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Baku Exile Speaks of Fears and Loss

Armenian refugee describes dangers that prompted her to flee – but says she yearns to see her old home again.
By Karine Ohanian
Svetlana Gharibian has lived in the same flat in the unrecognised republic of Nagorny Karabakh since early 1993, but still has no hesitation in naming her real home.



“You can wake me up in the middle of the night, and I will tell you my address immediately – how could I forget it? The city of Baku, Bayilova district, Bukhtinskaya street, lane 1, house 8. We had a big detached house. My grand-dad was a builder, and he built our house himself, with a big garden, a garage, big rooms,” she told IWPR.



She was driven from her home by some of the first clashes in a war that ended exactly 15 years ago: the conflict between Azeris and Armenians that left Karabakh in limbo. Karabakh’s Armenian authorities have declared independence from Azerbaijan, but not had that independence recognised internationally.



The first Armenian refugees in Karabakh appeared in 1988, driven from their homes by anti-Armenian protests in the town of Sumgait near Baku. Azeris, angered by Karabakh Armenians’ demands for autonomy, marched in response.



“My aunt, who lived in Sumgait, had her birthday on February 28. All the family, including our children, went to mark her birthday in two cars,” she said. “The table was laid, and suddenly we heard voices. Across the street was a park, with the crests of all the 15 republics of the Soviet Union, and we went to see what the noise was.



“There was an enraged crowd, everyone stony-faced, shouting ‘Armenians, out’, and they took down the Armenian crest, trampled and smashed everything, turned over cars, they broke everything in their way. I remember this like yesterday, I remember the shock of feeling how our lives could come under threat just because we are Armenians.”



She returned to her work as an accountant in a clinic in Baku, but it was not long before the protests turned her life upside down. The head doctor in her clinic, an Azeri called Aliev, insisted that he would personally escort her to work in an ambulance, which kept her safe for a while, but finally even that was too risky.



“Honestly, I never thought I would have to leave for ever. But we had children in the family and Baku was getting more and more dangerous,” she said. “In Bayilova, which was an Armenian district, our neighbours stood guard round the clock, but we feared pogroms, we could feel the danger. I thought I was just leaving for a while, I even left my employment documents there, I thought I would return.”



She, along with half a million Baku Armenians, left their home city, many of them coming to Stepanakert, the capital of Karabakh. She was employed as head accountant for the mayor for 15 years, and now works for small businesses and for a refugees’ charity.



“I often remember Baku. I would like to see our house, the graves of my granny and grand-dad. I would like to move their ashes here,” she said.



“I found some of my friends on the [social networking] site www.odnoklassniki.ru, they took some pictures of our region, the park, but they did not find our house. Baku has really changed. If only I could become a bird, and with just one eye see my home again.”



Karine Ohanian is a freelance journalist in Stepanakert and a participant in IWPR’s Cross Caucasus Journalism Network.



The terminology used in the article is chosen by the editors, not the reporter.

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