenia also felt ‘time was up' and they put their own meaning into #metoo.

Unfortunately, many similar movements in other contexts have ended up reverting back to marginalising women and sexual and gender minorities as soon as ‘the revolution no longer needed them’. The next big thing for Armenian society will be to remain as inclusive and tolerant as it has demonstrated it can be within the last few weeks.

Civil society

"We wanted civil society but got NGOs,” an eastern European activist once aptly remarked.

Without diminishing the role of the NGO ‘sector’, which is a subject for another analysis, the events in Armenia have been instructive for reflecting on the wider meaning of civil society as, according to the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, “a public sphere of contestation over ideas and norms, in which beliefs are shaped,” and, ultimately, an action taken.

As the space for NGOs shrinks globally and trust in the sector is shaken, we should remind ourselves that civil society includes an ever wider and more vibrant range of organised and unorganised groups.

During the tensest episodes of the protests, Pashinyan’s “follow my instructions on Facebook” was a good example of how the boundaries between sectors blur and those involved experiment with new organisational forms, both on- and offline. The use of social media (Facebook, WhatsApp) was vital for disseminating real-time ‘uncensored’ information and for the protests to spread outside the capital Yerevan and become a truly national movement.

In a recent conversation, a few young people who have been part of International Alert’s work on the transformation of the Nagorny Karabakh conflict, and are now part of the velvet revolution, told me they felt the term ‘civil society’ was too limiting and formal to represent them. But in a Gramscian sense of their capacity to think differently, challenge assumptions and norms, and articulate new ideas and visions, they are the civil society to which the future belongs. The rest of us just need to catch up with them.

Beyond the media frenzy, Boko Haram survivors need real support

A shorter version of this blog was originally published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

At first glance, the scene could be something out of a new mums social group. Clusters of young women gathered together and chatting distractedly, children flitting between their legs, babies tugging plaintively at their clothing.

But this is no meet-and-greet at a social centre. I’m in a camp for people displaced by violence from the Boko Haram conflict in Maiduguri, Borno State, the epicentre of the insurgency. I’m about to attend a support session for women and girls who were held in captivity by Boko Haram and subjected to sexual violence. Some have spent years held against their will in the vast forests on the border between Nigeria and Cameroon. They have been subjected to servitude and violence. Many watched friends sent off to die by Boko Haram commanders in suicide bombings, even as they feared their own families might be victims of these attacks.

Contrary to popular assumptions, life does not get easier when they escape or are rescued and find their way to IDP camps, host communities, or their villages. Their communities fear that they have been radicalised during their years spent with Boko Haram. The stigma of being raped is so strong that husbands can no longer look their wives in the eye, parents refuse to let daughters set foot in their household. For those that return bearing children, the rejection can be almost total. The children, their former friends, neighbours and family members say, have “bad blood”. Other children are told to stay away or they may be contaminated.

International Alert runs a programme that has been working towards reducing this stigma and promoting reintegration for two years now. Providing psycho-social support, our primary tool is dialogue and our first port of call is the women and girls who have survived this violence. Critics of our approach could say: people barely have food, medicine and shelter. What will sitting around and sharing their feelings do to make their situation better?

But anyone who spends time in a support session as I did on that day will have their questions answered.

As soon as the facilitator from our partner women’s group called people’s attention, a sombre mood descended. Even the children could tell something important was happening and fell quiet. Then, in small groups with women and girls of similar age, they started to talk. Stories about the horrors seen and lived. The thrill of escape and the despair of rejection upon returning to their communities. The grief of learning about family members killed during their captivity, husbands who had taken on new wives, friends and neighbours disappeared without a trace. They talked about their recurring nightmares, their inability to eat, sleep or find joy in everyday tasks. The guilt of resenting their children for having Boko Haram fathers. Their hopes that they could one day return home and lead a semblance of a normal life. They talked about love and relationships and death and violence, feelings of vengeance, regret, hatred, forgiveness. The emotional tension was so thick that I did not need the translator by my side to understand that something deep was happening in their psyche. Voices broke and stammered. Girls covered their faces with headscarves to hide their tears. Others stared blankly ahead as if lost in their own memories.

But the important thing is: they talked. Freely and openly. I tried to blend into a corner to avoid drawing attention to myself as an outsider, but it hardly mattered. Once the conversation started it was impossible to stop the flow. For many, this was the first time they were ever allowed to express themselves about what they had gone through during the conflict. Terrified of being branded “Boko Haram wives”, they had kept their experiences to themselves and suffered in silence and solitude. And here, suddenly, a community of other women with similar experiences, not judging but listening and offering much-needed solace.

Afterwards, a participant told us the session had made her “feel relevant and empowered”. Another one said she no longer feels “isolated and alone”.

It is four years since 276 schoolgirls were abducted from Chibok in Borno State by Boko Haram and 112 are still held captive or missing. On 19 February 2018, 110 girls were kidnapped from a school in Dapchi in neighbouring Yobe State. A stark reminder that women and children continue to bear the brunt of this brutal insurgency. But what happens to them after the violence? The majority of the Dapchi girls were released some weeks later - though some tragically died during the ordeal.

Lost amid the celebrations of their return is the story of what happens to these girls when the media fervour and government attention dies down. Their abductors warned them never to return to their school. How do they find the courage to return to their former place of learning? How do they sleep peacefully without fear of being kidnapped again? How do they come to terms with what they have seen and lived?

Indeed, how do whole communities and societies - women, girls, men and boys - recover from the psychological and social devastation of a decade of war?

Dialogue will not fill an empty stomach. But words have a power to comfort tortured minds and to rebuild bonds of trust, respect and empathy that are the very foundation of communities.

Photo credit © Carol Allen-Storey for International Alert

Peace is at the heart of sustainable development

This blog first appeared in UNA-UK’s Sustainable Development Goals publication.

The 2030 Agenda and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), provide a comprehensive and holistic framework for addressing global challenges. SDG 16 seeks to promote ‘peaceful and inclusive societies’. In places of conflict and fragility, peace and (SDG 16) must be integrated into the approaches that we use to implement all the other Global Goals, if they are to be effective and sustainable.

The recent UN and World Bank Group report Pathways for Peace noted that by 2030 more than half the world’s poor will be living in countries affected by high levels of violence. It also dispelled the myth that development in and of itself leads to more peaceful societies. In fact, there is often no linear relationship between the two.

Fragility and conflict plagues us across the world, from the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar to war in Yemen. Fragility and poverty are on the rise, even in more stable nations such as the UK.

A 2017 report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that more than one in five of the UK population are currently living in poverty. We have an important challenge on our hands – one that is for all of us to address if we want to progress the SDGs. So the real challenge for us is to create a symbiotic relationship between SDG 16 and the others, so that we can ensure the sustainability of our development investments.

In its 2015 States of Fragility report, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) stated that we are unlikely to eliminate extreme poverty (SDG 1) unless we address conflict. One could conclude that any funding that goes towards development without an integrated approach that also addresses the drivers of conflict is a poor investment.

On the more positive side, a more integrated approach could indeed lead to more peaceful and stable societies.

Understanding the context
From local to national to regional to global, context matters for an integrated approach. International Alert’s research on violent extremism in Syria, for example, shows that this involves a complex interplay of psychological, social, political and ideological factors, as well as cultural and identity issues.

A failure to appreciate this complexity could mean that we ask the wrong questions and consequently take the wrong approaches and implement the wrong activities. It is therefore critical to listen and understand before we act.

And this should go even further, to include the full duration of our engagement. The complexity of issues, from the communities where we intervene to the funding structures of procurement, needs to be fully appreciated before intervening. Equally important is the ability to adapt programming, adjusting to contextual changes as one implements, to ensure that interventions continue to deliver results.

So yes – it is useful to have goals and targets as agreed upon through an arduous and important process of political negotiation. But our interventions must flow first and foremost from understanding the context before choosing a goal or goals to work on in an integrated manner.

Know what you do well – and do it
Every SDG is important. To achieve one, we must also move forward on the others. However, we all have different roles to play – from donor, to international non-governmental organisation (INGO), national government and local civil society. If an organisation knows what it does well, does it and pushes itself to innovate, it will most likely advance in its vision.

But each of us must invest in measuring what we do well and how we improve upon it. With the breadth of potential work that one could do, we as organisations suffer from being drawn in too many directions and diluting our impact by trying to do too much with too little. We often oversell to donors at the proposal stage and under-deliver in the implementation stage.

For this to change, we need to be clearer on what is actually feasible and the time that it takes to achieve results. Donors, too, must be ready to back proposals and interventions that are realistic over ones that overpromise sweeping changes in what are often, at most, five-year interventions.

Clarity of mandate and understanding of one’s competitive advantage is important – as is innovation that may fail but that may also be successful. Donors can and should in many cases drive agendas. In that same vein, when INGOs and local partners coordinate, they can drive impact and add up to more than the sum of their parts.

Know what you don’t do well – and partner up
Partnerships matter perhaps more than ever because of the complexities of the issues in fragile contexts. The trend is for there to be many areas where there are humanitarian, development and peacebuilding needs in one context.

In a recent address, UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed listed the myriad issues in the Sahel region – from violent terrorism to extreme poverty, climate change, displacement, human trafficking and drugs. “Peace, security, development and human rights are intertwined and mutually reinforcing in the Sahel, as everywhere,” she said. “Unless we address the root causes of these interconnected challenges, their impact will continue to increase and the repercussions will spread.”

These intertwined issues are unfortunately plaguing not only the Sahel, but also numerous places where International Alert and many others work. These issues are stacked one on top of the other, creating a Venn diagram of such complexity that to untwine it would take decades when what is needed is immediate action.

This is often the clash between humanitarian actors and development and peacebuilding actors. We all recognise a great need to act, but without understanding the root causes at the same time as the most immediate needs, interventions will be short-lived and short-sighted. But being in such close proximity to one another is an opportunity for holistic approaches – if we understand that we need one another to be successful.

Local partners are key to short-term access and long-term change because they are most likely to remain in the places that are their homes, countries and regions. So, if done well, an investment with or in a local partner is a wiser one. In understanding who they are as organisations and change-makers, we can find ways to complement one another. After all, we all want a better, more equitable world.

The paths to peace are numerous. With a lot of realism, and a dash of optimism, we must work together in an integrated manner to achieve them.

Young people come together for peace in Rwanda

This week, Rwandans across the country will come together to mark the 24th anniversary of the Genocide against the Tutsi. The commemoration this year calls on all Rwandans to Remember, Unite, Renew.

Remembering and uniting to build a renewed life is also at the heart of the work International Alert does in Rwanda, particularly in our work with young people, who have grown up in the shadow of the genocide.

The devastating consequences of the 100-day genocide in 1994 which led to the deaths of over 1 million people - mostly ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus- is likely to affect Rwandans for generations.  

The genocide challenged social constructs, affected relationships and social cohesion. In its aftermath, survivors and perpetrators of violence have had to live together in the same communities. This has generally worked, but for some, living together has led to more trauma and frustration, hindering reconciliation and genuine healing.  

The most affected group have been the youth. Many young people in Rwanda have grown up with the legacy of the genocide, shrouded in confusion, with their views mostly influenced by their parents.

If Rwanda is to achieve genuine reconciliation, it must find ways of addressing the psychosocial wounds and transgenerational trauma of its youth. Focusing on young people will help them redefine shattered relationships, and build a better future.   

This is why International Alert’s Duhuze Rwanda project works with young people to build trust, and provides psychosocial support to promote an inclusive reconciliation process.

Dialogue is key to bridging differences and healing wounds. Through a combination of dialogue forums – permanent "hearing spaces" set up within the community– we bring together young people from families of genocide survivors, perpetrators, ex-combatants, and marginalized communities, to discuss the effects of the genocide.

For some, the trauma comes from the guilt of what their parents did. Others, whose families were victims, struggle with grief as opposed to shame and guilt. Regardless of their background, our forums provide a space for healing through dialogue and exchange, enabling reflections on ethnic difference, and improving social cohesion.

Arsene, a young man whose parents perpetrated violence against the Tutsis, had doubts about attending the dialogue session because of the guilt he felt about his parent’s role in the genocide.

"You can't imagine how I feel when I meet the survivors. I carry my parents' guilt. I can’t feel comfortable. I am always ashamed and afraid to even come close to them just because of what my father did," he said.

After joining International Alert’s healing spaces, he was convinced that he should not carry the blame, because he simply did not have a hand in what happened. So, he started to open up, and talk about his feelings when he meets survivor participants. He feels freer to express himself and interact with others. In fact, he is always the first person to attend our dialogue meetings.

The programme has also trained trauma counsellors who facilitate therapeutic sessions for youth, which aim to counter the spread of poisonous narratives often acquired directly from parents.

The hope is that gradually, and as the forums continue to take effect, people will learn to accept one another, forgive each other and live happily side by side irrespective of Rwanda's recent history. It is in this spirit that we endorse the theme of this year’s commemorations, to remember, unite and renew.

Unity and reconciliation can only be achieved through building trust and confidence among young people, who shape Rwanda's future. As we commemorate 24 years since the Genocide against the Tutsi, let us celebrate the younger generation who are discarding the divisive narratives of the past and embracing peace for a better future. 

Image Credit: Carol Allen-Storey/International Alert

You can’t beat inequality and poverty without peace

Last week the Labour Party launched its new international development policy, 'A World For the Many, Not the Few'. The green paper elaborates on commitments made in Labour’s policy manifesto, which amongst other things included an increased commitment to conflict prevention and peacebuilding.

International Alert welcomes this renewed commitment, which is very much in line with our submission to the Labour Party Taskforce on International Development that authored this paper. 

Overall, the paper sets out a positive vision. Its centrepiece, a substantially increased commitment to address inequality, pairs well with Labour’s broader conflict prevention agenda. Labour includes preventing conflict amongst its five priorities for UK aid, which is a most welcome commitment.  

It also matches its aspirations with necessary resources showing the seriousness of their commitment.

But the challenge is always in the execution, and Labour’s green paper is weaker when it comes to articulating how UK aid as a whole can promote peace and sustain the gains of poverty reduction and inequality interventions.

This has significant implications for the effectiveness and sustainability of the Department for International Development (DFID)’s interventions on poverty and inequality in fragile and conflict-affected countries and is especially significant given more than half of DFID’s budget is spent in such countries.

Strategic settings

Labour’s landmark commitment in the paper is to add a second objective – addressing inequality – to the aid programme’s current objective – eradicating poverty. This is the first change of its type since DFID’s inception. 

Conflict and inequality are intimately interlinked. Economic and political exclusion are key drivers of conflict in many conflict-affected countries. An exclusive poverty focus has often obscured the need to address the root causes of conflict, in turn undermining the sustainability of aid interventions in fragile and conflict-affected contexts.

But we need to avoid the assumption that if you reduce poverty and inequality you will increase peace and prevent conflict. This view has now been debunked by the UN and World Bank in their joint 2018 Pathways for peace report. Development assistance will only increase peace where it is deliberately tailored to do so. Therefore this, and the need to address the root causes of violence, should remain the starting point for deciding priorities in conflict-affected countries.

Consistent with its manifesto Labour includes preventing conflict amongst its five priorities for UK aid. It makes a commitment, within the framework of a wider ‘ethical foreign policy’ to ‘shift from reactive crisis management to coherent, effective and sustainable peacebuilding and conflict prevention’. 

The paper positively spells out a role for DFID in cross-government policy-making including in national security policy, but it misses a reference to the commitment Labour made in its manifesto to develop a plan for conflict prevention and peacebuilding. This leaves a critical gap in policy that unites aid, diplomacy and defence efforts to address conflict.


In terms of resources to match its commitments, the picture proposed by the paper is very positive and could have a significant impact if it remains focused on addressing root causes of conflict under a multi-year framework.

It commits to increase funding for crisis prevention, something long awaited and necessary to achieve Labour’s agenda related to addressing structural inequalities and drivers of conflict. 

The paper also commits to replacing the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) with a peace fund. Should this fund prioritise activities that address the root causes of conflict at current funding levels (£1 billion), this could place the UK as a global leader in conflict prevention.

The US congress is currently pursuing a similar approach with the Global Violence Reduction Act introduced to Congress in March. It compels the US government to develop a strategy for dealing with the root causes of conflict, with accompanying efforts in ten countries over ten years. Two take-aways for Labour are the need to have an overarching strategy for conflict prevention as well as committing to long-term, evidence-informed funding. Enshrining this mechanism in legislation would begin to create a genuine peace agenda for the UK and increase its transparency and impact.

The commitments made to DFID staffing are particularly welcome. To work effectively in fragile contexts DFID needs more people on the ground with the right skills to manage conflict prevention and resolution programmes.

Effectiveness and sustainability

Despite positive commitments at the strategic and resources levels, the paper struggles to articulate how the aid programme will contribute to peace overall. 

With more than 50% of the world’s poor living in fragile and conflict-affected countries and over half of DFID’s budget (around £4.5 billion) currently being spent in such contexts, UK aid will struggle to have a sustainable impact on poverty and inequality unless it also delivers for peace.

Labour should apply a conflict sensitive approach, which means ‘doing no harm’ (which it already includes in the paper) but also ensuring programmes, whether health, education, livelihoods or infrastructure in conflict contexts are designed to also contribute to peace. Sweden and the Netherlands have already committed to this approach. 

Labour’s inequality lens lends itself to the conflict sensitive approach, and can help ensure that peace is integrated across the implementation of the SDGs. 

Overall, there is a lot to like about Labour’s vision. The real test, and whether it will indeed differentiate itself from the current government, will be whether it can move beyond strategic policy settings to operationalise its commitments in a way that truly has an impact on the economic and political inequalities that are driving contemporary conflict. 

You can download our full review of the green paper here. 


5 tips to improve programs that tackle violent extremism

This article was originally published on the global development media platform Devex.

Programming to prevent violent extremism, or PVE, in fragile states and conflicts is challenging and fraught with risks.

With two-thirds of all countries in the world having experienced a terrorist attack in 2016, terrorism has become an unprecedented threat to international peace, security, and development, often feeding off violent conflict. The places with the highest levels of terror in the world — Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, and Syria according to the 2017 Global Terrorism Index — are also places with persistent conflict, violence, and grievances.

Violent extremism, or VE, rarely happens in a vacuum. It is one possible outcome of conflict, inequality, and injustice. According to the United Nations, preventing conflict and sustainable development should be the primary focus of our defence against terrorism. While many resources have been put into programs to tackle violent extremism, we need to better understand the suitability of PVE as an approach and the impact PVE interventions have in different contexts.

So, International Alert partnered with the United Nations Development Programme to develop a toolkit with guidance on how to help improve the design, monitoring, and evaluation of PVE programs.

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Sustaining peace needs a strong civil society

As the Syrian war reaches yet another new low with the fighting in Damascus suburbs, the need for a renewed impetus behind international efforts for peace could not be more urgent. Across the world, people are looking to the United Nations to give the leadership on preventing conflict while concern mounts after more than a decade in which the UN was missing from too many major peace and conflict contexts.

So the Secretary-General António Guterres deserves loud applause for stressing from the moment he took up his role last year that his emphasis would be on preventing conflicts. Now, he has brought out his landmark report on Sustaining Peace. Its overall framing of sustaining peace hits the spot. He reinforces the notion that peacebuilding needs to occur at all stages of the conflict cycle (not just after the guns have fallen silent), and places weight on dealing with the root causes of conflict if we are to move toward long-term peace and stability. This is the strategic priority that is so badly needed.

He is categorical and unambiguous that peace needs to be a core objective of development assistance, not an add-on. This is particularly welcome. Now we must all make sure that it goes beyond the right rhetoric and translates into the right action. Member states need to act to connect development and peace interventions.

There are solid commitments to the role of women and some welcome ideas on Innovative means of financing peacebuilding, such as through social impact bonds, or a tax on the trade of specific arms. The Secretary General’s recommendation need to be wholeheartedly backed.

Where the report could have done with more weight is in highlighting the role of civil society in conflict situations. The report rightly emphasises the importance of community level engagement, but  fails to grasp the really big nettles.  

It is imperative for the UN to address the shrinking civil society space which is happening in more and more countries. Clamping down on the voices of civil society is often in itself a risk indicator for conflict. The Global Terrorism Index found increased rates of terrorism in states that abuse human rights and supress the population. By contrast, a vibrant civil society holds government to account, and helps amplify the voices of the marginalised and those who suffer most.

Civil society can also play a vital role in sustaining peace processes. The UN must create more space for civil society and broader segments of the population beyond armed actors in the development and execution of national peace agreements and peacebuilding strategies. Too often, civil society is an add-on to a peace process late in the game or is brought in on the side of the actual process. Yet half of all peace deals fall apart within five years. If we are going to change that damning statistic, we need to ensure that civil society can feed their concerns into peace deals so that the root causes of conflict are addressed. And both before and after a deal is brokered, the active engagement of civil society in reconciliation is key for the healing of a society. Civilians need to be front and centre of peacebuilding too – if peace is to sustain.  

In 2015, the then Secretary-General’s Advisory Group of Experts (AGE) report underlined “inclusive national ownership”. It said “much as peace cannot be imposed from outside, peace cannot simply be imposed by domestic elites or authoritarian governments on fractious populations that lack even minimal trust in their leaderships or each other. Too often ‘national ownership’ is equated with acquiescing to the strategies and priorities of the national government. In divided post-conflict societies, such an approach risks perpetuating exclusion”. As such, the UN needs to be more active in brokering this “inclusive national ownership”.

The Sustaining Peace agenda as set out in the UNSG’s report does not contain the soaring aspirations of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the urgency of the World Humanitarian Summit or generational commitments of the Climate compact. The peace and security agenda continues to be hamstrung by states who choose to prioritise the notion of sovereignty over people, no matter what the cost. But whatever the political minefields that have to be negotiated, the UN’s principal mandate is to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war. The member states of the UN have been falling short of this commitment for too long. 

So the UN should be roundly applauded for reinvigorating the Sustaining Peace agenda. Now the member states must back this document with real action. When it comes to civil society, that action needs to be to protect it, include it, and draw on its expertise in promoting peace. 

Photo: © Callum Francis Hugh/International Alert