Azerbaijanis forced to flee in the 1990s hope to return home
The latest Nagorno-Karabakh clash has brought back painful memories for those who lost their homes, with many hoping for a peaceful resolution.
Baku, Azerbaijan – The first Nagorno-Karabakh war, which resulted in a ceasefire in 1994, left more than one million Azerbaijanis homeless, among them IDPs and people who had been deported from Armenia.
They accounted for about 10 percent of the population.
Now, with the conflict renewed, many are looking on, wondering if they will finally be able to return home.
As well as Nagorno-Karabakh, ethnic Armenians dominate swathes of surrounding districts.
According to international law, Nagorno-Karabakh and the districts all belong to Azerbaijan, and are being occupied.
Fresh clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan began on September 27 and as each day passes, the IDPs keep a close watch on Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s Twitter account, to see whether their home areas are among those the army has, as the leader says, “liberated”.
Since the latest flare up began, the Azerbaijani army claims to have retaken about 200 settlements from Armenia-backed forces.
Human rights activist Samir Kazimli, 38, was a child when his life was upended in the nineties.
“After the Armenian forces occupied our village, we settled to another village in Fuzuli, and then that village was also occupied,” he told Al Jazeera.
His family’s ancestral village of Ashagi Seyidahmedli in Fuzuli is among the areas the army has taken control of.
Fresh from the conflict, as a child, he ended up staying with a family who were taking in refugees.
“I studied seven grades of the school there. Then we moved to a tent camp for IDPs,” said Kazimli, who says he is anti-war.
“I have always wanted the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to be resolved peacefully, provided that Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity is ensured. But the lands have not been returned peacefully.”
In less than two months of fighting, more than 1,000 people have been killed, including dozens of civilians on both sides.
Aliyev has said Azerbaijan will release its military death toll once the crisis is over.
Back in 1994, Azerbaijan reclaimed some of Kazimli’s home village, land upon which a cemetery was later built.
The Armenian forces’ posts were about three kilometres from the site. Nevertheless, many buried their dead there, in part to send a message that they would never be able to reconcile with the occupation.
Earlier this year, Kazimli became a father; he hopes his daughter Pinar can soon return to Ashagi Seyidahmedli.
“A few days after my daughter was officially registered as a resident of our village, in October, our village was liberated from occupation.”
Khalid Vahidoglu, 42, works for an NGO and is originally from Bashlibel, a village in Kalbajar.
He has a photo of the home he left behind, which he printed from the internet, on his desk.
“In 2014, I came across photos taken by Russian tourists from the Kalbajar region on the Internet. There were more than 100 pictures, and as I looked at them, I saw many familiar places. They also visited our village, because among the photos I saw a picture of our house,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Due to suffering and memories of my ruined childhood from the Karabakh conflict, I did not have much hope for a peaceful solution.”
“The [Armenians’] restoration of the airport in Khojaly, the construction of a new road to Kalbajar, and the annual ‘Victory Day’ events in Shusha on May 8 showed that Armenia would not peacefully return the occupied territories of Azerbaijan.”
Vahidoglu added that three factors led to the recent clashes: Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s recent statement that “Artsakh is Armenia, period”, followed by the inauguration of a “president” of the region – known to Armenians as the Republic of Artsakh – in Shusha, and the relocation of the parliament to Shusha.
“It was expected that playing with the pride of the Azerbaijani people would end up in a war,” said Vahidoglu.
Shusha, known to Armenians as Shushi, is considered by Azerbaijanis as their historical centre in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, and the moves inward were viewed as a provocation.
On Sunday, Azerbaijan said it had retaken Shusha, a claim the Armenians denied.
Leyla Jahangirova, 36, was forced to leave Tug, a village in the Khojavend region, in the 1990s. The area has now been retaken, according to Azerbaijan.
“First, we had to live on the front line,” Jahangirova told Al Jazeera. “Both of my parents were doctors and helped the wounded at the front. We lived in a number of villages, districts and cities. We almost toured Azerbaijan. We changed a school every year. We always wore only old clothes.
“We came to Baku in 1998. We lived renting for a long time. In 2010, we were provided with housing by the state in Baku.”
Jahangirova, who has participated in peace-building projects, had hoped the conflict would be resolved without bloodshed.
“In his speeches, President Ilham Aliyev repeatedly said, ‘We have nothing to do with the Armenians of Karabakh, our struggle is with separatists and terrorists.’ This is the message of peace. That is, we do not have a problem with the civilian population, the Armenian community of Karabakh … it gives hope for peace, that we as a community can continue to live as we did before. But I do not know what the other side thinks about it.”
Like Jahangirova and Kazimli, journalist Aynur Ganbarova, an IDP from the Aghdam region, says she is not in favour of war.
“This war took my youth. When I think back to those years, the first thing that comes to my mind is my family, who took refuge in a school classroom,” Ganbarova said, “and my mother’s red hands from washing dishes in cold water. She put her hands under her armpits to keep them warm. The war and its aftermath were so difficult that I did not want future generations to experience it.
“For this reason, the recent launch of the war deeply saddened me, although I really want those lands to return, to go back to Agdam and Shusha.”
Since then, both Ganbarova’s parents have died, as did the grandmother who lived with them. Her sister has married and her brothers left Azerbaijan.
“If they were to say, ‘You are going to Agdam tomorrow’, there would be no one but me. The war took my family, I will no longer have that warm home. “
According to an October 2009 UNHCR report, women, children and the elderly were particularly affected by flight.
“Prolonged displacement has not only negatively impacted on their psychological and social well-being, but has often led to isolation and marginalisation due to the greater difficulties they face in integrating fully into economic life and becoming self-reliant,” the report said.
Aybaniz Ismayilova, 44, is a leading figure in an Azerbaijani-led community group in Nagorno-Karabakh. Originally from the Zangilan region, she was 15 years old when she had to flee.
Her family had just bought a house in the Azerbaijani capital Baku and were planning to move.
“It had four rooms. I, my brother and my parents had separate rooms. We wanted to build our rooms to our own taste, but [the crisis] turned everything upside down. All our relatives from the region gathered around us.
“We all wanted to return home peacefully, we did not want war. Twenty-seven years have been very difficult. We lost my grandmother, my uncles and aunts all these years. They could not see their dreams come true.”
Aybeniz studied abroad and participated in international events focused on Karabakh.
Supporters of Armenia “were telling me to go and get Karabakh if we want it so much, but I was saying that we do not want a war,” she said. “We have seen a lot of difficulties, child deaths, we do not wish this for any nation.”
Aybaniz’s hometown, the Minjivan settlement in Zangilan, has been retaken as a result of a counter-offensive operation by the Azerbaijani army.
Sevinj Gurbanova’s feelings are also torn. The 57-year-old’s village, Garakishiler in the Qubadli District, has also been “liberated”.
“But these years have been taken away from us,” she said of the 27 years she has spent without a home. “We first settled in Sumgayit, in one of the sanatoriums. We didn’t even have a glass to drink water. Then we moved to Baku with the help of relatives. Although we are happy with the freedom of our region, it is impossible to forget the difficult days.
“While one eye is crying, the other is laughing. We hoped that one day the problem would be resolved peacefully and there would be no bloodshed.”