Bid to Repopulate Karabakh Fraught With Problems

Authorities offer incentives for refugees to return, but little grows on their land and employment prospects are grim.

Bid to Repopulate Karabakh Fraught With Problems

Authorities offer incentives for refugees to return, but little grows on their land and employment prospects are grim.

Henrikh Asrian, a 48-year-old Armenian veteran of the Nagorny-Karabakh conflict, spent months as a prisoner of war in Azerbaijan, and has now found himself on a new frontline – the authorities’ campaign to repopulate the region.

Karabakh has been ruled by its own, ethnic Armenian, government since it broke away from Baku’s control in the dying days of the Soviet Union. A ceasefire 15 years ago froze the lines of control, and left hundreds of thousands of refugees displaced.

At least 800,000 Azeris fled eastwards from Armenia and Karabakh, while half a million Armenians fled in the opposite direction. The government in Karabakh is now trying to encourage some of those Armenians to settle in its under-populated villages.

Asrian lost his flat in the war and has now been given a small house of his own in the village of Arachamugh, a remote settlement 30 kilometres from the regional centre Hadrut, which is itself little more than a village.

“The war ended for me when electricity and neighbours appeared in the village,” he told IWPR.

The 18 identical white houses in Arachamugh resemble bee-hives from a distance, but up close they are comfortable with three rooms, a lean-to shed and 50 square metres of garden for vegetables.

Construction of the village was funded by the Tufenkian Foundation, a private charitable fund set up by an émigré Armenian, but it fits in with a key objective of the local government, whose control over Karabakh is not internationally recognised.

In 1989, Karabakh had almost 190,000 inhabitants, of whom more than 40,000 were Azeris. These all fled their homes, and the population is now officially estimated at under 140,000 people, almost entirely ethnic Armenian.

The Karabakh authorities are desperate for more people to strengthen their chances of resisting the Baku government if it sends troops to reclaim the region. Anyone who wants to settle in the villages receives the cost of moving, a grant for accommodation, free connection to the electricity network and a grant for purchasing livestock.

Each family can receive as much as 2,700 US dollars in grants, and – especially in light of the global financial crisis – the gifts have proven attractive.

Sarasar Sarian, chairman of the Union of Refugees of Nagorny-Karabakh, told IWPR that ten families have moved to Karabakh in the last year for financial reasons alone, and have asked to be settled in areas where they can receive grants.

“And the people coming are mainly those who left because of the war,” he said.

But even this reduced population struggles to get by. Arachamugh is on a flat, bleak plain where the land is too hard to work in summer, and too cold to work in winter. It was once used to grow grapes, but the villagers say the vineyards were destroyed in the war and since then nothing has grown on the spoiled land.

“At first sight, these houses are attractive, but in actual fact it is very hard to live here. People lack work in the purest sense. The children have nothing to do except school and television. Even the wildlife is lacking,” said Susanna Aghababian, the village elder.

And for families moving in, gaining a house is just the start of the battle. Martik Hayrapetian, a 42-year-old veteran of the Karabakh war, lives with his wife and five children in Arachamugh without any source of regular income. In the winter, he looks after the boiler in the local school, but loses his job when the warm weather comes.

“As a child I did not dream of being a boilerman. That’s what life has left me as. Although some months I receive 20,000 drams (54 dollars),” he said.

Although he lives only 50 metres from the school where he works, some of his younger children are unable to attend, lacking clothes and shoes.

“My only hope is for credit to buy animals, which the state promised to give out. Let’s see. If we can obtain some livestock, we’ll live well. But, as it is, every day my wife and I just look at each other, and wonder how we will live through the day,” he said.

“I am very grateful for my flat but it is just a flat, and how can we live, what can we eat? There is no work, and the land is bad.”

Lusine Musaelian is the Radio Liberty correspondent in Stepanakert, and a participant in IWPR’s Cross Caucasus Journalism Network, CCJN.

The terminology used was chosen by the editors, not the reporter.
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