Karabakh: The Last of the Azeris

The few remaining Azerbaijanis of Karabakh tell their stories.

Karabakh: The Last of the Azeris

The few remaining Azerbaijanis of Karabakh tell their stories.

Tuesday, 26 September, 2006
They mostly go unnoticed and many bear Armenian names, but Nagorny Karabakh, on the surface a completely Armenian territory, has a quiet population of Azerbaijanis.

Many of them have been separated by war from children or close relatives living on the other side of the conflict divide.

It comes as a surprise to many outsiders to learn that there are Azerbaijanis still here at all. There are of course far fewer of them than before the war, when around one quarter of the population of Nagorny Karabakh was Azerbaijani. Almost all of them fled in the great refugee upheavals of the conflict. But there are more than a handful left: they are mainly people who married Armenians and their children.

According to the national statistics bureau of Nagorny-Karabakh, Azerbaijanis are classed as one of the ethnic minorities of Karabakh. Official figures will be published next month. But it is hard to calculate the real numbers because most of them have changed their surnames or use married Armenian names.

Sixty-year-old Nailya Jafarova, not her real name, has lived in Stepanakert since 1968. “I can’t remember a case when an Armenian has ever said, ‘Get out of Karabakh!’” she told IWPR.

She said the only time she had suffered abuse was at the height of the 1991-4 war when she was queuing for milk and another woman told her she had no right to be there - but she was defended by others in the queue. “There was no need for me to answer because others answered for me - Armenians who saw me as a human being, not just a representative of one nationality,” she said.

Nailya was heading for an academic career in the Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences, when she fell in love and followed her Armenian husband to Karabakh. She said her parents were not so much unhappy with her marrying an Armenian, as her moving far away.

Her husband was killed by an artillery shell during the war and she was left with two children. She now has three grandchildren.

“In Karabakh, I don’t have problems because I am an Azerbaijani. I have the same difficulties as everyone in Karabakh - difficulties with finding work, low pay, no social security. But I am on good terms with everyone. The one problem which is worse for me now is that I haven’t seen my relatives from Baku for a very long time,” she said.

“I’ve been in touch with my relatives several times - either over the internet, or through my niece in Moscow - and they suggest we meet on neutral territory, in a little place in Georgia called Sadakhlo. But I would far prefer to go to Baku. All my relations have had children and grandchildren - I want to see them all. And I want to visit my parents’ grave.”

She says her children feel Armenian, but they still speak Azeri and sometimes watch Azerbaijani television, which can be seen in Karabakh. And she continues to cook her favourite Azerbaijani specialities, which her friends and grandchildren adore.

Seda Ghazarian, a former registry officer, who conducted marriage ceremonies for 25 years, said that in Soviet times Armenian-Azerbaijani marriages were rare in the Armenian-majority town of Stepanakert, capital of Karabakh, but were more common in the Azerbaijani-majority town of Shushi (known by the Azerbaijanis as Shusha). Armenian women were much more likely to marry Azerbaijanis than vice versa.

Sixty-eight-year-old Asya, an Armenian, who now lives in the village of Gharabulakh had four children by her Azerbaijani husband. When the Karabakh crisis began, she was forced to have medical treatment in Ashgabat in Turkmenistan: she could not be treated in Stepanakert because she was married to an Azerbaijani, nor in Baku, because she was an Armenian.

She was still in Ashgabat when she found out that her home town had been captured by the Armenians and her family had fled to Baku. Asya returned to Karabakh to look after her ill mother and to wait for the war to end so she could be reunited with her children. Her wait lasted 14 years, during which time eight grandchildren were born to her, whom she never saw.

Then she got a letter from her daughter which read, “Dear Mummy, I dream about you all the time, and every morning I wake up in tears! God grant that this damned war stops and that we can put our arms around you again. Please look after yourself! Have pity on and forgive your innocent, tormented children!”

Asya cried as she said, “How many nights are there in 14 years? Every one of those nights I longed for my children to come to me in a dream. Then the sun came out for me.”

She got a letter from her son and they arranged to meet in Georgia, “They didn’t let us over the border - because neither of our passports were in order. But when they found out we hadn’t seen each other for 14 years - they let us through. My son held out his arms and came towards me. For two minutes I was as good as dead in his arms. Passers-by kept asking what had happened. They cried too.”

Often an Armenian name conceals an Azerbaijani. Alexander, 52, and has an Armenian surname, but everyone knows he is actually an Azerbaijani, bearing the name of his mother’s first husband. But he says he feels Armenian, “When I turned four, for several years my father’s family wanted me to be circumcised like Azerbaijani boys. Mum and I objected. Relations with my father’s relatives have been strained ever since. See them now? No, I wouldn’t want to.”

Alexander fought in the Karabakh war, like virtually all males in region. “I defended my homeland - it is every man’s duty to do that,” he said. Today this good-natured man and his son work for a construction company in Karabakh and friends and colleagues speak highly of him.

“I am a simple working man, and I have learned a simple truth in life - that it is a man’s work and his character that are important, not his nationality,” he said.

Sixty-five-year-old Svetlana Gevorkian, who has lived in Stepanakert all her life, says that there are actually several mixed Armenian-Azerbaijani families living on her street.

“They live here as we do,” she said. “No one is drawing a line between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.” Svetlana confirmed that, as for many people of her generation, Azerbaijani culture was part of her life.

“I can speak Azeri because I studied Azeri at school and not Armenian. And I still remember my teacher was called Maleika Mamedova. Her husband was Armenian. And the language was mainly used in the market - there were mostly Azerbaijanis trading there and we spoke to them in their language.”

She confirms that her generation still has memories and knowledge of Azerbaijan, but this is slowly dying out.

“We would love to know what people in Azerbaijan think about the war. Sometimes we switch on AzTV, we get their First Channel with interference, but when you always hear the same thing over and over again - that they must fight, fight, fight, - I get anxious and switch off, and then don’t turn it on again for ages,” she said.

“The only link to Azerbaijan here now is that Azerchai tea is still sold here. I don’t know how they get it in - it used to be very good quality, but now it’s not so good.”

Karine Ohanian is a freelance journalist in Stepanakert, Nagorny Karabakh.

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