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

Azerbaijan: Refugees Dream of Home

Memories of the past sustain refugees from the Karabakh war, still struggling after more than a decade to adapt to their harsh new life.
By Nurlana Gulieva

The happy chatter and laughter of students that once filled this university dormitory have long since faded. The current inhabitants of the former student residence in the Azerbaijani capital Baku have little to smile about, preoccupied as they are with their daily search for food.


Most of the people living there now are refugees and internally displaced persons originally from the Nagorny Karabakh region and surrounding areas. They fled or were driven out by Armenian forces in the conflict that lasted from 1991 to 1994.


Some, like 66-year-old Nisa, have been housed in the decayed and depressing building, with its broken stairs and pervading odours of damp and cooking, for 12 years. She shares a small room with her husband, son and daughter-in-law and dreams only of one thing - returning to her home with its farm and beautiful garden in Zangelan, an area south of Karabakh squashed against Iran and Armenia.


“We held our village to the very last,” she said. “All the men defended it, including my husband and brothers. Then bombing began with such intensity that we had to hide in gorges for several days. I only managed to take my blanket with me.”


Zangelan was completely occupied by Armenian forces at the end of August 1993, when the remaining residents were forced to join the ranks of the nearly 780,000 displaced people in Azerbaijan. This figure includes refugees from Armenia as well as the people displaced by the Karabakh conflict, although the number of people still living in Azerbaijan is unknown.


Those who still live as refugees have a tough time. Nisa’s family lives on her monthly pension of around 260,000 manats (55 US dollars). They also receive state benefits worth 30,000 manats per person each month, half of which goes on utilities.


“We are provided with gas, even if the flow is weak. We have water two to three hours a day, and the electricity is only rarely cut off. But next to the dormitory a huge pile of rubbish has built up, and however much we complain, no one helps to clear it away. But we pay for these services.” said Nisa.


The family stopped receiving food aid two years ago. According to Nisa, “Until recently, international humanitarian organisations helped with food, providing us with rice, cooking oil and sometimes meat. Now once a year we are given some clothes and bedding.”


Unemployment is a perennial problem. Efforts by several non-government groups in 2000 and 2001 to offer nursing and sewing courses for refugee women failed because there were no jobs for the newly-trained workers.


Nisa’s son sometimes finds work on a building site, but her husband hasn’t been so lucky. “He worked all his life,” she said. “Now he doesn’t even know what to do with himself.”


Another displaced person, Elnura Mamedova, now lives in Barda, an Azerbaijani town east of Karabakh, and she and her 10-year-old daughter have to share a tiny two-room hut with 12 other refugees. They process wool to make money, though this doesn’t bring in enough to pay for a doctor for her little girl, who has a gynaecological complaint.


Even a decade on, it is hard for people once firmly rooted to land and community to adjust to life elsewhere.


Sevda Gumbatova, now 42, came to Baku about 12 years ago with her husband and children, from the village of Khidirli, located in the Agdam district - one of the areas outside Karabakh proper that the Armenians have held onto since the conflict ended


Her mother and brother died there in the fighting.


“On those days of the year when our traditions dictate that we visit the graves of relatives, I feel particularly sad. I can’t even take flowers to the grave sites of the people dearest to me,” said Gumbatova.


Her older children, now 20 and 18, remember their village, and despite the isolation from their homeland, she is determined to raise them as Karabakhis.


“In Azerbaijan, each province has its own dialect features. I don’t like it when my children start imitating the Baku dialect,” she said.


“I force them to speak in the Karabakh dialect [of Azerbaijani]. No one should reject their roots. A person’s dialect should above all show others where he’s from. When they are asked where they come from, they say with pride, ‘We are Karabakhis.’”


Gumbatova says that when the children ask her whose fault it is they cannot go home, she replies that the Armenians are to blame.


Like Gumbatova, Nisa is also longing to go home.


She doesn’t want more charity, only the chance to rebuild her life, saying she is prepared to move back to into areas close to the front line around Karabakh where villages are being built for refugees, using Azerbaijan’s oil revenue.


“If all my fellow villagers decide to do this, I will follow them. I want for us to live as one village, as we did in the past,” she said.


Amalia Khalilova’s family moved to Baku from Fizuli, southeast of Karabakh, in 1993 as the conflict raged. They still live in a dormitory where the conditions are tough, and Khalilova’s husband has fallen ill.


Only one thought keeps them going. “We live with one dream – that some day we will return to our home area. We are prepared to live in even worse conditions, but only in the land that is our home.”


Nurlana Gulieva is a correspondent for Kaspiy newspaper and a regular IWPR contributor.


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