Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azerbaijan: Farming in No-Man's Land

Farmers risk being shot at and blown up by mines tending to their flocks and fields.
By Idrik Abbasov
The teenage shepherd stopped abruptly when the Azerbaijani army officer shouted over at him.

"How shameless you are! How many times must I tell you not to graze your sheep in this damned place? They will shoot you and kill you, and I will be held responsible," yelled the lieutenant.

This correspondent saw this exchange with his own eyes in March when visiting the frontline between Azeri and Armenian troops. The shepherd’s attempt to take his 30 sheep across the trenches to the pastures in no-man’s land was proof of just how desperate life is for farmers who have lost their livelihoods from a war that supposedly ended 13 years ago.

The shepherd came from the village of Bala Jafarli, home to some 20 families and situated in the Qazakh region of Azerbaijan, 500 kilometres from Baku and where the borders of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia meet. It lies on a highway that once led to Armenia’s Ijevan region, but is now surrounded by Armenian forces on three sides.

The fourth side of the village is marked by the dried-up Davdagh lake, which has vanished since the Armenians blocked the channel that supplied it. The next Azerbaijani settlement of Boyuk Jafarli is situated six km away on the far shore of the lake. A special pass is necessary to visit Bala Jafarli, and the narrow corridor leading to it is open only for the military, residents of the village and occasional visitors like this correspondent.

Bala Jafarli and Boyuk Jafarli are surrounded by six Azerbaijani villages that are occupied by Armenian forces. Bala Jafarli and Boyuk Jafarli are just several hundred metres from Armenian positions.

An Azerbaijani trench runs next to the last house in Bala Jafarli. The wall facing the Armenian positions is riddled with bullets. The roof, windows and doors on the second floor have been shattered. Despite this, the Gasymov family still lives there.

The owner of the house, Tamila Gasymova, 46, wept as she talked to this correspondent. The shepherd who tried to cross the lines, it transpired, was one of her relatives.

"The Armenians are shooting all the time and we have no space to graze the flock, as our soldiers do not allow us to cross the trenches," said Gasymova.

The lieutenant, who refused to disclose his name, told IWPR that there are special rules of behaviour on the frontline and, according to these rules, you cannot stand in an open area opposite the enemy's positions.

"There is no shooting now and you are walking around quite boldly. However, when shooting starts, you will start looking for a mouse hole to hide in," said the officer.

"If the Armenians kill a shepherd or he is blown up by a mine or, what is even worse, the Armenians who watch him find out which areas are not mined, approach our positions and capture one of our soldiers, my head will roll," said the lieutenant.

In Boyuk Jafarli, the neighbouring village, more pastures and agricultural land are accessible. But they are still overlooked by Armenian positions.

"If we did not breed cattle and sow potatoes and onions, we would die of hunger. It is better to die of a bullet than to starve to death," said Firudin Mustafayev, a 65-year-old resident.

"The Armenians shoot from time to time and our soldiers respond too. Sometimes, when we work in the field, bullets whistle over our heads and we have to lie on the damp ground for hours. We continue to work when everything is calm again.”

Although a ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan was declared on May 12, 1994, people have continued to die in both villages from random shooting. Konul Rahimova, 21, was the last victim. An Armenian sniper killed her in the summer of 2006 when she was working in the fields.

On top of all this, the villages lack irrigation water. The Armenians blocked the channel that used to run into the Davdagh artificial lake, which is now filled only when snow melts in the mountains and that only lasts for a month.

The regional administration has raised the water problem with officials, and it has been discussed at levels as high as the group of international mediators that was assembled in Minsk in 1992 to try to end the conflict. The group is co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States.

“Even representatives of the Minsk group have intervened to resolve this problem and inspected the area. However, nothing can be done about this. We are in the middle of a war with Armeni,” said Tahir Mustafayev, assistant head of the local administration.

Armenia and Azerbaijan swap accusations of breaking the ceasefire. Any firing tends to provoke shooting in response, and can lead to serious injury or death. Ilgar Verdiyev, a spokesman for the Azerbaijan defence ministry, denied that Azeri forces violate the truce.

“However, when the enemy opens fire on our positions, we respond, and we will always respond. We will be first to open fire if the commander-in-chief orders us to liberate our occupied land and we will clear our territory of Armenian military forces,” he said.

Despite the constant fears of death, people continue to live in these villages.

"When we are in the field or pasture and Armenians start shooting in our direction, our soldiers too respond, and then the peasants have to stop sowing, leave their cattle and press themselves to the ground to avoid coming under fire," said Vahida Ismailova, 60.

Idrak Abbasov is correspondent of the Zerkalo newspaper in Baku and participant in the Cross Caucasus Journalism Network project funded by the European Union.

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