Long-Displaced Azerbaijanis Yearn to Return to Reclaimed Territory, but Challenges Remain

by Andrew Wright
Displaced Azerbaijanis

In his early years as a dentist, Nazim Valiyev was compelled to abandon his home due to escalating ethnic strife in a separatist enclave within Azerbaijan. Now, three decades later and with his dentistry career behind him following a stroke, the 60-year-old aspires to go back to his homeland, particularly since it has reverted to Azerbaijani governance.

However, the realization of his dream may yet be years away.

Valiyev is one of an estimated 700,000 Azerbaijanis who were either expelled or fled from the area they refer to as Karabakh, a region that saw the eruption of violent conflict in 1988, eventually escalating into full-blown war.

The initial conflict concluded in 1994, leaving the region under the dominion of ethnic Armenian forces backed by their adjacent country. A subsequent military engagement in 2020 saw Azerbaijan reclaim much of the territory, and a swift military campaign last month compelled the Armenian separatists to cede what remained of the area, internationally recognized as Nagorno-Karabakh.

Soon after the Armenian surrender, waves of ethnic Armenians exited the area, reducing its population drastically. A United Nations mission that surveyed the area in early October indicated that the population may have dwindled to as few as 1,000, a stark contrast to the 120,000 residents just a month earlier.

This rapid turn of events invigorated the spirits of those who had been displaced years ago and who longed to revisit the region’s lush forests and towering mountains.

Bahar Aliguleyeva, recalling her youthful days in the capital city of Karabakh, Khankendi—known as Stepanakert to Armenians—stated, “The news that Azerbaijan had regained control over the city I had left in 1988 was initially hard to believe. It felt as though I was suspended between the past and the present, yet it opened up a pathway to happiness.”

Valiyev, the former dentist, contemplates his return daily but acknowledges the complexities involved. “I understand that repatriation will not occur swiftly,” he said.

In 2022, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev initiated a program called “The Great Return to Azerbaijan’s Liberated Territories,” aimed at the resettlement of the displaced. The plan outlines infrastructural development, residential construction, and meticulous, unhurried efforts to demine the region.

This year, Azerbaijan has allocated approximately $3.1 billion for reconstruction endeavors in the territory. According to Fuad Huseynov of the State Committee for Affairs of Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, only around 2,000 have returned so far, but the objective is to repatriate 10,000 individuals by year’s end, and 150,000 by 2027.

“Landmines present a significant barrier,” Huseynov stated. “Areas that had been under Armenian control for three decades were not only virtually decimated but were also laced with explosives and other unexploded ordnance.” Since the 2020 conflict, landmines and other explosives have killed at least 65 people and injured another 267 in areas formerly controlled by Armenians, as reported by Azerbaijan’s Mine Action Agency.

If Aliguleyeva, Valiyev, and other displaced residents manage to return, they may face emotionally challenging discoveries. Aliguleyeva is uncertain if her childhood residence still stands, and Valiyev’s family home was incinerated in 1988, although a separate structure housing his dental equipment remained intact. Both, however, are eager to return.

Valiyev expressed, “My granddaughter, who is five, loves hearing about my Karabakh childhood and wishes to grow up there as well. We and the Armenians need to commence a new chapter, no matter the challenges. Lifelong hostility must be left behind.”

However, surmounting the long-standing enmity could be even more challenging than the reconstruction of war-ravaged structures. Both Valiyev and Aliguleyeva recount amicable relations with Armenian neighbors in the past but also remember the fear that ethnic violence instilled in them.

Azerbaijan has consistently assured that the rights of ethnic Armenians choosing to remain in the area will be upheld. Nevertheless, Human Rights Watch warns that these promises may be hard to take at face value, given the prolonged periods of severe hardships, decades of hostilities, and a worsening human rights situation in Azerbaijan.

Contributed by Jim Heintz in Tallinn, Estonia.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Displaced Azerbaijanis

What is the main focus of the article?

The article primarily focuses on Azerbaijanis who were displaced from the Karabakh region due to ethnic conflict and their aspirations to return following recent changes in territorial control. It examines both individual stories and government policies aimed at facilitating their return.

Who is Nazim Valiyev?

Nazim Valiyev is a 60-year-old Azerbaijani who was displaced from the Karabakh region more than three decades ago. Initially starting his career as a dentist, he was forced to flee due to ethnic strife. Valiyev hopes to return to the area now that it is under Azerbaijani control.

What government program aims to help displaced Azerbaijanis return?

The Azerbaijani government initiated a program in 2022 called “The Great Return to Azerbaijan’s Liberated Territories.” This program outlines infrastructural development, residential construction, and demining efforts to facilitate the resettlement of displaced persons.

How much has Azerbaijan allocated for reconstruction in the region?

Azerbaijan has allocated approximately $3.1 billion for reconstruction projects in the Karabakh region for the current year.

What challenges do displaced Azerbaijanis face upon returning?

Displaced Azerbaijanis face a range of challenges including emotional and psychological factors, the presence of landmines, and ongoing ethnic tensions. There are also questions about the practicality and speed of the government’s resettlement plans.

What is the significance of landmines in the area?

Landmines present a significant obstacle to the resettlement efforts. Since the 2020 war, at least 65 people have been killed and another 267 injured by mines and other unexploded ordnance in territories once held by Armenians.

What stance does Human Rights Watch take regarding the return of displaced Azerbaijanis?

Human Rights Watch cautions that Azerbaijani government promises to respect the rights of ethnic Armenians who choose to stay in the reclaimed territories are difficult to take at face value. This skepticism is due to prolonged periods of severe hardships, decades of hostilities, and a deteriorating human rights record in Azerbaijan.

What is the targeted number of people the government aims to return by the end of the year and by 2027?

According to Fuad Huseynov of the State Committee for Affairs of Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, the government aims to return 10,000 displaced individuals by the end of the current year and 150,000 by 2027.

More about Displaced Azerbaijanis

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Timothy Clark October 15, 2023 - 2:38 pm

Nazim Valiyev’s story is just one among many, but it puts a face on the issue. Heart goes out to him and his fam. The struggle is real, but hope is what keeps us going, I guess.

John Doe October 15, 2023 - 10:26 pm

Wow, what an in-depth piece. It’s really hard to grasp the emotional toll on people who’ve been displaced for decades. The political landscape may have changed but the human story remains the same. Heartbreaking and hopeful at the same time.

Alex Brown October 15, 2023 - 10:42 pm

Honestly, I’m a bit skeptical bout these government programs. Infrastructure and resettlement are great on paper, but what about the human rights side of things? HRW’s got a point.

Emily Smith October 16, 2023 - 3:21 am

Couldn’t believe how long this issue has been going on. And the landmines? That’s terrifying. how can you even think of going back to a place that’s basically a minefield.

Sarah Johnson October 16, 2023 - 5:42 am

It’s crazy how things can change overnight. One day its in Armenian control, next day Azerbaijan takes over. What does that mean for the people who lived there? So much complexity. The article does a good job explaining though.

Mike Williams October 16, 2023 - 7:41 am

Really appreciate the numbers and stats in this. Makes the article credible. But man, 2027 is a long way away for the people who wanna return home.


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