Conspiracy theories in Armenia have put NGO work in danger

Hostility towards the West after the Nagorno-Karabakh war has taken a toll on Armenian nonprofit organisations.

Zhanna Petrosyan (35), a refugee from the village of Tsapatagh of the Nagorno-Karabakh region and her seven children stand next to their belongings at a centre for refugees, in Yerevan, on October 24, 2020 after fleeing fierce fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. File: AFP/Karen Minasyan]

Two weeks after the war in Nagorno-Karabakh started, the phone rang at “Article 3” Human Rights Club founded by our NGO For Equal Rights. I picked up and heard a panicked voice on the other end. It was Elya, an internally-displaced woman from Nagorno-Karabakh, who had just hitchhiked from the war zone to the Armenian capital Yerevan with her grandmother, 4-year-old son, and a newborn. They had made it, but they had nowhere to go.

When I met them in central Yerevan, it turned out the situation was worse than I thought. Elya had had a C-section just four days before they left. With the war escalating and their departure imminent, it had seemed better to give birth then than to face the chance of going into labour while on the road.

She needed to look after her family, but because of her operation and the rough trip to Yerevan, she could barely walk let alone climb stairs. We posted on social media that we were looking for a ground floor apartment for them and managed to find one.

The next day Elya called to tell us she had two more children – a 10-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter – who had left for Yerevan with a relative but she had no idea where they were. We began calling contacts across the city to see if anyone had any information on the children and, fortunately, we found them. They were successfully reunited with their mother in their new temporary home.

This was the situation in Armenia during the war, where NGOs like ours have supported thousands of people like Elya. A conservative estimate places the number of people who have fled to Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh at 90,000 out of a total prewar population of 150,000. The distinct accents and inflections of Nagorno-Karabakh can now be heard across Armenia.

As the new borders under the November 9 ceasefire agreement are drawn, some are able to return, while others are looking at their new lives as displaced people. These people need to be provided for so they can live in dignity and have hope for the future. After a war that seemed to register as a little more than a blip for much of the world, the international community needs to step up and show these people they will not be forgotten.

With the onset of winter, many of the displaced have found themselves in a precarious situation. As temperatures drop and COVID-19 infection rates skyrocket, there are thousands of people in need of warm clothes, medication, and housing.

For political reasons, the Armenian government has not declared them to be refugees or internally displaced people (IDPs) – an important classification that would allow international organisations to help at a time when the Armenian state has very limited resources.

Because of the growing gap between need and government capacity, our NGO and other Armenian civil society actors have had to step in. We may have been human rights educators, but now we have become housing coordinators, shelter managers, clothing and medicine distributors, and family reunification workers. This is on top of our efforts to fundraise for medical supplies and spread awareness about the COVID-19 pandemic.

But even though the need for help from civil society organisations has grown, political pressure on us has increased exponentially. Many Armenians blamed the embarrassing defeat in Nagorno-Karabakh on the silence and inaction of the West. Because some Armenian NGOs have ties to Western organisations, they are being slandered and dragged into swirling conspiracy theories. Some have been threatened, others attacked.

I worry about the impact these conspiracy theories will have on our team and our work, trying to helping people like Elya. These smear campaigns against the nongovernmental sector are dangerous and they disrupt the work of organisations like ours when they are needed the most.

Elya and her family will eventually be able to go back. Their home remains in Armenian-controlled territory, and although it was damaged in the fighting, it can be repaired. But for many others, the uncertainty will be lasting.

Thousands are facing challenges with finding housing and making ends meet. They are also struggling with psychological trauma from the war and the loss of their homes and with ensuring their children get an education.

Rehabilitating this newly displaced population will take a lot of effort and resources and it cannot be done without national and international actors playing their parts. And this process will be that much harder if Armenian civil society is not given liberty and guaranteed safety to do its work.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.