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

Shushintsy Bemoan Their Leaders

Azerbaijanis who fled their Karabakh home in the early Nineties say their representatives have let them down.
By Zarema Velikhanova

Ten years after they were driven from Shusha, the Nagorny Karabakh town's former Azerbaijani residents, or "Sushintsy", say life remains as hard and uncertain as it was during the build up to their forced exodus.


"There was chaos during those days," Kerim Kerimli, a well-known writer and journalist from Shusha said, referring to the prelude to the town's fall to Armenian forces in May 1992. "No one was in control of the situation and the Shushintsy were left to cope for themselves. No one organised an evacuation of the population. People fled wherever they could. Only after several months wandering through the country did they begin to gather together."


The Sushintsy - estimated to number around 25,000 - have been scattered across Azerbaijan in refugee camps and towns, but most, around 14-15,000 people, live in the capital Baku. This is partly because they lost their homes earlier than other Azerbaijani refugees and partly because the urbanised people of Shusha had good connections in the capital.


Life has been hard for the displaced Azerbaijanis and many are critical of the Shusha administration in exile for failing to ease their troubles.


"For example we have the right to receive loans at favourable rates in commercial banks," said Kerimli. "But no one gives them to us because they are afraid we will be unable to pay. But of course we have nothing valuable. Naturally those who can put up security, don't need credit. In this case it's the official structures that ought to be our guarantor. Our representatives ought to raise this issue with the government, but they do nothing."


Another problem facing the exiles is that if they register their place of residence, they lose their status as internally displaced persons and, therefore, their benefits. "My family, which consists of six people, lives in a two-room apartment, which the authorities gave to me," Kerimli explained. "But it is in terrible condition, I cannot do it up. I can't be sure that tomorrow I will be thrown out of here and to do up the apartment costs a lot of money."


Of course life in refugee camps - such as Mirzalar in western Azerbaijan - just 15 km from the front-line with the Armenians - is much harder than in Baku. According to officials from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, 114 families - about 528 people in all - from Shusha live in Mirzalar.


The main problem for the people in Mirzalar is a shortage of electricity, which they receive only at night and infrequently. What is especially distressing for the camp residents is that, sitting in the cold and the dark, they see how in the territories occupied by the Armenians not far away, lights burn night and day.


Mirzalar does not have a pharmacy, a telephone or even a school for children older than ten years of age. The exiles only receive a one-off benefit of "bread money" worth 25,000 manats (around five US dollars) a month, plus small pensions and payments for the children. Humanitarian aid arrives only once every three months and the head of the family has to go to the town of Agjabedi, 40 km away, to receive it.


The town of Shusha had a distinguished journalistic record - its eponymously named newspaper is more than a hundred years old. However, the title, which was published in Baku after the fall of the town, has not come out since January this year. When its editor, Kerim Kerimli, complained to Shushintsy representatives, which financed its publication, he says he was told that there was "no money".


Vagif Husseinov, an official in Susha administration in exile, dismissed the suggestion that his administration was neglecting its duties. "We care about our citizens," he said. "We work in all the regions where Shushintsy live. Not a single complaint has been left unattended. Our culture department is very active and puts on exhibitions and other cultural events. The tax office also regularly collects revenues for the regional budget from commercial businesses founded by Shushintsy."


For the majority of the Shusha refugees, however, efficient tax collection is hardly the priority as they enter their second decade of life in exile.


Zarema Velikhanova is a correspondent with Echo newspaper in Baku.