A story with no end

9. 4. 2006 | | Nezařazené

The conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia began some 14 years ago and ended in 1993 with a ceasefire that left over 800,000 people without homes. These 800,000 became internally displaced persons (IDPs) due to a war that took place in their homeland.

The conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia began some 14 years ago and ended in 1993 with a ceasefire that left over 800,000 people without homes. These 800,000 became internally displaced persons (IDPs) due to a war that took place in their homeland. The territory that has been occupied by Armenia does not include only the Nagorno Karabakh region but also six other regions that surrounded it. The whole occupied territory excluding Nagorno Karabakh accounts to 15 percent of the total territory of Azerbaijan, a territory no Azeris have seen in more than 11 years.

Thanks to the conflict, Azerbaijan has been „blessed“ with a number of humanitarian and relief organizations that came to the country to help overcome the impacts of war; mainly, to support the internally displaced persons to cope with their new unbearable lives.

But years have passed and the humanitarian organizations have slowly begun to change their scope of work. They have begun to focus on development assistance instead of humanitarian and relief aid. Quite a logical step… at least it would seem so if there would be no more IDPs living in cattle barns and holes dug in the ground. Some organizations work on the rehabilitation of houses which were retaken at the ceasefire line. The problem is that the area no longer has any infrastructure so even if an IDP moves home, he cannot live there, as there is no work, no food and no means for a proper life.

Yet everyone hopes – IDPs hope to get back to their homeland, the government hopes the occupied territories will be freed. Days pass and become years. And it seems pointless to build new homes for the homeless people as there might come a time when they will all be allowed to return to where they come from. And so people wait, some in dorms, some in newly-built houses, some in brick sheds, some in cow sheds, some in holes dug in the ground… Even with this pattern, the government has made a promise that by the end of this year all IDP camps will dissapear.

So close but so far away

I had the opportunity to visit the Fisuli region which is to the south of Nagorno Karabakh and borders Iran. This region is 80 percent occupied. IDP camps can be found just a few kilometers from the frontlines with Armenian forces. Most of the IDPs come from the Fisuli region – their homes are so close but so far away.

I understood that it is forbidden to visit IDP camps, but since I was visiting them just before the parliamentary elections, the rules eased a bit and our visit was somehow possible. My first stop was a town Ali Bayramli.

There are dorms here full of IDPs. Each family has one room where they live and usually share one tiny kitchen on each floor. As I entered the building dozens of people came out and began to complain. They showed me the conditions in which they live. The walls and ceilings in the whole building are slowly rottening, leaving the rooms damp and hard to breathe in. The wooden floors are falling apart and people should be forbidden from using their balconies. Everyone is trapped inside and loosing hope.

Most of the men are unemployed having no way of feeding their families. Some men have at least repaired the room in which their family lives, while other families cannot possibly repair their homes and have just covered the rotten walls with carpets. Women cook and bake their own bread while carrying around their little babies.

From Ali Bayramli we headed eastwards. Close to the city of Imishli we visited our first IDP camp. There were hundreds of little sheds cheek-by-jowl built of mud bricks and reeds. Passing by we saw that most of the men were simply sitting around, drinking tea. I am afraid some of the men do that every single day, because there is no work for them.Yet, some have found a way. They run shops. Some make clay bricks and hope that no rain washes their several days of work back into mud.

The trip continued to a city of Imishli. There are a few blocks houses that are settled by IDPs as well as sheds right across the street from the houses. It seems the „lucky“ ones get the houses.

Windows used as bins

As soon as I took my first photo I became a star. I could not take a step without having ten little children around me. As soon as I focused my camera some little kid would jump into my viewfinder to be in the picture. When I decided to take photo of the bunch of them, I needed to take a step backwards to fit them all in the picture, but at that moment more kids would run up front to be closer to the camera.

Later I was taken by one old woman to come and see her home. Her face was so wrinkled and exhausted it was unbearable to look at her. She lived alone in a two room flat. The first thing I saw was that there was an endless amount of mosquitoes everywhere. I could barely stand there and listen to her as I was constantly annoyed by the little beasts. But then I was stunned since the room that she used as a kitchen and storage room did not have a floor, there were only big rocks placed next to each other. The walls were also rotten and the toilet was just two wooden doors attached to a wall. The place was horrible but since she is 76-years-old, she could hardly repair it herself. The other room was less horrible but the mosquitoes managed to prevent the woman from resting.

There were no showers in the other flats or in the huts for that matter. There were common showers for (I guess) hundreds of people and common toilets. The refuse from the toilets and water from the showers discharged into the open and formed a small lake ten meters from the common showers, next to huge cluster of huts.

The area around the houses is full of garbage. That is what disappointed me the most. People may have really poor living conditions but they would still use their windows as bins. Children would throw their cookie wrappers on the ground. I could not believe that those people did not understand that it is in their power to at least keep the place clean and improve somewhat the conditions of life! Their children play every single day in streets full of garbage, close to refuse drainage.

I was invited to talk with three young girls. One of them spoke some Russian and kept telling me that she would to be married soon and that she would move to Baku, away from that place. She hated the rainy weather there as well as the life itself. I hope she will be happy in Baku.

A life one cannot imagine

We left Imishli at night and in the morning we arrived in an area where people live in cattle barns (kolxoz) built during Soviet times. The people have built their reed and mud huts in the barns and sometimes even share them with cows and other animals. They have some electricity, but the water supply comes from a hose some 100 meters away from the camp. People go there with barrels they fill and carry home.

These people have been living in the cattle barns for 12 years. Some people live in a tent, together with the whole family.They have had children born there and care for old invalided grandparents. A life one cannot imagine.

At the camp a young woman was carrying around her four-year-old daughter that has yet to take her first steps. She cannot walk. The young woman was devastated, she even visited the local administration saying that she would rather have died by an Armenian bullet than live a life like the one she lives. The answer was that if she wishes, she could be transported across the buffer zone whenever she wants.

Anywhere I appeared with my camera, being a foreigner, I brought so much hope to those people. They think that foreigners can do so much for them, change so much and I was heartbroken knowing that I could not do more than write a story about what I saw. If the government wishes for them to stay the way they are what can be done to persuade them to change their approach? The majority of Azeri people have never seen an IDP camp. I am afraid that the IDPs are slowly being forgotten.

Roses from the garden

My last visit was a bit happier. We went to a camp where new houses were built by an international NGO. Each family had a little house, disregarding whether there were two or eight people in the family, and a little garden.

The conditions were so much better than in the previous places but the people were still suffering. They suffered remembering the good life they had led before they were displaced! A life some of them may never return to.

I was getting ready to leave when this man came up to me. He looked a bit shabby, his face all wrinkled. Instead of starting to speak to me in Azeri he begins talking to me in Spanish! I could hardly believe it. I replied to him, really stunned and I learned that he had studied Spanish and Russian at the University and now he is a teacher at the local school. He was saying how much he misses having the opportunity to speak Spanish. He was so excited that before I left the camp he sent his granddaughter to cut me some roses from his garden. Roses that he grew himself.

One thing I will never forget these visits. The places where the people lived were hopeless. Many of the people felt totally worthless since they could not work and provide for their families, even though some were teachers, historians or scientists. But one thing they have never lost was their hospitality. I do not remember getting so many kisses on the cheek from the women around me as those I got in the camps. Warm kisses for the hope that I brought to their lives.

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