ZANGILAN, Azerbaijan -- Nestled between gently sloping hills lies a neat row of newly built green and white houses, all fenced off from a freshly paved and painted road. The brand-new houses in the village of Agali are empty but according to Azerbaijan's president will soon be filled by displaced Azerbaijanis returning to the place they called home over 27 years ago.
During an October 20-21 visit to Zangilan, one of the districts surrounding the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh that since 1993 was under Armenian rule and was recaptured by Azerbaijan in a deadly six-week war in 2020, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said that a "new era" was beginning for the district. Further down the road in Agali lie the husks of houses still being built.
For many of the hundreds of thousands of Azeris who fled because of the war between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces over Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s, returning home might sound like a dream come true. But despite the official promises of return, many potential returnees are skeptical, airing concerns that not enough houses, schools, and hospitals have been built. What worries some people the most is that in a region that for years has been mostly abandoned, there won't be enough jobs.
Speaking in Agali, a village that was occupied by Armenian forces in October 1993 and is now where much of the initial reconstruction in the region is taking place, Aliyev said that "the first 'smart village' project in all the liberated lands has been implemented in the district of Zangilan."
The "smart village" concept has been widely touted in Azerbaijani state media and purportedly aims to rejuvenate and connect traditional villages with digital and eco-friendly technologies.
"Some buildings are ready," Aliyev said, "and we will try to start relocating [former] Zangilan residents to Zangilan early next year, maybe later this year."
According to UN figures, about 860,000 people fled Armenia and the Azerbaijani districts that were occupied by Armenian forces during the first war that was fought between 1988 and 1994.
Garay Huseynov, a representative of the Agali district authorities, a body that has continued to exist in exile since the 1990s, told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that a list of people who could return had been drawn up.
According to Huseynov, 200 houses are being built in the new settlement in Agali. Houses have three, four, or five rooms and will be given to families according to their needs.
"How will we survive when there is no livelihood?"
The news of the settlement's near readiness came as a surprise to some of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) who were driven out of Agali in the early 1990s.
Rahib Dunyamaliyev, 51, originally from Agali and now living in Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, said he didn't know anything about it until the president's speech. It was only after Aliyev spoke, he said, that the district authorities called him and told him that he might move back to Agali. But for Dunyamaliyev, many questions remain.
"How will we survive when there is no livelihood?" Dunyamaliyev asked. "How can we live there with our families when there is no work?" Dunyamaliyev also questioned the 0.5-1 hectares of land they would receive and said that without additional support they wouldn't be able to use the land. "It would be good if the [process of] adaptation is slow," he said.
Zangilan and other districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh came under Baku's control as part of a cease-fire deal signed in November 2020 following the 44-day war between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces.
Before then, the districts were occupied by ethnic Armenians, who mostly regarded the territory as a "security zone" around the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Most of Zangilan was uninhabited, with the homes of the former Azeri inhabitants looted and gutted, their ruins still scarring the landscape. After 1993, some ethnic Armenians relocated to Zangilan, to areas not far from the Armenian border, but since last year's war, most of them have left.
IDPs had a different status to ethnic Azeris who left Armenia proper with the beginning of tensions in the late 1980s. The first wave of refugees received more public sympathy and were often rehoused in homes left by fleeing ethnic Armenians.
IDPs, however, were stuck in limbo for years, clinging to the government's assurances that, one day, unlike the refugees from Armenia, they would go home. Despite the country's vast oil and gas wealth, housing was in short supply and many lived in makeshift dwellings, sometimes even repurposing containers or railway carriages.
Not long after last year’s war ended in November, some IDPs tried to return to the reclaimed districts, with many curious about what remained of their old homes. Travelling without permits on unmarked roads and fields, some returnees were killed by land mines left by Armenian forces, which some experts have estimated might take up to a decade to clear.
Agali representative Huseynov told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service he was not aware of all the details of the resettlement. He said that the list of returnees must be fully approved and a resettlement plan drawn up. The plan, he said, was to send the elderly first and that people with young children would be relocated at a later stage after the construction of a school.
Despite the uncertainty and fears for the life awaiting them in Agali, the Azerbaijani authorities are pushing ahead with banner infrastructure projects in their regained territory, which they have said will include manufacturing plants, power stations, and railways.
On October 26, Aliyev was joined by his Turkish counterpart and ally, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to open an international airport in the city of Fuzuli, the first town that Azerbaijan recaptured from Armenian forces during the 2020 conflict. Azerbaijani officials have said that construction companies from Turkey, a close ally of Azerbaijan, will take a leading role in infrastructure projects and rebuilding.
Erdogan and Aliyev also broke ground at the construction site for a new highway in the region and a "smart agricultural park" in Zangilan.
Another issue for the authorities will be how to fairly allocate the new homes.
Nurisan Hasanov, an IDP from Zangilan who lives in Baku, said that he hopes that the resettlement plan will consider the number of family members people now have.
"The children were young back then, they lived with their parents. [But now] some of them created a family, moved out, and had their own children, who have now grown up. So will this be taken into account during the construction?"