Lives Frozen by Conflict

With no sign of Karabakh stand-off being resolved, refugees will remain in legal and economic limbo, their lives frozen by the frozen conflict.

Lives Frozen by Conflict

With no sign of Karabakh stand-off being resolved, refugees will remain in legal and economic limbo, their lives frozen by the frozen conflict.

Some 15 years have passed since a ceasefire was signed in the Nagorny Karabakh conflict, yet the people forced out of their homes by the fighting have still not found peace. They still suffer from homesickness, poverty, discomfort and legal difficulties.

Refugees in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Karabakh – a majority-Armenian territory that broke free of Azeri control with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and unilaterally declared independence – have told IWPR how they feel abandoned in the student hostels, old hotels, schools and offices they now call home.

“Refugees today would like to forget that they are refugees, but this does not happen. What we lived through is unforgettable,” Sarasar Sarian, an Armenian from Baku now living in Karabakh, told IWPR.

Ethnic tensions between Armenians and Azeris boiled over in the late 1980s, when the Karabakh Armenians petitioned Moscow to detach their region from Azerbaijan and cede it to Armenia. Reciprocal demonstrations in Baku turned violent, leading to violence in Karabakh and Armenia. Riots between the two communities forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee each others’ countries, although at that time they were all citizens of the Soviet Union.

With independence in 1991 came war. At the ceasefire in May 1994, Armenian forces were occupying 14 per cent of Azerbaijan proper. At least 800,000 Azeris had fled to Azerbaijan from Armenia and parts of their own country seeking safety.

Since the war is not technically over, these people are still desperately hoping one day they can return to their homes.

“The problems of the forced migrants will be resolved when they return to their homes. The government of Azerbaijan is already drawing up a ‘Plan of Return’,” said Sanan Huseynov, head spokesman for Azerbaijan’s State Committee for the Affairs of Refuges and Forced Migrants, in an interview with IWPR.

He said the government was building accommodation for the refugees, and had set up whole villages in the Beylagan, Khajavend and Goranboy regions.

“Forced migrants live in some military bases. There are around 11,000 middle schools, half of which are occupied by forced migrants. We also plan to resettle {them] by 2011. In Baku, there are also some places where forced migrants continue to live in terrible conditions. We are building new houses,” he said.

Before 1991, Baku was a city with a very large Armenian population, many of whom spoke only Russian between themselves , a legacy of the Russian language’s role as the lingua franca of the former Soviet Union. As a rich city, with a booming oil industry, it had attracted immigrants from all across the South Caucasus and beyond.

Fleeing Azerbaijan, these 500,000 Armenians primarily moved to Armenia proper, which is to the west of Azerbaijan. Many of them settled in Karabakh, however, where they took the place of Azeri refugees fleeing eastwards.

Since Karabakh’s independence has not been recognised by other countries, they are technically not refugees, but internally displaced people, IDPs – a source of considerable bitterness, since that cuts them off from much international aid.

“In this question, the international community is guilty of double standards. Because we live in an unrecognised republic, international organisations – like the Danish Refugee Council or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), do not recognised us as refugees, and we do not have the right to receive international humanitarian aid, which goes to refugees in Azerbaijan,” said Sarian, the Armenian refugee from Baku, who heads the Social Organisation of Refugees of Karabakh.

“We are not opposed to them receiving help, but we have also lost our homes and property. Can you really politicise this humanitarian aid?”

UNHCR, which has to help refugees while negotiating the complex legal tangle of the South Caucasus’ frozen conflict, told IWPR that such IDPs were the responsibility of the Azerbaijan government.

“For the IDPs from Nagorny Karabakh, it is clear that they have the right to return to their places of origin with safety and dignity,” said Arun Sala-Ngarm, UNHCR’s newly-appointed representative in Azerbaijan, in an interview with IWPR.

Victoria Taliskhanova, UNHCR assistant programme officer, said the agency was now focussed on trying to help refugees raise their standard of living and access to services available to ordinary citizens.

“The main aim of our donors is an improvement in forced migrants’ social conditions, the creation of conditions for education and work, the prevention of sexual or gender-based violence, the support of sport and education and so on,” she said.

And on the Armenian side, the concerns are similar. Armenia and Azerbaijan still lack diplomatic ties. Since Azerbaijan has been supported by its ally Turkey, that has left Armenia in an almost total blockade, effectively only with access through Georgia to the outside world.

Some 360,000 of the half-million Armenians who fled Azerbaijan ended up in Armenia, and most of them are poor even by the standards of their impoverished country. A survey in 2007 showed that less than ten per cent of them managed to take their wealth or property out of Azerbaijan with them, most having fled just with what they were carrying.

“The social problems of refugees are extremely urgent. The housing problem is still not resolved, and added to that refugees can only find work with great difficulty,” said Nikolai Babajanian, himself a Baku Armenian who lived in a hut for 14 years until he managed to obtain a one-room flat.

The Yerevan government is steadily trying to build housing for refugees, but the process is slow, and refugees are often forced to find housing by themselves. In the first years of the influx, Armenian arrivals were able to exchange their houses with Azeris going in the opposite direction, and most of them are now relatively well-off.

“We have our own land, we farm livestock, we sow and we reap, and we live okay,” said Albert Dalakian, who fled Baku and has lived for 20 years now in an Azeri’s house in the village of Ranchpar.

“We don’t live badly,” said his wife Sveta, “our children help us. Just every year we have to spend 150,000 dram (around 400 dollars) on fuel. If they solve the problem with gas, than life will be a lot easier.”

But they were the lucky ones. There are 1,000 refugees in the village, and many of them did not manage to exchange their houses before they left Baku. Larisa Astsaturova, for example, lives in very cramped accommodation.

“I live with my mother and two children. I am waiting for the government to provide some separate accommodation, but I already don’t have much hope for this,” she said.

She may be right not to hope. Analysts see no signs that the Karabakh stand-off could be resolved any time soon, meaning that the refugees in both countries – and in the territory itself – will remain in legal and economic limbo, their lives frozen by the frozen conflict.

“Even if it does come to some kind of regulation, Armenians will never believe that Azerbaijan will secure their security, independent of whatever is written in the document,” said David Petrosian, the political commentator of the news agency Noyan Tapan.

“Most refugees are now citizens of Armenia, and I have not noticed that they want to go back to Baku or Gyanja.”

Many of the refugees recognise that their children have now grown up in a different country to their own, meaning they would be unlikely to feel comfortable even if they did go back.

“But us Baku people, we live in our own groups and we talk in Russian, but my children speak Armenian, they study in Armenian schools and universities, and talk amongst themselves in Armenian,” said Gayane Martirosian, who said she is now getting used to life in the village.

“If they did not remind us that we should speak in Armenian, we would not even remember that we are refugees.”

It would appear, therefore, that despite the insistence on all sides that refugees have the legal right to return to their homes, the people themselves are already getting used to the fact that they will not now do so. Baku Armenians are gradually adapting to life in Karabakh and in Armenia, while rural Azeris forced to live in Baku are learning city ways.

“I still cook this cake we call ‘Baku’. A lot of people come and ask for the recipe, but I don’t give it to them. I tell them that I am always happy to cook this cake, but only a Baku woman can cook it properly,” said Svetlana Gharibian, who has lived in Karabakh since 1993 but who still gives her home address in Baku if you ask her where she is from.

Karine Ohanian is a freelance journalist in Stepanakert and a participant in IWPR’s Cross Caucasus Journalism Network. Seymur Kyazimov is a freelance journalist in Baku. Gegham is the editor of the website of Internews and a CCJN participant.

The terminology used in the article is chosen by the editors, not the reporters.
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