Under Peaceful Skies

A story of endurance and support

Sean Barry
19 April 2022

“We were talking to one child" I asked if he heard the noises during the shelling. “Yes, but I asked my father, and he said it was our neighbour, Mammed Baba, cutting wood. I didn't want him to be frightened,” the boy added. “So I didn’t tell him that I knew about the fighting.”

Reflecting on the conversation she had in Tap Qaraqoyunlu village near Goranboy in Azerbaijan, psychologist Parvin Suleymanova added, “Despite him being only an 8- or 9-year-old child, I realised how brave children are, and at the same time, that they have the strength to support grownups.” 

Parvin, and fellow psychologists Ayten Agayeva, and Orkhan Orujzade worked in the Child Protection of in Emergencies Programme. Operating in the regions most affected by the 2020 conflict, it provided psychological support to more than 2700 children and around 1200 families affected by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and other stress-related conditions. An initiative of UNICEF Azerbaijan in collaboration with the ASAN Volunteers Public Union, the programme ran from November 2020 through May 2021.

I realised how brave children are, and at the same time, that they have the strength to support grownups.

UNICEF customised the programme for Azerbaijan from experience in post-conflict situations around the world specifically to mitigate the ongoing effects of conflict. 

“Since the first days of conflict escalation we had already begun to form a team,” Orkhan, the Agdam Regional coordinator, explained. Teams of psychologists and social workers worked together so the most affected received the support required. Ayten and Parvin were the Working Group Coordinators in the Goranboy region. Their teams went house-to-house identifying risk groups, assessing needs, and offering initial support to women and children. 

Ayten said volunteers ensured all children’s needs were met. “Our surveys identified risk groups; the children with severe stress. The volunteers gave great support, it meant that other children who were missed initially could also be included.” 

“We supported the volunteers by sharing international experience. We trained them in children’s leisure activities,” Orkhan added. “They came to us for help and advice. We worked together and demonstrated methodologies for difficult cases with sensitive children.” 

Reflecting on his involvement, volunteer Musa Pashayev spoke of the changes he witnessed in the children. “After the sessions, you see the difference. I returned to one of the villages. One of the children remembered me. He was happy to see me. It was nice to see him smile.”  Musa, a fourth-year Social Work student at Baku State University, was especially eager for the opportunity to work with UNICEF.  “It offered the chance to represent my university, develop my skills, benefit from the experience of the psychologists and social workers, and help the children,” he explained.
 

We worked together and demonstrated methodologies for difficult cases with sensitive children.

Musa worked in the Goranboy region for 20 days. “We had to be empathetic, and good communicators, like a friend or another parent.” The only male in a team of five, Musa often found himself involved in energetic games with boys: perfect activities to relieve stress, and to boost focus in class. 

The psychologists observed the lingering effects of the Karabakh conflict of the 1990s. The children that endured those hostilities, now in their 30s, received no timely psychological support. Many now struggle with anger and aggression issues. Without treatment, serious mental health issues such as behaviour problems or even drug use can emerge. 

Despite damage to homes and families experiencing loss, many families remained in the conflict zone unaware that this can exacerbate psychological trauma, especially for children. Often there was no attitude of mourning, contrastingly one of euphoria. As children shape their response to conflict from the adults around them, this masked underlying psychological difficulties. 

Ayten encountered this. “Parents viewed the end of the fighting positively, with a feeling of euphoria, not understanding the harm for them or their children. Their first reaction was to say they were fine. Later, when we talked more extensively, trauma emerged.”

Their first reaction was to say they were fine. Later, when we talked more extensively, trauma emerged.

Orkhan explained that shame about mental issues was a barrier when they first offered psychological support. PTSD can emerge after 3 to 6 months. Over time, people revealed what they were confronting: sleeping problems and eating disorders, including anorexia; children unable to participate fully at school. Returning to the Agdam region after a year, Orkhan saw a remaining need. “The euphoria had gone. People understood; they wanted our help.”

Ayten, Parvin, and Orkhan found the collaboration within the project inspiring.  They also expressed their gratitude to UNICEF for its involvement and support. Reflecting on their work, Orkhan emphasised that the support offered now will benefit the communities not only for the short-term, but for as long as 20, 30 or 50 years. Ayten’s hope was that from now on, the people affected will live with peaceful skies over their head.