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Caucasus: A Decade After Losing Their Homes, Karabakh Refugees Languish In Poverty

  • Richard Greene

Ten years ago this week (9 May 1992), Armenian forces captured the Nagorno-Karabakh town of Shusha. A major regional cultural center, the mountain town had historically been an impregnable fortress, and its fall dealt Azerbaijan a major psychological blow. Hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people from Shusha and other occupied regions across Nagorno-Karabakh are now scattered throughout Azerbaijan. As Armenia and Azerbaijan prepare to launch a new round of negotiations in Prague next week, many Shusha refugees dismiss the notion that talks can solve the problem and say they are ready to fight to recapture their homes.

Baku, 8 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A decade after Russian-backed Armenian forces captured the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh and much of the surrounding territory, Azerbaijan is home to one of the largest per capita refugee populations in the world.

Its 700,000 internally displaced persons from Karabakh, plus 200,000 refugees from Armenia itself, make up well over 10 percent of the country's total population.

Vugar Abdusalimov, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, says many of the refugees live in what he calls "camplike conditions." "There is a substantial number of people still living in camps and other camplike situations, like railway carriages and dugouts. It's not like everybody is living in camps, but there is a major part of the population still living in camps."

Unemployment is common in Azerbaijan, and even worse among refugees and internally displaced persons than in the general population. Many refugees have ended up in and around cities, but that in itself does not necessarily help them find work, Abdusalimov says, because few of them have job skills that are useful in urban centers.

"Most of these people are coming from agricultural backgrounds. If you imagine people living in urban areas, it's really tough for them to find a job according to their skills. Then if we speak about those living in rural areas, there is unemployment even for the local population, and IDPs [internally displaced persons] are suffering the same problem."

As a result, Abdusalimov says, the most reliable source of income for the displaced population are the handouts from the Azerbaijan State Refugee Committee. The refugees call the payments "bread money" because it's about enough money to buy a loaf of bread each day.

"The main source of income for all IDPs is the so-called 'bread money' that is distributed by the State Refugee Committee of Azerbaijan. Each person is entitled to get 25,000 manats at the end of each month. For a person who doesn't work, this is the only secure source of income coming at the end of a month."

Merziye Hasanova fled the fall of Shusha 10 years ago this week and now lives with her family in a former railway workers' hostel on the outskirts of Baku. The hostel, which was refurbished by the UNHCR and an Azerbaijani organization called Hayat (Life), is home to several hundred refugees, each family living in one room. She says 10 years of living there is long enough.

"We cannot wait any longer. Although we are still trying to be patient, we cannot wait any longer. We still believe that the international community will help us or that the president will initiate something new, which would help everybody to go back to their homeland. We want our Shusha."

Hasanova, who is 68, remembers the attack on the city. As she was trying to flee Shusha, she heard that her son Ali had been wounded, and, soon after, that he was dead. "I went to the hospital, and I saw there a lot of dead bodies. And I looked through these dead bodies, and I couldn't find my son."

Ten years later, she says, she has never seen her son's body, and two of her grandchildren have never known their father. One was an infant when Ali was killed, and the other was born after his death.

Hasanova -- a tiny, gray-haired woman who suffers from high blood pressure and keeps her hair neatly under a scarf -- insists that she herself is willing to fight to recapture Nagorno-Karabakh. "At my age, I am ready to put on a soldier's uniform and fight for our land. I am ready to fight, to set free the lands."

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict dates back at least to 1988, when the enclave's large Armenian population began agitating to become part of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, rather than the Azerbaijani one it was assigned to in the early days of the Soviet Union.

By the early 1990s, newly independent Armenia and Azerbaijan were at war over the enclave. Backed by Russian forces, and with a well-organized diaspora funneling support to Yerevan, Armenian troops captured Nagorno-Karabakh and much of the surrounding territory between 1991 and 1993.

There has been little open warfare over Nagorno-Karabakh since 1994, when Azerbaijan and Armenia signed a cease-fire, but there has been no political settlement, despite efforts by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to prod the belligerents into some sort of peace treaty.

The latest round of diplomacy is scheduled to begin on 12 May, when the newly named personal envoys of Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev and Armenian President Robert Kocharian meet in Prague. The agenda for the first meeting is modest -- simply for the two negotiators to get to know one another.

But there is widespread doubt that a diplomatic resolution of the conflict is in sight. Both Kocharian and Aliyev are running for re-election next year, and neither can be seen to compromise on an issue that both populations feel passionately about.

Vugar Rustamov is a 31-year-old internally displaced person from Shusha who trained to be a teacher before the war. He says he has no faith in the OSCE-backed talks. "I don't believe in the fairy tales about negotiations. We do believe that this will be overcome only with a fight. We should fight for our Karabakh and just set free Karabakh with weapons in our hands."

The other refugees in the hostel nod as he speaks. Ten years after the loss of Shusha, they are still angry. They do not want to talk. They do not want to wait. They say they want to fight.