Bleak Future for Karabakh Refugees

International community cuts back on aid for Azeris displaced by fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Bleak Future for Karabakh Refugees

International community cuts back on aid for Azeris displaced by fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Fourteen-year-old Vusula Samedova has wreathed brightly coloured scarves and artificial flowers around her mirror. Above it hangs a picture of a Turkish singer cut out from a chocolate box. But this is no ordinary teenager's bedroom, rather a tiny corner in a squalid shepherd's dugout where she and her two brothers have lived with her parents the last nine years.

A few cheap carpets cover the dirt floor of the shelter which reeks of dung and kerosene. Scorpions and snakes are common visitors and parents are well practised at treating their children for bites.

There are thousands of families living in the same shambolic conditions here in the Lachin Pasture - one of 60 or so refugee camps for Karabakhs displaced during the 1988-1994 conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the enclave. Lachin is squeezed between the two republics on land controlled by the Azeris.

"When we left our houses in Karabakh nine years ago," said Aziza Khanum in the Lachin camp, "we thought we would stay here no longer than one or two months. Who could have known then that dugouts used by shepherds as temporary living in winters centuries ago would become our home?"

The only link with the outside world is a village several kilometres away. "We bring water from there on our Mercedes," joked a man pointing at their only transport, a donkey they've named after the car.

But while international aid organisations are pulling out and cutting direct aid, the Azeri government is unable to provide effective support, condemning those in Lachin and elsewhere to an indeterminate stay in the camps.

According to Ali Gasanov the chairman of the Azeri State Committee on Refugees and Displaced Persons, there are now one million such people on Baku-controlled territory. They comprise 50,000 Karabakhs, 700,000 or so Azeris from the six districts on the periphery of the enclave and 250,000 deportees from Armenia.

While those fleeing the first outbreak of fighting in the late Eighties benefited from Azeri and international aid, allowing them to rehouse and build up a semblance of community, those who arrived between 1992 and 1994 found themselves much worse off.

After Armenians seized their villages, they feared persecution, leaving everything behind to settle in tented camps, railway carriages, dugouts and shabby DIY houses.

Disease like brucellosis, tuberculosis and malaria frequently strike. Vaccination is a luxury and medical treatment is only available in the regional centre Agdjebedi, several kilometres away. But people rarely go there. "We don't have enough money for food, so how can we afford medicine?" said one refugee.

They would like to grow their own vegetables but the earth is poor so they manage on a diet of bread and beans and occasionally cheese. The stoves they use run on kerosene or dung. "It stinks, but we got used to it," said one man coaxing the fire to life.

It would be wrong to say that Azeri authorities do nothing to help these people. At the end of August, President Heidar Aliev agreed to increase state support for the refugees by several million dollars. But it is unlikely to be enough. Refugees feel increasingly demoralised, calling the current food handouts they get from Baku a 'miserable pittance'.

State intercession is necessary as international humanitarian aid has been gradually withdrawn from the region. According to UNHCR sources, aid has dropped from 11 million dollars in 1999 to 7 million dollars this year. And many Western relief organisations based in the area could soon be on their way.

The Azeri government has started to develop a strategy designed to help the refugees and internally displaced become self-sufficient. It has sought to develop small businesses with micro credits, but given the bleakness of the economy - over half the population live below the poverty line - few believe the scheme will succeed.

Prospects for the Lachin Pasture refugees are grim, but some have not given up hope of one day returning to Nagorno-Karabakh. "One day a locomotive will come here, take our carriage-houses and take us home," said seven-year-old Sevil. But that day could be a long way off.

Zarema Velikhanova is a staff writer with the Baku-based newspaper Echo.

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