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Azerbaijan: The Refugee Burden Looms Large

Prague, 15 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The United States, Russia and France, co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation's so-called Minsk Group, are today visiting Yerevan and will travel to Stepanakert and Baku in a bid to revive the stalled negotiations on the future of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh leaders have long insisted that Nagorno-Karabakh should be a full negotiating partner to ensure a general settlement conflict rather than piece-meal concessions.

But Azeri leaders refuse to recognize the separatists as equals at the negotiating table. Their goal is to regain the territory currently occupied by Karabakh-Armenian forces and thereby enable the return of some 620,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) made homeless by the fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh in 1992-94. In addition, some 200,000 mainly ethnic Azeri refugees from non-Azerbaijani territory arrived in 1988 and 1989 from Armenia and later from Georgia.

About 12 percent of Azerbaijan's population consists of displaced people, including ten percent of Baku's two million inhabitants. Most of them experience problems in assimilating with the Azeri population.

These refugees constitute a potential time bomb for the security of the region -- much like the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, Gaza, and the West Bank proved over decades to be a breeding ground for the PLO and more radical organizations.

For Azerbaijan, the refugees constitute a useful element in negotiations for territory. But the Azeri government has failed to provide them with anything more than moral support. They receive an equivalent of just two dollars a month in state assistance.

Azerbaijan, of course, has its own problems, one of them being a 40 percent unemployment rate. This rate increases to nearly 80 percent among male refugees and almost 90 percent among female refugees.

Although international organizations contribute foodstuffs, medical assistance, and some housing, large numbers of refugees and displaced persons continue to live in horrific conditions in Azerbaijan, in part because they are not being integrated.

Not all the refugees and IDPs are ethnic Azeris. Some 50,000 are Meskhetian Turks expelled by Joseph Stalin from Georgia to Central Asia in 1944 who returned to the Caucasus in 1989. A further 5,000 are ethnic Kurds, largely from the occupied territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh.

Armenia has not experienced quite the same refugee problems as Azerbaijan. Ethnic Armenians fleeing Azerbaijan numbered 400,000. Some 330,000 initially fled to Armenia and the rest mainly to Russia. Many of the newcomers to Armenia soon resettled in traditional Armenian diaspora communities.

Many of them were native Russian speakers, who opted to forgo the difficulties of trying to assimilate into Armenian society. Most found it difficult to secure housing in Yerevan and were unwilling to live in small town or villages.

Armenia was hardly a "promised land". Its economy was in tatters, disrupted by the 1988 earthquake and the economic decline that followed disintegration of the Soviet Union and the fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. The political isolation of independent Armenia, including neighboring Turkey's refusal to open a single frontier crossing, were further reasons for settling elsewhere.

The Armenian government maintains the refugees have integrated into Armenian society. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Yerevan is promoting full integration of the Armenian refugees rather than their return. Few have any desire to ever return to their hometowns in Azerbaijan, having witnessed or experienced the trauma of ethnic violence.

UNHCR in Armenia does not involve itself with Armenian refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh, who currently number at least 15,000 since the UN considers the breakaway enclave as part of Azerbaijan. These refugees are dissuaded from fully integrating into Armenian society. It is intended that they will return to Karabakh once their war-damaged homes have been repaired or rebuilt.

UNHCR estimates some 150,000 refugees in Armenia are in need of assistance. These are mainly women, children and the aged. Owing, at least in part, to incomplete implementation of naturalization laws and regulations, few refugees have gained Armenian citizenship. However, the Armenian news media has alleged that many refugees defer applying for citizenship since naturalization would spell the end of humanitarian aid benefits.

Azerbaijan's refugee burden is considerably bigger. About 60 percent live in public buildings, including schools and sanatoria. Most have only one desire: to be able to go home.

A former dormitory building on the northern outskirts of Baku is home to about 1300 people. A latrine on the ground floor, the only toilets for some 250 families, is covered by at least ten centimeters of sludge. One resident describes life here as an "indefinite prison sentence".

Down the hall, a woman, Salme Alakperova from Lachin whose son died fighting the Armenians, shows her room where she has lived alone for the past six years: a bare, wet concrete floor, smelly, moldy walls, a small stove, a single bare light bulb for light, a large, leaky sewage pipe running through the room.

"This sewage pipe is dripping on my head. It is broken. There is a hole in the wall" Alakperova says. She is 52 but looks decades older.

UNHCR spokesman Elin Suleymanov says help is on the way.

"Beginning this year, provided funding is coming, we will fund the American NGO (non-governmental organization) Mercy Corps International to rehabilitate this building which would involve winterization, insulation, sewage system to provide all those things necessary, to provide some sort of upkeep for this building".

Elsewhere matters are not better. More than ten percent of all refugees and displaced persons inhabit camps, some of which are in unspeakably poor condition.

The International Red Cross/Red Crescent operate seven camps in the southeast of the country for some 45,000 refugees. A further 16,000 are in two camps run by Turkish and Arabic charities.

Perhaps the worst conditions are experienced by 5,000 refugees living in earth dugouts for the past six years in Agcabedi, east of the occupied city of Agdam and by 67,000 living in a variety of make-shift accommodations near Barda.

UNHCR is supporting a reintegration plan by assisting the Azeri government in drafting and implementing suitable legislation as well as by supporting the construction of relatively inexpensive single family dwellings made of local limestone blocks. The 24 square meter houses, of which over 2,000 have been built in the last three years, can be dismantled, transported and re-assembled elsewhere or else sold once the refugees and IDPs are allowed to return to their homes, many of which are currently little more than burned out shells. The cost of building a limestone house is about 1,250 dollars, plus 100 dollars for an outhouse (pit latrine) and 150 dollars in donated lumber from Sweden.

Refugees interviewed at Saatli, where 80 railroad cattle cars house some 140 displaced families said that "all we want is to be able to go home."

But the inhabitants of this five year-old refugee camp on rails on the abandoned line that once linked Azerbaijan with Iran and Armenia, are not likely to go anywhere. They can only hope of being chosen to live in one of the newly built settlements of limestone huts that have been built on barren land nearby.

At Saatli, heating fuel -- brushwood and dried cow dung -- is stored under the railroad wagons, most of which are serving as two family homes. Women sit by the tracks making lavash, a large, flat pancake-like bread. Water supply is sporadic with none available for days at a time. One woman, Telle Hashimova, says no sanitary facilities are available beyond a single toilet for 140 families.

"I can not say this is good. This is not life. We are living in cattle cars and even have to pay for brushwood", Hashimova says, noting that a small trailer full of wood costs the equivalent of $30 and lasts four to six weeks. She laments there have been wintry days without electricity or fuel when, she says, her fingers turned "half-blue" from the cold.

Shamil Mamatguleev, World War Two Red Army veteran, says "we do not need any assistance, we want to go back home. Ismail Aliyev says "if we can not go home by peaceful means then we will go by war" adding, "if we are going to die, we might as well die at home."

But with nearly total unemployment, no money even for heating fuel, an attitude that it is someone else's duty to find them work and improve their existence, a sense of weariness and indifference among adults and undernourishment among the undersized children, it is questionable whether these refugees will ever be in position to reclaim their lands by force.

Four of the railway cattle cars are used as a school for 125 pupils aged six to 16 and taught by 20 teachers.

First grade pupils recite a poem "Azerbaijan My Beautiful Motherland" in a box car on a railway siding in the flat drained salt marshes near the border with Iran. But their hometowns: Agdam, Fizuli, Kelbejer, and Cebrayil as well as numerous surrounding villages are not beautiful any more. These places were devastated by war, occupation and neglect.

The Minsk Group co-chairs have their work cut out for them.