The work of Operation Mercy was focussed on the internally displaced Azeris from the disputed Nagorro-Karabakh region.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was the longest running in post-Soviet Eurasia. In 1988, ethnic Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh demanded the transfer of what was then the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) from Soviet Azerbaijan to Armenia. As the Soviet Union collapsed, tensions grew into an outright war. When fighting ceased in 1994, Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjacent districts were wholly or partially controlled by Armenian forces. More than a million people had been forced from their homes: Azerbaijanis fled Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh and the adjacent territories, while Armenians left homes in Azerbaijan.
The internally displaced Azeris lived like refugees in their own country. There were several settlements established outside cities and towns in Azerbaijan. These Azeris were not assimilated into the adjacent communities, and they chose to live separately with the hope to return to their home-region as soon as possible. This hope was kept alive by the Azeri government who commemorated the cease fire in 1994 every year with promises of a victory over the Armenian forces and the return of the exiles to their home-region.
When the Operation Mercy office was established in Baku in 1994 it was registered under the Office of the President and mandated to do relief and development work amongst the internally displaced Azeri communities in Azerbaijan. Operation Mercy started relief and development projects for these communities and funds were raised for these projects using the extensive database and reach of Operation Mercy. The projects were focussed on guidance regarding primary health and dental care, supporting pregnant mothers, English and Computer literacy and sustainable food projects like vegetable gardens. Operation Mercy used expatriate workers in Azerbaijan as volunteers and visiting teams to do the work and a small team of 5 people were employed in the office in Baku including an Azeri citizen who was the office manager and translator for the team.
In 2013, nearly 19 years had already passed since the cease fire was announced in 1994. The position of Country Director was vacant for more than a year. The projects were maintained but the level of financial support for these projects had dropped alarmingly. It was an old problem and although the internally displaced people were still in need of these projects and support, the world had moved on and donors had found new more current crises to fund.
Evaluating the different projects and raising more support for the viable ones was one of my first challenges as Country Director. The second challenge was even more difficult. The Office of the President of Azerbaijan was putting a lot of pressure on all the organizations involved in relief and development amongst the internally displaced Azeris to act as advocates for the Azeris suffering a gross injustice and unjust occupation of Azeri territory. They were also putting pressure on all the organizations to increase spending on the internally displaced communities to secure their standing as registered organizations in the country. The government was under pressure and the socio-political climate was changing. The people of Azerbaijan were looking to the government to take the disputed land back and to repatriate the internally displaced Azeris to their home-region. The government was relying on the foreign organizations working as relief and development agencies to keep the displaced communities satisfied. The economic climate in the world had however changed for the worse and the Nagorro-Karabakh conflict was not worthy of support in the eyes of major donors around the world. I was feeling the pressure of running projects with a depleted budget and very little chance to increase the funding in the prevailing economic and socio-political climate.
In May 2013 I was invited to attend the meeting of Country Directors of Operation Mercy in Őrebro, Sweden. In my report to the Board of Directors of Operation Mercy, I highlighted the challenges facing the work in Azerbaijan. To me the question to be answered was, if the Board of Directors would open a new Operation Mercy office in Baku in 2013, taking the socio-political and economic challenges into consideration. They insisted that the management team in Baku were in the best position to answer the question.
I returned to Baku with a heavy heart. I got the management team together and we decided on a strategy to eliminate projects that were no longer viable and to identify new opportunities that we can seek donations for. We gave ourselves three months for this task and decided to evaluate the result at the end of September 2013. In the next three months I travelled from the one internally displaced community to the other. It became clear that some communities were functioning well and had a lot of focus and investment over the past 19 years. There were also communities that were struggling and in dire need of help. We decided to focus on these communities and submitted numerous projects to our donor base to seek funding.
Towards the end of September, the political pressure from the government on some of the organizations were starting to tell. Those who could not fulfil the demands of the government to increase their expenditure on existing and new projects for internally displaced people, were asked to close their operations within thirty days. In some cases, property and equipment were confiscated by the government. I knew that Operation Mercy was at risk too.