The photo of a fallen 19-year-old soldier from Fuzuli, in south-western Azerbaijan, hangs on the walls outside a former student dormitory, which has housed dozens of internally displaced persons from Nagorny Karabakh since the 1990s.
The photo of a fallen 19-year-old soldier from Fuzuli, in south-western Azerbaijan, hangs on the walls outside a former student dormitory, which has housed dozens of internally displaced persons from Nagorny Karabakh since the 1990s. © Ulkar Natiqqizi

Displaced Azerbaijanis Eye Return to Nagorny Karabakh 

Following the mass exodus of Armenians, Baku plans to resettle some 40,000 people in the region over the next three years. 

Tuesday, 17 October, 2023

Irada Guliyeva, 67, was displaced from her home in Fuzuli in south-western Azerbaijan after the town fell to Armenian forces in August 1993.

From her home in a Baku dormitory for dozens of Azerbaijanis displaced by the war of the early 1990s, she now dreams of returning.

Fuzuli was captured by Azerbaijan in October 2020, during the 44-day war that resulted in Baku retaking control of large areas around the Armenian populated Karabakh region. 

“I still cannot believe I'll be able to make it there. I just need one room, but I want to live there,” she told IWPR, adding that officials had already visited the dormitory and registered her name. 

Azerbaijan regained control of Nagorny Karabakh in a military offensive launched on September 19,  triggering the mass exodus of the Armenian population. Now, many Azerbaijani internally displaced persons (IDPs) are beginning to plan a return to their homes.

About 600,000 Azerbaijanis from Karabakh were displaced across the country following the war of the early 1990s, according to the UN refugee agency.

Irada Guliyeva's kitchen in the collective centre where the 67-year-old from Fuzuli has lived for nearly three decades. © Ulkar Natiqqizi

Since the 2020 war, Baku has begun to resettle displaced Azerbaijanis in a programme that the authorities called the “great return”.  

As of September 2023, the programme, formalised in a presidential decree in November 2022, has resettled over 2,000 former IDPs in at least two cities and three villages. 

Authorities plan to resettle about 40,000 people by 2026 and claim to have spent nearly seven billion US dollars on reconstruction work in Karabakh since November 2020. 

Since late September, the country's State Committee for Refugees and IDPs has been holding meetings with IDPs, mainly from Khankendi, the region’s administrative centre that Armenians call Stepanakert, and Khojaly.  

Some are more ambivalent about returning to Karabakh, especially those born in displacement. 

One young couple, whose parents hail from Aghdam and Khojaly, live in a dormitory in a village near Baku and have received several calls from officials about the prospect of settling in Karabakh. The couple asked that their surname not be disclosed.

Ayten, 32, said that she was keen to follow her parents who have registered to return to Aghdam, but her husband Renat, who has spent most of his life in Russia and Baku, was not. 

“They offered me Khojaly. I haven't seen it at all. How can I go and stay there? Let's be logical. I have never been there,”the 29-year-old said. 

​​Economist Togrul Valiyev told IWPR that the resettlement process was not being carried out systematically, with no clear plans for infrastructure or employment opportunities.

“The point is that this lack of a system can cause certain problems,” he continued. “What people will do there is the main problem… that is, people will return [to Karabakh], and there will be construction works - and a lot of them  - for a while, but what kind of work they will do afterwards - there is no information about this. The plans shown do not reflect reality.” 


Since October 1, the UN has sent two assessment missions to Karabakh, marking the first time its personnel have officially entered the region in 30 years. Armenia has called for international monitors to be deployed in the region, an appeal that various countries support.

On October 13, 40 states signed France’s statement at the UN Human Rights Council which called for “international access [as] crucial to provide assistance and independent monitoring, including to report on the human rights situation”.

Experts, however, maintain that Baku would not allow the short or long-term mission of an international organisation. 

“Everyone puts forward different claims and formulas about the nature of this mission. There are even those who present it as an international peacekeeping mission, which is far from reality,” Zaur Shiriyev, a Baku-based analyst for the International Crisis Group on the South Caucasus. 

The UN Refugee Agency stated that over 101,000 Armenian refugees had arrived in Armenia, with fewer than 1,000 estimated to be still in the region.

“Azerbaijani officials have claimed from time to time on various platforms that the real number [of Armenians in Karabakh] varied between 35,000 and 60,000 and that there [were] not 120,000 people, as claimed by local Armenians,” Shiriyev said. “However, the number of Armenians who left the region, at least the figures announced by Armenia, undermines the foundation of these claims.”

On September 20, President Ilham Aliyev called Karabakh Armenians “our citizens” and promised to guarantee their rights - educational, religious and municipal - because “Azerbaijan is a free society”.  The presidential administration stated that it had presented its plans to Karabakh Armenians in three separate meetings in late September. 

Despite Baku’s official statements, the Armenian population nonetheless left the region en masse. The military offensive came after a nine-month blockade that brought the region to its knees: the fear of revenge is strong after decades of conflict and mistrust.

There are dissenting voices in Azerbaijan too. Altay Goyushov, head of the Baku Research Institute, wrote that the reluctance to live “like Azerbaijanis” was exactly why the “Armenian separatist movement in Nagorny Karabakh started in the first place”.

“During the late Soviet era, Armenia was a comparatively prosperous and freer place than Azerbaijan ruled by [former president] Heydar Aliyev,” he continued. “So, the Armenians of Karabakh wanted to live like Yerevanians, not like Azerbaijanis. And the current political system in Azerbaijan is not better… Moreover, in the economic sense, life in Azerbaijan is not much better than in Armenia too. Yes, Azerbaijan is an oil rich country [but] everything in the country belongs to the ruling family… Azerbaijanis are hardly better than the social conditions of the population in Armenia.”


On October 15, Aliyev raised the Azerbaijani flag in a deserted Khankendi, marking the official takeover. It remains to be seen whether Russian peacekeepers, deployed in Karabakh as part of the 2020 ceasefire, will continue their mission.

“It is not clear what kind of political negotiations between Russia and Azerbaijan will take place, what Azerbaijan agreed to do,” Jasur Mammadov, who heads the Berlin-based Caspian Defense Studies Institute, told IWPR,  adding that some had suggested Russia maintain a military base in the region. 

“[Others] say that Baku will support Russia in some position in the war with Ukraine, or Turkey will support Russia in some position. This is unknown.”

Russia started removing some observation posts, but Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Galuzin maintained that their presence was still needed to ensure the safety of those who remain in the region. 

"We cannot rule out that some of those who left Karabakh today at some point may decide to return. The presence of the peacekeepers will be an additional security factor for these people," he concluded. 

Some would like to be resettled as part of a wider resolution of the conflict. Aliyeva Ceyran, a 61-year-old woman from Aghdam now living in Baku, told IWPR that she wanted to return to her home but was worried about the conditions that she would face there.

“I would very much like to have peace first. Let it be how we lived before…but their [Armenians’] loved ones have died and our loved ones have died,” Aliyeva said, recalling how people used to live together before the war in the 1990s.  “If Armenians accept Azerbaijani citizenship, and tomorrow they won’t make a problem, let them live there. We don’t have any problem with them. We don’t want any more conflict.”

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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