The forgotten people of Baku

For the past 12 years, 72-year-old Mammadova Pari has had to call the dank and decrepit basement corridor of an old student dorm in Baku home.

Pari has been living in squalor for 12 years (Photo: Jody Sabral)
Pari has been living in squalor for 12 years (Photo: Jody Sabral)

It is a cold space she shares with 3000 others, crammed into half a dozen crumbling and derelict buildings.


She is one of around a million Azerbaijanis who are refugees in their own country, victims of a war now largely forgotten.

When it rains, she says, the basement floods “up to your shins”. Sometimes the water carries with it untreated sewage too, as makeshift cesspits brim over and spill into the houses.

Around her, electric cables dangle dangerously from the ceiling. There are black scorch marks staining the walls from the frequent fires started by shorting lights.

“We cannot survive here any more,” she says, shaking her head.

She lives in a refugee camp with no name. Although most of its residents have been there for more than a decade, officials have been wary of giving it a title for fear it would suggest they are there to stay.

“We are expecting them all to go home one day,” says camp director Abbas Hasanov, whose job with the university that owns the ramshackle dorm buildings left him in charge of the refugee ghetto.


“One day it will become the university again, so we haven’t given this place a special title.”

Camp forgotten


Perhaps it is no surprise then that the camp has been largely forgotten by the outside world.

“For the last three of four years, no international or national organisations have provided any help for the camp,” Hasanov continues.


IDPs from Armenia inhabit the camp (Photo: Jody Sabral)

IDPs from Armenia inhabit the
camp (Photo: Jody Sabral)

“There are no resources at all. As for the university, it can barely afford to look after itself, let alone 3000 refugees.”

Average incomes in Azerbaijan are low, with 40% of the population officially estimated to be below the local poverty line of $40 a month.

The people here – officially known as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) – survive on a monthly government hand out of $6 “bread money”, plus 30 litres of kerosene during the winter. The latter is their only source of fuel for heating and cooking.

The office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Baku says the problem dates back to 1988 when refugees first started escaping the inter-ethnic violence in neighbouring Armenia.

Many thousands of ethnic Azerbaijanis who had lived in Armenia fled the violence – as did many thousands of ethnic Armenians who had lived in Azerbaijan.


Before 1989, Baku itself had an ethnic Armenian population of some 200,000. Now, few remain.

Ethnic flight


But as the Soviet Union further disintegrated, the next wave of Azerbaijani refugees came to Baku from Nagorno Kharabakh, a majority ethnic Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijani territory.


Many Azerbaijanis living there were forced to flee as the Armenians took control of the region.
“Finally, the refugees also came from the Azerbaijani provinces around Nagorno Kharabakh that were occupied by the Armenians in 1993-94,” the UNHCR’s Vugar Abdusalimov told

Many of the last wave ended up in the camp with no name – and there they have stayed.

And they have harrowing personal stories of fleeing across the River Araxes into neighbouring Iran, a frantic flight in which many drowned.


Others come from towns that have been allegedly “ethnically cleansed” and which now lie deserted in the twilight buffer zone between the Azerbaijani and Armenian front lines to the east.


Pari herself is a native of Aghdam, 340km west of Baku. Today, Aghdam is considered a buffer zone between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces.

Run for our lives

“We had to leave everything, to run for our lives,” she said.

She says that she only seeks to return home so that she can visit the graves of her relatives and offer prayers to Allah.

The chances of that happening, however, are slim to none.

Since a ceasefire was reached between Azeri and Armenian forces in 1994, talks under the sponsorship of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have been stalled.

“There is some speculation about a resolution next year,” says William Tall, the UNHCR’s chief representative in Azerbaijan. “Though, to be honest, we’ve seen such speculation quite often before.”


In the meantime, the one million IDPs the government says are now under its care in the country will have to wait.


Out of a population of just eight million, the one million IDPs give Azerbaijan one of the largest per capita refugee populations in the world.

IDPs hope oil will improve theirconditions (Photo: Jody Sabral)

IDPs hope oil will improve their
conditions (Photo: Jody Sabral)

But some hope may lie in the future.

Azerbaijan is now a major oil producer and over the next 20 years, $150 billion in oil revenues are expected to be heading Baku’s way.


Some of those funds are already finding their way to the IDPs and the government is moving to improve living conditions for its people.

“They’ve been building some very good new settlements for these people and aim to re-house all the rural IDPs by 2007.”

Yet, city camps such as Pari’s have lagged behind. Tall told that it might be several years before the camp got a refurbishment.

Oil wealth distribution


Nevertheless, there are concerns among Azerbaijanis that the oil wealth may not get to the right people. This was a major issue in the recent general elections, as the opposition charged the government with corrupt use of the country’s resources.

“We want transparency in the transfer of revenues from the oil,” says Mayis Gulaliyev, of the Centre for Civic Initiatives, which monitors the oil industry in Baku.


“In any case, there will be no real benefit to Azerbaijan from the oil revenues until 2008 or 2009, when pay backs on the initial investments will be finished.”

Which may mean many more years in the camp for Pari and her fellow IDPs.

Such a timeline has meant that many have given up hope of ever going home.

“When I first came here, I did have my hopes of going back, but now hope cannot exist when the people up there [the government] are only interested in their positions,” says Tural Masarov, a father of two, originally from Fizuli.


For Pari, however, day-to-day survival has become almost intolerable.


“We cannot survive here any more,” she says. “We live here like rats.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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