After the War, Limbo

Azerbaijan's Forgotten Refugees

At the Saatli refugee camp in Azerbaijan (Photo: Anneliese Hollman/UNHCR). Click here for the full photo essay.

In the late 1980s, General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika reforms freed the tongues of Soviet citizens across the Union and lifted the lid on a host of problems that had long been simmering beneath the surface of Soviet politics. The mainly Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous territory in Azerbaijan, was among the disaffected groups suddenly left free to air their grievances. The ethnic Armenians, feeling threatened by a resettlement program that encouraged ethnic Azeris to move into the region, and claiming that their region was starved of government resources because of its distinct ethnic identity, asked that Nagorno-Karabakh be absorbed into Armenia. Tensions escalated until interethnic violence finally broke out in February 1988. As militias formed, the situation rapidly deteriorated into all-out war.

By the time a ceasefire was brokered in 1994, an estimated 17,000 people had been killed, another 50,000 had been wounded, and 1.2 million had been forced from their homes. Today, many of the 100,000 Azeris who fled their villages in Nagorno-Karabakh are still living in abandoned railway cars, mud-brick houses, and tents. Chloe Arnold, a Baku-based freelance writer and correspondent for the BBC, reports…

Sharifa Ahmedova is 65 years old. She has lived in part of a railway carriage in Saatli, in southern Azerbaijan, since 1993, when Armenian soldiers forced her out of her home in Cabrayil, Nagorno-Karabakh. Her family receives 25,000 manat (US$9) every month from the Azeri State Refugee Committee, a body established five years ago to provide assistance to Azerbaijan's refugee population.

For more photos from the refugee camps,
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"My daughter Safura suffers from epilepsy," she says. "Of course we have taken her to the local hospital, but the doctors tell us to buy medicine. And what can we pay for it with? We don't even have enough to buy bread."

Outside, Sharifa's grandson Zohrab is playing on the railway tracks next to abandoned railway cars used as makeshift classrooms. Zohrab came to Saatli when he was just four months old. He doesn't remember anything about his home, he says. He just knows it's better there because, as he puts it, "there's money."

The 400 families living in Saatli are a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of Azeris who were forced out of their homes during the 1988-94 conflict with Armenia. 800,000 people, 10 percent of Azerbaijan's population, have been officially recognized as internally displaced persons (IDPs) in this ex-Soviet republic.

When that figure is set against the country's Gross Domestic Product of just US$4 billion, Azerbaijan is saddled with among the worst IDP problems in the world.

In talks with foreign dignitaries, Azerbaijan's president, Haidar Aliyev, rarely fails to mention the "million refugees living in tent camps," or the "20 percent of Azerbaijan now under Armenian control."

For all his hyperbolic rhetoric, Aliyev has done little to ease the plight of these displaced families. The reason is simple: Resettling the refugees in other parts of Azerbaijan would mean tacitly accepting Armenia's victory in the still-unresolved conflict.

Azerbaijan's refugees have been let down on all sides: first they were the victims of a brutal war that drove them out of their homes. Now they are the victims of a political game of which they understand little.

Until recently, the poorest refugees have relied on international aid agencies for handouts, including food and clothes. But with no solution in sight to the ongoing conflict, aid agencies have begun to pull out, concentrating their efforts on more acute crises elsewhere in the world.

The result is that Azerbaijan's refugees have been largely forgotten. Privately, aid workers in Azerbaijan place the blame on Baku.

"The problem is the government has no plan," one western aid worker said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Their only plan is to wait until Nagorno-Karabakh is won back and they can send the refugees back."

He added that Azerbaijan needs the IDPs to prove to the rest of the world that there is a problem here. "The government needs them so that it can say these are the consequences of the Karabakh war, this is what happened," he said.

"Funds are declining, and the world is slowly shifting its attention," says Vugar Abdusalimov, information officer at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Azerbaijan.

"The international community is beginning to change its priorities because Azerbaijan is no longer country number one in terms of humanitarian crisis. We're no longer [living in as acute a crisis zone as] Chechnya. We're no longer [living in as acute a crisis zone as] Kosovo. And that really heavily affects the lives of the internally displaced population."

Further down the train, Tashkilat Quliyev and his three-week old grandson have sought shelter from the harsh midday sun on the tracks beneath the train.

"I'm worried about the food we give the baby," he says. "We have so little, and it's such bad quality."

Tashkilat was a farm worker in Cabrayil. He managed to bring his tractor with him when he fled, but it has since rusted into disrepair. He can't afford to fix it.

"That means I can't get a job, and my family has to depend on state hand-outs to survive," he says. "I've had enough of living like this. We should take up arms against the Armenians. They took our land. Now we want it back."

An hour west of Saatli, the sound of a tinny radio drifts from the dilapidated hut where Rashid Dunyamaliyev and his family of eight live. The place looks like a settlement on the moon—no grass, no trees, just dozens of gray dwellings, half dug into the ground, and covered in corrugated iron, mud bricks, blankets, and bark.

These people are considered better off than the refugees of Saatli. There are fewer holes in their roofs and some of them have even managed to steal electricity from overhead lines.

"It's very hard living here," Rashid tells me. "The heat is terrible. There's no running water. We have to go three kilometers to the nearest well on donkeys. We left everything behind when we left our home. We couldn't take anything with us. I just took my children and ran. What else could I do?"

In spite of this, there have been some success stories. In 1996, the UNHCR resettled 22 villages in the Fizuli region after Armenia gave up its claim to the area, and an Italian oil company active in Azerbaijan has provided enough funding to build a village for 1,000 refugees.

But for 65-year-old Sharifa Akhmedova and her family, a line of rusty railway carriages going nowhere remains their home for the foreseeable future.

"My only dream is to go back to my real home one day and die there," she says. "That's the only thing that keeps me going."