Fuzuli to Baku, Mr Aliyev’s story
Disclaimer: The reader should read this as an account of history. Having travelled in the Caucuses for a number of years and spent time in all the countries this is a recorded account from a neutral observer and journalist. The following is an account from an interview on 23/12/15 with an Azerbaijani IDP (Internally Displaced Person).
The off-white Lada we had been driving in, bumped up and down as we entered the pot hole riddled road leading to the site where some of the IDP population live on the outskirts of Baku. To the left and right a mesh of old wood and corrugated iron form small shops and open faced stalls. Meat hanging on hooks is displayed at the window of one while on others vegetables and sweets are on sale. The street was busy with people socialising and going about their daily routine. Around twenty years ago the IDP occupants of this accommodation had houses and businesses in what is now land under military occupation. They had lived in places where only Armenian military personnel and a deadly mix of trenches, barbed wire and mines can be found today.
Between the row of stalls on either side eventually we came to a large, two door gate with rusting hinges and faded military looking, flaking, olive green paint. This old student accommodation, originally designed for students of Baku University, has homed for the last twenty years hundreds of the IDP population. A representative of the state committee for refugees and IDPs was at the wheel. He skilfully navigated the dumps and divots and steered the car to a gentle halt in the court yard in the middle of three oppressive looking housing blocks. Getting out of the car the scene was reminiscent of refugee housing in the Middle East, Balkans and Europe. The greying, weathered walls were parted at regular intervals by balconies with a mixture of wooden beams and iron supports, stopping the smoking occupants from falling. Washing lines hanging between the buildings carried an impressive array of clothing and the traditional Azerbaijani women’s skirts with elaborate colours stood out among the faded jeans and children’s shirts.
Standing in the car park the representative of the Refugee and IDP State Committee explained, through the help of the interpreter, what the situation was here and what they were able to do. We began to talk about how long the building had been used for housing the IDP population and what the government plans to do in the future. Whilst in conversation next to the car a woman approached us, curious to see what was going on and what the man from the state committee was saying to the obvious foreigner. Other faces could be seen looking with wide eyes between the door ways and from balconies.
Eventually we went into one of the buildings to speak to a member of the IDP community, Mr Abbas Aliyev. The room Mr Aliyev led us to was incredible warm, which can only have been an asset in the cold months of an Azerbaijani winter. Mr Aliyev motioned to take a seat at a rustic table with four chairs around it. In a corner of the room a pile of mattresses and bedding was neatly arranged with a brightly covered blanket draped over it. The bed was immaculately arranged and sat perfectly in this Caucasus- styled room. The walls with textured green wall paper blended well with the red silk curtains hanging above the window, and above the bed an impressive looking old clock which looked like a nice trinket from a bygone Soviet era. You could imagine that clock hanging above somebodies’ office in a soviet bureau or a regional office.
We made small talk with Mr Aliyev elaborating on his situation saying he had been living in this room with his family since we he was forced to leave his home in Fuzuli over twenty years ago. He shared the room with seven others and luckily, because the government does not charge for the heating, they are able to stay warm. After a cup of tea Mr Aliyev braced himself to tell me his story. His wife and two other ladies stood to the side weeping quietly into handkerchiefs as he began to tell me what had brought them from Fuzuli to Baku.
I grew up in Fuzuli, in a large house that my grandparents had built. My family line stretches back to that place too long for me to describe to you in one day. I was from a large family with several siblings who are now all over Azerbaijan and some who have passed away. My childhood in Fuzuli was similar to so many other Azerbaijanis living in that area. We all had houses and our parents worked various jobs in the town. In the Soviet times people of working age would have a job and a salary, we were always lucky in that we could survive and live a decent life. Growing up I went to the local school with both Azerbaijani children and a few children of Armenian families. We were all friends, we shared a life together in many ways, there were various mixed marriages. The Armenians in Fuzuli were a small minority and were almost all married to Azerbaijanis, other Armenians used to travel from Stepanakert to Fuzuli to trade and socialise with friends in the town. Fuzuli at its north west tip went into what is Nagorno-Karabakh, and on this tip there were a few Armenians living.
After I finished school I did my basic military service which was required under the Soviets and then I began to do various jobs over the years. I mostly worked on collective farms and eventually I worked as an accountant for one of the collectives in Fuzuli. There were several shops all under the direction of the collective, each village and town had several shops and each had at least three employees. It was my job to manage the accounts of these shops. In Soviet times you see, the food, materials and almost everything people needed was distributed to regional centres and then spread across the territory through a system of collectives. We had all we needed and that was that. Nearly every house had a garden where people would grow different fruit and vegetables. It was a good life, we shared everything with our neighbours and they with us.
In my early twenties I married and started a family. Luckily we lived in a large house so it wasn’t a crowded situation. I raised a son and two daughters in that house. We lived together with my parents and grandparents. By the time the troubles had started my parents and grandparents had passed away. I am thankful they never experienced what happened in the years from 1987-1994. It became apparent by 1987 that the Soviet Union was beginning to collapse. They were giving more and more autonomy to countries under its control and in turn down to a regional and local level. As an accountant I noticed only slight differences, some items of food were becoming less common. However, these were replaced by others. Some things we ordered would arrive later than expected or not at all. We had heard only whisperings of these so-called ethnic tensions in Nagorno-Karabakh but to be honest in Fuzuli I never experienced any of this. That is what surprised me most, we all got along well. I had good Armenian friends and we would have them round for meals and we would travel to dine with them. In 1988 I heard from a colleague that the regional soviet of Nagorno-Karabakh had had an illegal vote and decided that they wanted Nagorno-Karabakh to join the Soviet Republic of Armenia. I was shocked to say the least; why would they do such a thing. They were happy! We were happy! What was the need to change? It seemed ridiculous, under the Soviets we all received the same and even if things were organised under an Azerbaijani system or Armenian system things would remain much the same. Both the Azerbaijanis and Armenians had history in Nagorno-Karabakh, it was a shared history. Gorbachev had told the Armenians that nothing would change with Nagorno-Karabakh, it was the land of Azerbaijan and would stay as such.
As I later came to understand this was part of an Armenian nationalistic drive by the government in Yerevan. In Yerevan they saw an opportunity to increase the borders of Armenia and were going to take that chance. After that vote the situation was beginning to deteriorate. We heard on the radio of two youths killed by Karabakh police officers, the names were obviously Azeri and the police obviously Armenian. We began to wonder if all this tension was true, and if it was why had we not experienced anything ourselves. The sporadic fights between Azeri and Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh began to escalate but we were untouched, living a normal life. In the evenings we would gather round the radio and hear troubling news but refuse to think it would ever reach us. The Soviet Union had been collapsing and we thought that once we are completely independent as Azerbaijanis we would have greater opportunities to start or grow our own businesses. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 the Soviet troops stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh, we had heard, were selling off everything they had, weapons, trucks and anything that they could. I think all of them just wanted to go home, they were from all over Russia and to them the Caucasus region was not their home it was just where they had been sent. The Armenians were always treated more favourably by the Russians; this was obvious after Black January. We had heard about the riots in Sumgait and the events of Black January and were concerned what would eventually happen in our area.
In June 1993 we began to worry. The reports we heard were more and more troubling, the Armenians and Azerbaijani were apparently in a full blown war. Our Armenian friends began to become distant and we hadn’t seen them for a couple of months, later our friends explained why, with several letters sent from Russia. We began to hear artillery in the distance and received warning from Azeri military that they suspected an attack on Fuzuli to be imminent. We began to make preparations for leaving just in case. Putting basic food provisions to one side and packing a bundle of items which we could carry in case we had to leave quickly. It was difficult to decide what to take, the whole house was full of memories and valuables. We had heard how other Azeri’s had left their homes and the Armenian military had either looted the houses, destroyed them, or both. Finally, on August 22nd 1993 we made the decision that we had to leave. Tanks, heavy artillery and Armenian military personnel were beginning to mass a few miles outside of the town and it was obvious they would attempt to take the town. I would have joined the army to defend my land but I was too old at that point, an old man like me would not have stood a chance against what was about to be thrown at the town.
We left so much in the house it doesn’t bear thinking about. We joined everybody else in a column of civilians, all carrying everything they could, some in cars, some on horses and the rest on their backs. My sister’s husband stayed to fight and was killed in the fighting. We never found out how he died, whether it was a sniper, artillery or in close combat. The Armenians burnt his body. Denying him a proper burial or any way to identify the body. We travelled through day and night hauling our possessions as we headed east. There wasn’t a plan really, we just moved with everybody else as fast as possible. We had heard of what happened at Khojaly and were terrified that we might suffer a similar fate if we couldn’t get to safety fast enough.
My family and I were lucky, we bumped into an old friend who drove us to Baku. We bundled all our stuff in his car and all squeezed in on top of one another and drove through the early hours until we arrived in Baku. Arriving in Baku it was a scene I’ll never forget. The streets were full of people from all over Azerbaijan. The government was pushed to their limits, they quickly set up tent camps for some of the people and others began to build shelters wherever they could.
Getting a lift to Baku had helped me and my family a lot, we were able to get into some old student housing, which you see now. It was difficult to adjust because we had come from a large house with a beautiful garden and we had everything we needed. Times were difficult for the first few years, not just for us but for everybody. Azerbaijan had just got its independence and we were starting a new life as a nation. The old supply links with Russia were mostly gone, food was in high demand and in terms of finding a job it was difficult. Eventually we got on with normal life, I found a job working in a factory and my children continued school in Baku. The huge number of people displaced by the war was almost too much to imagine, all these people wanted to return as soon as possible. We started to understand that the Armenians had destroyed everything as they advanced, so even if we could return what would we find?
We wanted to return and rebuild our house and life. In 1994 our heart sank when the ceasefire was announced. The Armenians have since dug themselves in, not just in Nagorno-Karabakh but all over the seven surrounding parts of Azerbaijan. Towards the end of the 1990’s we received a letter with a Russian stamp on the envelope. To open the letter was something special, we had wondered what happened to our Armenian friends. In the letter, our friends had sent us information about how they were, where they were living now in Russia and how they missed us. The letter was a relief, it showed us our neighbours hadn’t turned on us at all. They were forced to break contact with us due to pressure from others. In further letters they explained what had happened to the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians who had refused to fight the Azeri population of Nagorno-Karabakh. Some of the local representatives who didn’t share the Armenian nationalist ideology were removed if you know what I mean by ASALA (the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia). Our friends confirmed our beliefs that it wasn’t our neighbours who had so enthusiastically forced us into exile and destroyed our houses. It was those in Yerevan and the Armenia diaspora who came in droves from Lebanon, Syria, Russia, France, America and where ever else.
We still write regularly to our friends in Russia and hope one day to visit them. When everything is made good again we will be in our land and they will be able to visit again, just like old times. For now, we make do, the government helps us with bread money and with our pensions we scrape by. We have everything we need to survive but we miss our land. If there is one thing that I think about every day, it is how I used to tend to the fruit trees in the garden and enjoy so much cropping the fruit in the summer months. I can tell you that there is only one thing that the whole of the refugee population in Azerbaijan want and that is to return to our land. If the current administration in Armenia is removed from power we have a chance at a peaceful resolution to this problem, if not then I’m not sure what will happen. I’m an old man now but I still have my dreams and that is to see my motherland again.