BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) – As Azerbaijan regains control of the land it lost to Armenian forces a quarter of a century ago, civilians who fled the fighting decades ago are wondering ‘they can go home now – and if there is still a home to go back to.
An estimated 600,000 Azerbaijanis were displaced in the war of the 1990s which left the Nagorno-Karabakh region under the control of ethnic Armenian separatists and large adjacent territories in the hands of Armenia. In six weeks of renewed fighting this fall that ended on November 10, Azerbaijan retook parts of Nagorno-Karabakh itself and large swathes of outlying areas.
More territory is returned as part of the ceasefire agreement that ended the last fighting. But as Azerbaijani forces discovered when the first area, Aghdam, was delivered on Friday, much of the land reclaimed is uninhabitable. The city of Aghdam, where 50,000 people once lived, is now in ruins.
Adil Sharifov, 62, who left his hometown in 1992 during the first war and lives in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, knows he will find similar devastation if he returns to the city of Jabrayil, which ‘he aspires to do.
Jabrayil is one of the peripheral regions recaptured by Azerbaijani troops before the end of recent fighting. Shortly after he was taken, one of Sharifov’s cousins went there and told him that the city had been destroyed, including the large house with an orchard where Sharifov’s family once lived.
Nevertheless, “the day of my return, there will be the greatest happiness for me”, he declared.
For years, he said, his family had been following Jabrayil news on the internet. They knew the destruction was terrible, but Sharifov’s late mother held a desperate hope that their house had been spared and kept the keys.
“I’m going to build an even better house,” he promised.
Ulviya Jumayeva, 50, can return under better, but not ideal, circumstances to her native Shusha, a town that Azerbaijani forces captured in the key offensive of the six-week war.
His younger brother, Nasimi, took part in the battle and telephoned to tell him that the apartment their family fled in 1992 was intact, although for the most part stripped of family property.
“According to him, it is clear that the Armenians lived there after us, then they took everything. But our big mirror in the hallway, which we loved to look at when we were kids, stays, ”Jumayeva said, adding:“ Maybe my grandchildren will look at themselves in this mirror. “
“We all have houses in Baku, but everyone considered them not to be permanent, because all these years we have lived in the hope of returning to Shusha,” she said. “Our hearts, our thoughts have always been in our hometown. “
But she admitted that her feelings towards the Armenians became more bitter.
“My school friends were mostly Armenians. I never treated ordinary Armenians badly, believing that their criminal leaders who started the war were to blame for the slaughter, the war and the grief they also brought to their people, ”Jumayeva said.
But after the current events, after the bombing of peaceful towns … after the Armenians who are now leaving our territories, which are even outside Karabakh, set fire to the homes of Azerbaijanis in which they were illegally living … something fractured in me. I changed my attitude towards them, “she said.” I understood that we Azerbaijanis will not be able to live in peace alongside the Armenians. “
Although Sharifov has less to come back to, he has a more moderate opinion, saying that the two ethnic groups with different religious traditions still have the potential to live together amicably.
“If the Armenians observe the laws of Azerbaijan and do not behave like bearded men who come to kill, then we will live in peace,” he said. “The time to shoot is over. Enough casualties. We want peace, we do it. Don’t want war.
Associated Press editors Aida Sultanova in London and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this story.