Karabakh Villagers Yearn for Normal Life

For Azeris living close to frontline the war is an ever-present fact.

Karabakh Villagers Yearn for Normal Life

For Azeris living close to frontline the war is an ever-present fact.

The members of the United Nations are due to discuss Nagorny Karabakh this month, in a move that may nudge forward the sluggish peace talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

The Karabakh question is placed on the agenda right after Afghanistan and the Middle East although, if previous sessions are anything to go by, the conflict is unlikely to gain as high a profile.

Nevertheless, the Azeris who live up against the frontline that separates the two sides wish world statesmen would listen to them and help their lives back to the normality they lost when war broke out over the enclave.

A ceasefire was signed a decade and a half ago, but in the village of Alkhanli, which lies on the line of control, a generation has grown up for whom the war is an ever-present fact.

The green fields that stretch beside the road into the village give a calm, pastoral air, but the road itself is still chewed up by the tank treads and bombs of 16 years ago and the village’s first houses are empty and blackened.

Alkhanli is one of the largest villages of the Fizuli region, and its lands stretch out for 12 kilometres around it. When this reporter visited, its residents were frantically gathering in the harvest, but the memories of the war hung over them.

In summer 1993, Armenian forces seized the village, and held it until Baku managed to regain control early the next year.

“How could we forget August 23? Everyone saved themselves however they could. When we were leaving, a shell from a ‘Grad’ (multiple rocket launcher) hit the car in front of us. The whole family was killed in one moment,” said Elira Mahmudova, whose eyes filled with tears just talking about it.

“Many people never returned to Alkhanli. Some people’s houses are located very near the front line, it is dangerous to live there, there is still shooting sometimes. And some people were just not prepared to start again from nothing.”

Around a million Azeris are still displaced by the conflict, which is complicated by Nagorny Karabakh’s Armenian government having declared independence unilaterally. It says it must be included in the peace talks as a separate party, but this is opposed by Azerbaijan, which considers Karabakh to be a renegade province.

Azerbaijan and Armenia lack diplomatic ties, and a peace process – based on six so-called Madrid Principles supported by a group of international mediators – has barely moved forward in a decade.

According to political commentators, the two sides have been discussing some kind of exchange involving giving Azerbaijan the five regions outside Nagorny Karabakh proper that Armenian forces either partially or entirely control, in exchange for Azerbaijan recognising an “interim status” for the territory, as laid out in the Madrid Principles.

The principles would also allow the refugees to return to their former homes, whatever the political solution found by the peace process.

But, many of the Azeris who did return to Alkhanli would suggest that, if the refugees are allowed to go back without security being guaranteed, life could be bleak.

Unemployment is high here, and many young men have turned their Soviet-made cars into taxis to earn what they can.

“Of my three sons, I only managed to keep my youngest one here. He wanted to leave too. I had to marry him off, but his still hasn’t found work,” said Bakhtiyar, a 60-year-old man who declined to give his surname.

This correspondent’s guide around Alkhanli was Seymur, a 45-year-old local man who left during the occupation of the village by the Armenians. He lost his mother during the fighting, and his father became ill, leaving him and his brother to support the family. They have not been able to move back to the village, but he remembered clearly who the ruined houses belonged to.

“There was the biggest wine factory in the country here once… and here was a collective farm… and here was another one… and here was our house,” he said, stopping the car and stepping out.

The courtyard of the house is choked with brambles, with just a mulberry tree struggling to keep above the tide of vegetation.

“Here, try one,” said Seymur, holding out a handful of fruit. “They’re tasty.”

The house of Seymur’s aunt is right up against the front line, and she is visible to the Armenian soldiers who even, he said, take pot shots through her windows sometimes. Not a single person or animal was visible beyond the line, but we did not go too close.

In the Aghdam region, just a few dozen kilometres to the north of here, five Armenian soldiers were shot earlier this month: another reminder to the members of the UN in New York that this conflict is far from over.

Joshqun Eldaroglu is a freelance journalist in Sumgait, Azerbaijan.
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