The past couple of months have seen a conflict break out in the breakaway republic of Artsakh (better known as Nagorno-Karabakh), nestled in the southern Caucasus Mountains between Armenia and Azerbaijan. An Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in the days of the USSR, surrounded by Azerbaijan but mostly populated by people of Armenian stock, it broke away from Azerbaijan at the beginning of January 1992 following an independence referendum (which was boycotted by local Azerbaijanis).
Since then, of course, two conflicts between Artsakh, Armenia and Azerbaijan have followed, with the second ending last month with Azerbaijan regaining just about all of the territory outside Artsakh it lost during the first war, which ended in May 1994 following a ceasefire. The ins and outs of the two "Nagorno-Karabakh Wars" are already being discussed and argued over elsewhere; there is no need to go over them here.
During the second conflict, Artsakh's capital, Stepanakert, came under daily attack from Azeri artillery and aircraft. As the city slowly began to empty during the latter stages of the conflict, it became clear that the elderly and vulnerable, as in every war ever known to man, were suffering greatly, despite the efforts of NGOs such as Kooyrigs. The fact that the Corona virus, was, and remains rampant in the southern reaches of the Caucasus region as a whole, only exacerbated the problems experienced by those who remained.
It was then that a group of football fans and players came together to form Football For Artsakh, better known via social media as Footy4Artsakh (and named as such hereafter), a small organisation dedicated to raising money to aid the elderly and vulnerable in Stepanakert. Many of those involved in Footy4Artsakh have an emotional bond with the nation and its capital, and this is unsurprising, given that they attended last year's CONIFA European Football Cup, which was held in Artsakh, in one capacity or another.
In a statement, released early last month, they referred to the affection and care shown to them during their stay in Artsakh, and said that they, "as part of the global football community, want to give back to the hosts, Nagorno-Karabakh. We celebrated together and now we must also be together for these hard times."
The statement, released on 5 November, and signed by CONIFA and WUFA member associations, amongst others, is provided in full below.
"A deadly war is raging in the Southern Caucasus since 27 September 2020. The small unrecognised Republic of Artsakh, also known under its former name Nagorno-Karabakh, and its 150000 inhabitants have been under attack for more than a month now. An estimated 6000 lives have been lost and over 90000 Karabakhtsi are taking refuge in Armenia. The citizens that stayed behind in the war-zone are often the elderly who [are unable to evacuate to Armenia]. They have been spending their days and nights in bomb-shelters or basements for weeks now.
"As all local shops are currently closed, the humanitarian situation is getting worse by the day.It is up to individuals and small civil organisations like Kooyrigs, who distribute supplies, to bring relief during times of war. Kooyrigs are more than humanitarian fighters in a war-zone that many call home - they are our allies in showing that football still has the massive power of solidarity. That's why we are collecting funds to help them on their mission to help the civilians of Nagorno-Karabakh.
"Many of us were heavily involved in a football tournament [the CONIFA European Football Cup] organised in Nagorno-Karabakh just last [year]. We, as part of the global football community, want to give back to the hosts, Nagorno-Karabakh.
"We celebrated together and now we must also be together for these hard times. We stand in solidarity with Nagorno-Karabakh and every single civilian who cheered us or our brothers and sisters last summer.
"This crowdfunder is for all of you. While we use our global football community to raise awareness and co-ordinate this call, we don't donate to a football team or player here - but to civilians in danger. This cause should concern everyone, globally.
"Thank you for your role in fighting a humanitarian disaster in the making with your contribution. Please spread the word, about this campaign and the horrible war that is already being forgotten."
Barawa Football Association; Chagos Islands Football Association; International Football Surrey; Football Federation of the Republic of South Ossetia; Matabeleland Football Confederacy; Football Association of Panjab; Pohnpei Soccer Association; Seleção Paulista; Yorkshire International Football Association; Midfield Generals
Sascha Düerkop; Jens Jockel; Pat. McGuinness; Liam Potter; Séamus Travers; Paul Watson; Noah Wheelock
Albumin, part of a consignment of medicine recently delivered by Kooyrigs to Stepanakert (Photo courtesy of Kooyrigs)
Footy4Artsakh raised almost €1000 via a football-shirt auction which was held last month, and donated the money to Kooyrigs, a female-run Armenian NGO which distributed food, water and blankets to many of those who were left behind in Stepanakert and who were forced to hide in cellars and bomb-shelters. The operation was suspended when the city was almost completely evacuated last month, but, now that Stepanakert is starting to fill up again, slowly but surely, the assistance given by organisations such as Kooyrigs is needed more than ever, due in no small part to the onset of winter.
Mariam Avagyan, one of Kooyrigs’ directors, gave a detailed account to Pat's Football Blog this evening of the work the organisation had done during the conflict, saying that they had organised relief operations in various locations throughout Artsakh, including Stepanakert, Berdzor, Kovsakan and Qarvachar, to name but four.
"During the war, we were regularly shipping several tonnes of food to Stepanakert. While people from Stepanakert were slowly fleeing [the city], people from the nearby villages were gathering in Stepanakert as it had better bunker infrastructure. We regularly shipped food for all those people throughout the war. We were in touch with the Municipality of Stapanakert throughout. They were telling us how many people there were there and how much food they needed. Then, our team would [deliver the food] and make sure that the people got it. We also send 20 tonnes of flour, salt, yeast and oil to bake [enough] bread for one month for all of the people in Stepanakert."
"Regarding the situation now, conditions are very tough, especially for old and vulnerable people. They barely have electricity - it's often gone for 7-8 hours, and it's very cold there. There is no [gas supply],....because all the pipes have been damaged. The internet connection is on and off. One person contacted us from Stepanakert today saying that [the people still living in the city] need food and very basic necessities. A very harsh winter is upon the people of Artsakh."
Avagyan said that Kooyrigs will be delivering aid to Stepanakert in the coming week, and gave a quick run-down of what has been delivered so far, and said that more of the same will be delivered:
"1: Food to Stepanakert: As I mentioned, during the war we constantly sent food to Stepanakert - rice, pasta, beans, fresh vegetables, 20 tonnes of flour, salt, oil, and yeast (enough to bake bread for everyone sheltering in Stepanakert for a month), canned meat, and other fresh and non-perishables. As people of Stepanakert and nearby villages were sheltering in bunkers (children doing schoolwork in bunkers, even women giving birth in bunkers), they had no way of going and getting food on their own. The stores and markets were destroyed.
"2: Medication to Stepanakert and Goris hospitals: We were in direct touch with the Stepanakert and Goris hospitals and delivered medication they asked for. Much of it was blood-loss medication [Albumin] that was life-saving for the wounded civilians as well as soldiers. Other medication sent to people in and from Artsakh included Argosulfan (used for treating burns) diabetes medication, Colchicine, etc.
"3: Project Mayreeg (support for pregnant women): When delivering winter boots, we noticed many pregnant women did not have warm clothing, food, or access to Doctors. We started a project where we provide pregnant women a box of necessary items 1 month post-partum (baby bottle, diapers, nipple pads, etc), as well as help with finding doctors, appointment assistantship, and medication/vitamins. In our experience, this group was the most vulnerable as most of them had lost either their husbands, brothers, or fathers. We currently have 131 pregnant women from and in Artsakh who are receiving aid.
"4: Support to individual families: Because some families in Artsakh (as well as those who fled Artsakh) were completely isolated, had no transportation, clothes, or shelter, we provided food bags that last 2 months, warm clothing (blankets, winter boots, etc), and medication. This is extremely important because winters are brutal in Armenia and Artsakh, yet some people fled wearing flip-flops and pyjamas. [We will be delivering more ] blankets and winter boots for women and children. There are almost no men left in Stepanakert.
Avagyan thanked those who have donated to Footy4Artsakh, adding, simply: "Your donations literally saved lives."
The Footy4Artsakh campaign has gone rather quiet over the past couple of weeks, but with Christmas and the New Year approaching, the work still goes on in Stepanakert and other parts of Artsakh, mostly unknown and unheralded. The elderly and vulnerable, those who are unable to fend for themselves, still need the support and succour of others. Footy4Artsakh is a non-partisan effort where all monies raised go to those most in need, and there are many of them. Whatever you can give, however little, will go a long way and will be gratefully received.
The global footballing community has shown that it can come together to make grand gestures. It can also surely come together to make a small one, too, one which will make a big difference to hundreds, maybe thousands of people in a place ignored and unheard of by many.
To donate to Footy4Artsakh via PayPal, kindly copy and paste the link below:
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Many thanks to Mariam Avagyan, director of Kooyrigs, for her contribution to the above article (and her patience).