In 2013 Merlin celebrates its 20th anniversary; here we take a look back over one of our first missions in the region of Nagorno Karabakh.
One of Merlin’s first responses to a crisis came in June 1993 with an emergency vaccination programme in Nagorno Karabakh, a region already suffering after five years of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The war would later end in 1994, but tension still remains in the region to this day, with continuing casualties on both sides, and the Minsk Group, part of Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), working to help find a permanent peaceful solution to this post-Soviet ‘frozen conflict’.
In 1993, when the Merlin team arrived in the midst of the conflict, the immunity of the local population of Nagorno Karabakh to common disease was dangerously low.
As Merlin founder, Dr Chris Besse, commented at the time, children’s “susceptibility to preventable infectious diseases was very alarming.” A plan was made to immunize all children under five against diphtheria, tetanus, polio, measles and whooping cough, “diseases which are normally controlled, but which can kill the malnourished when the public health system breaks down,” he explained.
The team travelled to Erevan in Armenia with 50 tons of supplies and medical equipment, and then, in a convoy of four trucks, made the journey to Stepanakert in Karabakh, travelling at night through the mountains.
As part of the emergency vaccination programme, three waves of inoculations were carried out throughout the region, and during the three and a half months of their stay the Merlin team vaccinated 10,000 children.
As they worked in the war zone, the team suffered intermittent bombardment and witnessed a great deal of suffering. “We have all seen some terrible things,” said Toby Porter at the time, the logistician for the team. “I wish though that people back home could also concentrate on the joy that missions like this can bring to those in places like Karabakh. Strangers come up to us wanting to meet us, talk to us, invite us to their houses, even embrace us, simply because we are here. There is an enormous generosity of spirit and hospitality,” he said.
Merlin’s commitment to responding to the worst humanitarian crises, including those in war zones, has continued since 1993 and will continue into the future.