As Azerbaijan regains control of the land it lost to Armenian forces a quarter of a century ago, civilians who fled the fighting decades ago wonder if they can return home now and if there is still a home to return to.
Some 600,000 Azerbaijanis were displaced in the 1990s war that left the Nago-Karabakh region under the control of ethnic Armenian separatists and large neighboring territories in Armenian hands. During the six weeks of renewed fighting this fall that ended on November 10, Azerbaijan recaptured parts of Nago-Karabakh itself and significant parts of the peripheral areas.
More territory is being returned as part of the ceasefire agreement that halted recent fighting. But as Azerbaijani forces discovered when the first area, Aghdam, returned on Friday, most of the reclaimed land is uninhabitable. The city of Aghdam, once home to 50,000 people, is now in ruins.
Adil Sharifov, 62, who fled his hometown in 1992 during the first war and lives in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, knows he will find similar destruction if he returns to the city of Jabrayil, which he wants to do.
Jabrayil is one of the suburban areas recaptured by Azerbaijani troops before the end of the last fighting. Shortly after he was taken, one of Sharifovs’ cousins went there and told him that the town had been destroyed, including the large house with an orchard where the Sharifovs family once lived.
However, the day I return will be the greatest happiness for me, he said.
For years, he said, his family had been following reports about Jabrayil online. They knew the devastation was terrible, but Sharifovs’s late mother held out a desperate hope that their home had been spared and the keys held.
I will build an even better house, he vowed.
Ulviya Jumayeva, 50, could return to better, though not ideal, circumstances in her hometown of Shusha, a town that Azerbaijani forces took on the main offensive of the six-week war.
Her younger brother, Nasimi, took part in the battle and called her to tell her that the apartment their family had fled in 1992 was intact, although it had mostly been stripped of the family assets.
According to him, it is clear that the Armenians lived there behind us, and then they got everything. But our big mirror in the hallway, which we wanted to see as children, remains, Jumayeva said, adding: Maybe my grandchildren will look in this mirror.
“We all have houses in Baku, but everyone considers them non-permanent, because all these years we have lived with the hope that we will return to Shusha,” she said. Our hearts, our thoughts have always been in our homeland.
But she acknowledged that her feelings towards Armenians have become more bitter.
My schoolmates were mostly Armenians. I never treated ordinary Armenians badly, believing that their criminal leaders who left the war were guilty of the massacre, war and grief they also brought to their people, Jumayeva said.
But after the current events, after the bombing of peaceful cities … because the Armenians who are now leaving our territories, which are also outside Karabakh, are burning the houses of the Azerbaijanis in which they lived illegally … something broken in me. I have changed my attitude towards them, she said. I realized that we, the Azerbaijanis, will not be able to live peacefully near the Armenians.
While Sharifov has less to return, he has a more moderate view, saying the two ethnic groups with different religious traditions still have the potential to live together in a friendly way.
“If the Armenians obey the laws of Azerbaijan and do not behave like bearded men who came to kill, then we will live in peace,” he said. Time to shoot is over. Enough victims. We want peace, we do not want war.
Associated Press writers Aida Sultanova in London and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this story.
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