For displaced Azerbaijanis, truce reawakens 'dream' of returning home
In the dusty courtyard of a former sanatorium in Azerbaijan, dozens of school-age children danced and frolicked as grinning mothers, aunts, and grandmothers looked on.
It was a day after the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan -- with Russia's imprimatur – agreed to a truce deal meant to bring an end to the reignited war over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Radio Free Europe reports in its article For Displaced Azerbaijanis, Truce Reawakens 'Dream' Of Returning Home that it is a day that 56-year-old Valida Orucova has waited half her life for. She and her extended family fled in 1992 from violence in her hometown of Khojali, less than 20 kilometers north of Nagorno-Karabakh's main city -- known as Stepanakert to Armenians but Xankandi to Azerbaijanis. "I long to return there," Orucova says. "I'm exhausted from thinking about it. Where should I go first? To [Khojali] to my father's [old] house? Or should I go to my mother-in-law's empty house?" Orucova talks about drinking fresh spring water from either of two nearby fountains, one of which was labeled "Boys" and the other "Girls" back when she taught kindergarten there. "I dream of walking down and drinking from those waters," she says. "I would feel like I was born again. I'd like to look at my village from the hill." Since leaving Khojali, Orucova has spent much of the last three decades raising her family in less idyllic surroundings -- like the Gizilgum sanatorium in a village near Baku where her grandchildren were among those dancing in celebration. The sanatorium was transformed long ago into a makeshift residence for dozens of families displaced by the war following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Orucova wants to teach Khojali pupils again. She also wants her own grandchildren to attend the old kindergarten. But like many of the hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijani internally displaced persons (IDPs) who were forced from Nagorno-Karabakh and its surrounding districts, Orucova also wonders if she has grown too old to brave the return.
The truce has sparked unrest in Armenia, which swallowed the brunt of the pain after its outmatched troops and separatist allies in Nagorno-Karabakh were routed by Azerbaijan's larger, better-equipped forces. Many Armenians regard the settlement as a surrender and a national tragedy -- in some cases, a betrayal -- of historic proportions. The ethnic Armenian separatists who'd occupied seven districts of Azerbaijan around Nagorno-Karabakh since the early 1990s had regarded the territory as a "security zone" around their breakaway region. Azerbaijani forces recaptured most of four occupied districts in about six weeks of recent fighting.
The Russian-brokered truce calls for the remaining occupied territory to be handed over within days. The truce also calls for ethnic Armenians to withdraw from those three remaining districts: Agdam; Kashatagh (which Azeris call Lachin) and Karvachar, which is known as Kalbacar in Azeri. There have been searing scenes of ethnic Armenians torching their homes -- particularly in Karvachar/Kalbacar -- before heading west toward Armenia.
But to the east of the battlefield, in Azerbaijani-controlled territory, there is almost unbridled joy. "We are very happy," says Gulzar Guliyeva, who is originally from a part of the Lachin district that still must be handed over to Baku's control. Guliyeva and her family live in a converted dormitory in Sumqayit, an industrial city outside the capital that hosts the Peace Dove monument. "We're waiting for the moment when we'll be able to go back to our land and our home," she says. "We can even sleep on the ground [for all I care]."
Another former Lachin resident in Sumqayit tells RFE/RL: "Every day, we would see our [former] city in our dreams. We've lived like this for 27 years."
In Zabrat, a village near Baku, dozens of IDP families originally from the Karvachar/Kalbacar district live among the tiled courtyards of an area now dubbed as the "Kalbacar neighborhood." Resident Sevinj Mursalova says neither her family nor their neighbors slept the night that the truce was signed. "It is impossible to describe it in words...," she tells RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service. "We've never had such happiness in our lives and probably will not experience such happiness again.
Fifty-two-year-old Azerbaijani IDP Latif Misalovsa says he hopes to get back to Kalbacar via a road that he remembers being closed in 1992. "We'll go that way," he says. "Inshallah, I'll return to my village. I'll live there -- I'll live my best days there."
However, many of the homes they left decades ago are now gutted ruins.
In some cases, these ruins are hauntingly visible from homes erected or occupied by ethnic Armenians who moved into the area with the encouragement of the Armenian government during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Orucova's home, Khojali, was the scene of a notorious massacre of as many as 600 Azeris by ethnic Armenian forces in 1992. Orucova recalls telling her children that, if she died, they would one day return to find their house near Khojali's airport -- the only airport in Nagorno-Karabakh. "There was a hill there called Hacatapa -- the third house was ours," she remembers telling them, "I don't know if the house is OK now, because we see [images showing] that most of the houses in the occupied lands have been destroyed."
Amina Huseynova is a grandmother who lives near her son and his seven children in a neighborhood of Musfigabad, near Baku. She tells RFE/RL that her entire family plans to return to their prewar home in a town that Azeris refer to as Xocavend but Armenians call Martuni. While some neighboring homes were burned down during the war in the 1990s, her husband entrusted the keys of their home to his supervisor, who was an ethnic Armenian. He, in turn, entrusted it to an acquaintance from Yerevan, the Armenian capital. Huseynova says the man in Yerevan "told my husband that 'if your family returns, I'll give you the house back.' If not, he was going to live in that house himself." Now, Huseynova says she has no idea whether the building is still standing and, if so, who lives there.
"We can live together with them, but only on one condition," another Baku resident says when asked about living side-by-side with ethnic Armenians. "They should give all our lands back."