Azerbaijan: Past Displacement, Present Hardship
“When we were fighting in Karabakh, we’d never have imagined it would be our destiny to end up in circumstances like these, as pawns in the hands of unprincipled officials,” Vilayat Bakhshaliyev said.
Bakhshaliyev, now 40, is originally from Gubadli, a district in western Azerbaijan that was captured by Armenian forces in 1993.
For all of the 17 years since he and his family fled the fighting, they have lived in a former workers’ hostel in Sumgait – a town near the capital Baku – where two out of five of the half a million residents are refugees from the conflict.
Some came from Nagorny Karabakh itself, while many others came from the seven districts located outside the disputed entity and still in Armenian hands. Azerbaijan upholds its rights to regain control of all territories including Karabakh, which regards itself as independent but has not won international recognition.
There are many people like Bakhshaliyev, displaced by the war over Nagorny Karabakh and still living on the margins 16 years after a ceasefire ended hostilities, as officials argue about whose job it is to improve the conditions they endure.
“We voted for Ilham Aliyev in presidential elections because we believed he would solve our problems,” Bakhshaliyev said. “But the president we trusted is not interested in the conditions that refugees live in. I fought for five years in Karabakh, and I was wounded. But not one official will listen when I complain.”
Officials in Sumgait said they were aware of the difficult conditions and poor housing that internally displaced persons, IDPs, like Bakhshaliyev have to live in.
Rasul Valiyev, an adviser at the housing department in the municipal administration, said the authorities wanted to invite IDP residents to a meeting to discuss their problems. “Only with this as a basis, and after producing a report to our superior, will we take a decision,” he said.
On a visit to Hostel No. 2, where the Bakhshaliyev family lives, the first impression is of darkness, followed by the stench of the communal toilets. The staircase is broken-down, with the steps littered with rubbish and paintwork flaked off the walls, and the corridors are full of spare furniture overflowing from the rooms.
Residents of each floor of the hostel have to make do with one shared kitchen and a single toilet.
Bakhshaliyev grimaced as he noticed IWPR’s correspondent unconsciously pulling his scarf over his nose as they passed the toilet.
“Look at it, there isn’t even a door, so if you go in, you need someone to stand guard,” he said.
Of the five gas hobs in the shared kitchen, only two are working.
“Every day, people argue over their places in the queue to cook food and boil water,” Bakhshaliyev’s wife Lala said. “We’re fed up with the situation. Look at the fridge – it’s ancient; it looks like something from the beginning of the last century.”
Lala Bakhshaliyeva is originally from Sumgait, but moved to Gubadli when the couple married. That was in 1993, and by the end of the year they had fled before the advancing Armenian forces.
She said the authorities were now building new apartment blocks for Karabakh war veterans in the town, but officials were demanding hefty bribes before they would hand one over.
Bakhshaliyev said the long years spent in hardship had damaged his health, and he had developed hepatitis C and a heart condition. He also has shrapnel fragments remaining in his head.
“Every doctor’s prescription costs me 60 or 70 manats [80-90 US dollars]. I earn 170 manats a month from my job… as a security guard. I get 30 manats [monthly] as a war pension, and 60 as a refugee, so I have to buy my medicine and feed my family on 260 manats a month,” he said. “I’d be interested to know whether those officials could feed their families on that. If they won’t help us, let them strip us of our citizenship, and we’ll become citizens of Armenia.”
It is not clear who is in charge of Hostel No. 2 in Sumgait. IWPR approached the local government in exile for Gubadli district – IDPs like Bakhshaliyev are assigned to authorities for their area of origin – but staff there directed us to the State Committee for Refugee Affairs. In turn, this agency said the hostel’s owner was responsible for its upkeep.
Rey Karimoglu, spokesman for the Union of Veterans of the Karabakh War, said this was wrong, and it was in fact the state refugee agency that should be dealing with the hostel.
“That company [hostel owner] hasn’t existed for over than 20 years,” he said. “It’s the state committee that is responsible for the social conditions in which the forcibly displaced live, regardless of where they reside.”
Karimoglu said the Azerbaijani government was betraying those who had fought in the conflict.
“No one should have to live in such inhuman conditions in the 21st century,” he said. “I can only urge these refugees to go to the State Committee for Refugee Affairs and raise an official complaint. Our own organisation will also raise the matter with the appropriate bodies.”
Galabey Agalarli of the opposition Musavat party’s Karabakh Committee, offered his own view of what the authorities should do, “The first thing is to regain the occupied territories and return these people to their homes. The second thing would be to build new homes for these people. If those things are not done, repairing toilets or kitchens in hostels won’t change a thing.”
Natig Javadli is a freelance journalist in Azerbaijan.