Armenia 1992: The first major relief operation

In 1988, an armed conflict broke out over the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. As the six-year conflict reached its climax, the newly founded aid organisation Mission East decided to send emergency relief to the area.

By Line Højland, Communications Officer

On 17 October 1992, the founder of Mission East, René Hartzner, was standing at Værløse Air Base with a group of volunteers, getting ready to fly a mobile emergency hospital to Armenia on a Russian Ilyshin transport aircraft. This was the culmination of weeks of preparation and the biggest operation in Mission East’s one-year history.

The aid was intended for a hospital for patients wounded during the bloody conflict with Azerbaijan. At 20:15, the aircraft took off for Armenia with a cargo of 35 tons of hospital equipment from Næstved Hospital.

An ignored conflict

The transport on this autumn day marked the beginning of a long-term relief operation for war-torn and impoverished Armenia. While the world’s attention was focused on the bloody conflict in former Yugoslavia, the war between the two former Soviet republics, Armenia and Azerbaijan, attracted few headlines. But under the leadership of René Hartzner, Mission East dedicated a lot of its work to help the small Eastern nation.

From their office in Birkerød, René and Kim Hartzner gathered a team of volunteers around them to collect food, clothes and hospital equipment to the impoverished populations of Russia, Ukraine, Albania and Armenia.

Frosty operating theatres

The help was much needed. The war against Azerbaijan created a deficit of all basic necessities. Shop shelves were empty, and the daily bread ration – the main staple of the Armenian diet – was as low as 250 grams. There were reports of people killing each other outside food stores. There was also a lack of petrol, and Armenian families had to get through the freezing Armenian winter without any heating in their homes. Even in hospital operating theatres the temperatures were freezing, and the UN warned that thousand could die from hunger and cold.

Aid by ship

At first, Mission East planned to establish an air bridge with emergency aid from Denmark to Armenia. But as Azerbaijan was blocking fuel imports to Armenia, just seven litres of petrol cost a whole month’s salary. Another solution had to be found. The Mission East newsletter from April 1993 brought the following news: “Through contacts in Canada, a unique opportunity has presented itself: We can now transport aid to Armenia in apparently unlimited quantities, BY SHIP.” Armenia is landlocked, so the route went via Spain to Georgia, and from there by train to Yerevan. In April 1993, Mission East shipped the first 15 containers with clothes, food and hospital equipment.

Warm socks from Helga

Mission East sent hospital equipment and other emergency aid to Armenia several times, by sea as well as by air. A former school in the town Sisian south of Yerevan became the site of the ‘Denmark’ hospital, which is still operating today. The aid also went to villages, refugee camps, old people’s homes and orphanages. The Nubarashen Orphanage No 11 received several shipments of aid. The Filip School on the Danish island of Amager collected food, and senior citizen Helga Pedersen from Holbæk knitted warm sweaters, socks and caps for the children. Several children at the orphanage had suffered brain damage, and it was here that Mission started its work for people with disabilities.

The original Danish language version of this article was published in a special edition of the Mission East magazine to commemorate the organisation's 25-year Jubilee in November 2016.


Houses were shot to pieces

Kim Hartzner went to Armenia to receive the aid shipment and distribute the goods. He wrote about the capital Yerevan in May 1993:

“A ghost town with access to electricity 3-4 hours a day. The inhabitants must use torches to find their way home at night – if they dare go outside. The city is plagued by ferocious dogs who look as if they have not eaten for months. One dark evening I emptied my adrenalin supply when three hungry dogs jumped out from behind a street corner.”

In Stepanakert – the main town of Nagorno-Karabakh – the situation was even worse:

“Stepanakert seems like a step into the inner court of death. MOST of the houses have either been shot to pieces or show traces of two years of intensive missile attacks. Last year, its inhabitants spent nine months in underground shelters, and the wounded were operated on by candlelight in the basement underneath the city’s cramped hospital.”


What is an emergency hospital?

During the Cold War, the Danish state decided to establish 50 emergency hospitals in schools and other public buildings around the country if war should break out. When the Cold War ended in 1991, organisations could apply to have them, and Mission East got five. Three were sent to Russia, one to Albania and one to Armenia where it became the foundation of the still existing hospital called Denmark. An ‘emergency hospital’ weighed between 25 and 43 tons and took up approximately 350 cubic metres of space. It contained complete equipment for treating 200 patients: Beds, nursing equipment, an operating theatre, laboratory, diagnostic equipment, kitchen and office supplies. Its value in 1992 was estimated at 30 million Danish Kroner.


What is the conflict about?

Nagorno-Karabakh is a territory in Azerbaijan with a predominantly Armenian population. It measures 4,400 square metres. As republics were formed in the early days of the Soviet Union, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin made it part of Azerbaijan. In 1988, the territory’s population wanted to secede from Azerbaijan and join Armenia. That same year, war broke out over the territory. It claimed almost 30,000 lives before a ceasefire was agreed upon in 1994. The territory has remained under Armenian control since then. On 2 April 2016, fighting erupted once again, and soldiers on both sides were killed. Both sides accuse each other of starting the fighting.