Armenian Aussie volunteer braves war zone

Despite the ever-present threat of violence, young children in Armenia continue to learn and play.
Despite the ever-present threat of violence, young children in Armenia continue to learn and play.

Amid ongoing deadly hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan, an Australian woman is risking her life to help her ancestral homeland.

Just weeks after the heaviest fighting this year in the mountainous Caucasus region between Asia and Europe claimed 22 lives, 55-year-old mother of two Milena continues running kindergarten programs in the Armenian capital, Yerevan.

Previously, when tensions escalated, she has been forced to take cover in basements. Her fear makes her reluctant to identify herself in the media.

Iranian-born, Milena moved with her parents to Australia in the 1970s to be among what is the world's largest English-speaking Armenian diaspora community. Most are settled in Ryde in Sydney, others in Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth.

Since then, however, she has spent more than three decades volunteering in Armenia and currently works with independent humanitarian group the Armenian Relief Society.

"We had 12 kindergartens, a few closed because the numbers of children attending became less, we lost four of them because of Azerbaijan taking over the Artsakh (also known as Karabakh) territory and now we are down to four that are still operating," she tells AAP.

Despite being an Australian citizen and her parents still calling Sydney 'home', most of Milena's life has involved travelling between the two countries.

"I feel like I am that one drop extra in the ocean and I feel like everyone has got to do something, if everyone does something to help, the country will be a better place," she says.

Armenia and Azerbaijan are locked in a decades-old dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory that lies within Azerbaijan but is controlled by ethnic forces backed by Armenia since a separatist war there ended in 1994.

Moscow brokered a peace deal last November to end six weeks of fighting. The truce allowed Azerbaijan to reclaim large parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas.

Tensions on the border with Armenia have been building since May, when it protested an incursion by Azerbaijani troops.

The Armenian Relief Society raises money around the world to help the families of dead and missing soldiers.

Armenia's low wages and pensions means $A170 a year can help buy a uniform and school books for a student.

At the height of fighting in 2020, Milena volunteered in hospitals at Yerevan.

"We would bring clothing, food supplies, medicine and newspapers to the wounded and their families," she says.

As the region continues to experience daily gunfire, she remains on standby to again help with casualties.

"A farmer was shot driving his tractor ... just the other day and so it is continuing and there is no guarantee of security for Armenians in those border regions," she says.

Tension continues for Armenian communities who believe their prisoners of war are being mistreated and there is a growing appetite among some to reclaim the land and homes they lost in the settlement deal.

"Armenians are stuck in the middle of this war," Milena says.

"We used to think it was a religious issue before but it is not, it is a territorial one and it doesn't matter who is blocking the way, the other side will just rampage in and that's not right."

Despite the ever-present threat of violence, children at Milena's kindergartens continue to learn and play. Youngsters can be seen laughing and happy on the streets of Yeraskh, just kilometres from military bases.

Extra reporting by AP.

Australian Associated Press