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

Conditions Dire at Azeri Refugee Camp

Poor housing and unsanitary conditions leave refugees vulnerable to disease and natural disasters.
By Leila Amirova

Torrential rains, poisonous reptiles and malaria – it sounds like a list of Biblical plagues. In fact, it’s just the summer season for tens of thousands of refugees living in a camp in Azerbaijan for the last nine years.


The camp at Barda is situated in the very centre of the country, and officially houses 55,000 Azerbaijanis displaced by the 1991-94 war over Nagorny Karabakh, which the Armenians won. The real number is much smaller, as many people leave as soon as they can fix up better accommodation in Baku and other towns.


Azerbaijan has some 750,000 refugees and displaced people left over from the conflict with the Armenians. Barda is one of five bigger camps among the many that are dotted across the country. Here, they live in mud huts, which isn’t so bad considering that elsewhere people have to make do with tents, dugouts or disused railway carriages.


But the huts were too flimsy for the rains which hit Barda in June. At its peak, the flood water reached 30 centimetres in many of the huts. One collapsed, killing a 68-year-old woman and her granddaughter who were buried under the debris.


“We have become refugees once again,” said Mahir Guliev, the head of one of at least 50 families left homeless by the flooding.


“We didn’t manage to salvage any belongings when the house fell down. Thank God we managed to save ourselves,” he said. His family has been lodging with neighbours since the accident two weeks ago.


Guliev is building a new home for his family nearby, a mud hut exactly like their old one. No one here can afford a brick home.


The flooding was followed by an outbreak of malaria, as mosquitoes multiplied in pools of standing water. Residents said at least 40 people have come down with the disease.


Although malaria is a major problem across Azerbaijan, it takes hold with a vengeance in refugee camps where conditions are unsanitary and healthcare provision substandard. People at the Barda camp do not take basic precautions such as fitting mosquito nets.


And as if all that wasn’t enough, Barda has been overrun by venomous snakes this year. The camp is teeming with them.


“The kids are scared,” said one mother, Elnura Mamedova. “The slightest rustling sound wakes them up.


“My daughter was bitten by a snake earlier this month. She had to be rushed to the hospital in town.


“I’m more cautious now. I enter the house first, look around, and then let my daughters in.”


All this is only part of a wider picture of squalid housing, unemployment and lack of education and health services.


When IWPR toured the sprawling camp at Barda, the lasting impression was of desolation.


There are about 2,000 huts nestling close to each other, each surrounded by small, fenced-off plots of land - although the land here is too barren for anything to grow. In winter, the earthen walls of the typical hut provide little insulation from the cold, while in summer, they make the one or two rooms inside baking hot. There are few beds, and adults usually sleep on mattresses on the floor.


Locals were reluctant to talk. They watched from behind their fences, but no one showed any desire to meet the journalists. The first person IWPR met on an otherwise deserted street was an old man herding some sheep.


“Why are you here?” he asked. “You can’t help us,” and refused to say any more.


The United Nations Development Programme estimates that only six out of 10 refugee children here go to school. The local clinic is only equipped to provide first aid, and has neither professional medics nor drugs. Few refugees can afford to seek medical attention further afield.


“My ten-year-old daughter has a gynaecological problem, but I cannot afford to take her to the doctor,” said Elnura Mamedova.


Divorced nine years ago, she and her two daughters have been sharing a tiny two-room home with 12 other refugees since then.


Elnura’s daughter helps her process wool, one of the very few ways for women to make a living.


“I get food and clothing on credit at the local store. Then I sell the wool, and pay it back,” she said.


Apart from the occasional consignment of food sent by aid agencies, refugees have to rely on an allowance of about five US dollars a month from the government.


“The money doesn’t last us a week,” said Mahir Guliev, whose family of four gets a total of 20 dollars to feed them for a month.


He considers himself lucky to have a construction job, which gives him 20 or 25 dollars extra a month. He spoke to IWPR after finishing an arduous day’s work and setting out for the nearby town of Barda where his wife is recovering from malaria. He was taking money – donated by fellow-refugees – to pay doctors for her treatment.


Unemployment is the greatest affliction of all, according to Rauf Aliev, who heads the local aid agency Aran. Only one in ten men are able to support to their families by working in the building trade or as shepherds. Even when non-government organisations ran nursing and sewing classes a couple of years ago, there were no jobs where these new skills could be applied.


With no end to their misery in sight, many refugees at Barda decide to take their lives. The number of suicides is on the rise, and more men than women are taking this way out.


Leila Amirova is an independent journalist in Baku.