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

Azeri Refugees Slowly Rebuild Lives

New and rebuilt houses allow Azerbaijanis displaced by the Karabakh war to move out of tent camps.
By Leila Amirova

Nine years after the ceasefire which ended the war over Nagorny Karabakh, a group of Azerbaijanis have managed to return to their village. The Azerbaijani government is taking steps to rebuild houses or build new ones so that the tent camps where many refugees have lived for years can finally be closed.

The village of Alkhanly, in the Fizuli district, is an unusual case. During the war over Karabakh it was occupied by the Armenians for just a few months in the winter of 1993-94, and then recaptured by the Azerbaijanis the following spring. By then, however, the village was already badly devastated and mined, and it has taken years of work to restore it to its current state - a portent of what is to come if and when Azerbaijan gets back the regions it lost during the conflict.

As well as Karabakh itself, a number of surrounding areas remain under Armenian control. According to official statistics, more than 779,000 people displaced both from Armenia itself and from the lands in and around Karabakh now live in Azerbaijan.

Only part of Alkhanly has been rebuilt. The ruins of bombed and burnt-out houses are interspersed with new building. The ruins of the plant that used to produce well-known Azerbaijani wines before the war stand in the middle of the village like a war memorial. This whole area remained mined for years. Many ruins are still signposted "Safe House" to indicate that all the mines have been defused.

Some 60 per cent of Alkhanly's former residents have returned home, mostly those whose houses have been rebuilt by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent. The 700,000 US dollar reconstruction program, funded by a number of international donors, was completed on November 15.

"The Reconstruction and Repatriation Programme saw a total of 151 houses rebuilt for 230 families. Every house is much bigger than the one that stood there before," said Teilor Husseinov, Red Cross representative for Fizuli district. "The village will now be home to 830 people. We are proud of this result, but before the war there were 574 houses here with 650 families."

The returning villagers themselves, after some special training, took part in the reconstruction work. Many of them learned new trades in the process, becoming carpenters or house-painters.

Adil Guliev, a school teacher, was one of the first to return. After 1993, he lived in a tent in a camp near the town of Saatly, before returning in 2001 to rebuild his house. He brought his family along, and his wife, two children and neighbours all lent a helping hand. But the ruins of the old house still stand in his yard. "It's a reminder of days long gone," he said.

In addition to homes, the village school has also been rebuilt, and currently lists upwards of 250 students. "This school is better than the one we had before," said 12-year-old Samir Guliev. "In the old school in Saatly we often didn't have classes because of the cold and the lack of teachers."

Most importantly, the Red Cross has helped the villagers start farming again, providing a steady source of income. Thanks to a loan scheme, the villagers now grow enough food to sustain their families.

Locals said they returned to their new homes without fear, even though Armenian military positions are clearly visible beyond the village. In fact, part of Alkhanly is still under Armenian control, and the families who used to live there before the war cannot safely return from the huts in Saatly where they have spent the past ten years.

In Saatly, another construction scheme- this one sponsored by the Azerbaijani government - is under way, in what amounts to a new trend. So far, housing has been built for more than 2,000 refugees. Each house contains two rooms and comes with its own vegetable patch.

But some of the refugees are not keen to move in. "In Alkhanly, they gave people jobs and money. We didn't get anything. Where can we find work here? There is not a single employer around," complained one of the residents, who has just moved into a new house in Saatly.

The housing project is part of a government programme to get out the displaced people out of tents and into decent housing. Gabil Abilov, press spokesman for the State Committee for Refugees and Forced Migrants, told IWPR that up until summer this year there were 12 tent camps in Azerbaijan housing 52,000 refugees from Nagorny Karabakh and other Armenian-occupied districts. Now there are only seven left as the government resettlement programme draws to a close.

Most refugees live in makeshift accommodation of various kinds - some in railcars. Zeinisharaf, a primary schoolteacher and mother of two from the Zangelan district who lives in a worker's hostel, told IWPR, "I had to work night and day, but now my hostel room is totally fit for living."

Like some of the refugees, Zeinisharaf does not like the idea of returning home if she ever gets the chance, "I'm not sure we would be safe on our native lands. Who can promise we will never relive the horrors of 1993?"

Another Zangelan native, Svetlana Garayeva, expresses the more common opinion. "We live in the capital Baku, not in a tent camp - but people treat us like aliens, as though we're not wanted," she said. "No matter how good I have it here, I will still be counting the days until I can return to Zangelan. My home is there, even though it's destroyed."

Leila Amirova is a freelance journalist in Baku. Vafa Farajova, a reporter for Kavkazsky Uzel in Azerbaijan, contributed to this report.

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