12 years of loosing hope... !!
A story with no end. Conflict that has escalated some 14 years ago, followed by ceasefire accord that has been signed 11 years ago left over 800 000 people without homes; people that had to be internally displaced due to a war that took place in their homeland. The territory that has been occupied does not include solely Nagorno Karabakh region but also 6 other regions that surround NK. The whole occupied territory without NK accounts to 15% of the total territory of Azerbaijan! A territory that no Azerbaijani person has visited for more than 11 years.
"Even Hitler when he occupied The Czech republic, left the people to live in their homes and did not clean up the whole occupied territory of all the locals like it happened in Azerbaijan!" I was told.
Due to the conflict Azerbaijan was "blessed" with number of humanitarian and relief organizations that came to the country to help overcome the impacts of war; mainly, to support the IDPs (Internally displaced person) to cope with their new unbearable lifes.
Years have passed. The humanitarian organizations have slowly started to change their scope of work; focusing on development assistance instead of humanitarian and relief aid. Quite a logical step... at least it would seem like it if there would be no more IDPs living in cow sheds and holes digged in ground. Some organizations work on rehabilitation of the houses which were freed, the problem is that the area has no infrastructure any longer so even if the IDP moves home, he cannot live there, as there is no work, no food, no means for life.
Though everyone still hopes. IDPs hope to get back to their homeland and government hopes the occupied territory will be freed. Days past and turn into years. And it seems pointless to build new homes for the homeless people as there might come a moment when they all will get to go where they have come from. And so people wait, some in dorms, some in newly build houses, some in brick sheds, some in cow sheds, some in digged out holes... However, the government made a promise that by the end of this year, all the IDP camps will dissapear.
I got the opportunity to visit the Fisuli region. It is to the south from NK and borders with Iran. This region is from 80% occupied. The IDP camps can be found already few kilometers away from the buffer zone. Most of the IDPs do come from the Fisuli region, so their home is so close but so far away.
I understood that it is forbidden to visit the IDP camps, but since it is just before the parliament elections, the rules eased up a bit and thus the visits are somehow possible.
My first stop was in Ali Bayramli. The dorm houses are full of IDPs. Each family has one room where they live and usually share one tiny kitchen that is placed at each floor. As I entered all the people turned up and started to complain and show me the conditions in which they live. The walls and ceilings are slowly rottening, leaving the rooms damp which makes it hard to breathe, wooden floors are falling apart, balconies should be forbidden to use as they don't seem to want to last much longer. And all the people trapped inside are loosing their hope.
Most of the men are unemployed having no possibility to feed their families. Some men at least repaired the room in which their family lives, other families where they have no possibility of doing so simply live in rotten walls covered with carpets. Women cook and bake their own bread while carrying around their little babies. What a situation to born a child to. But there is no other choice.
From Ali Bayramli we headed further eastwards. Close to the city of Imishli we visited first IDP camp; hundreds of little sheds cramped next to each other build out of clay bricks and reed. When passing by we could see most of the men simply sitting around, drinking their teas. I am afraid some of the men do that every single day. There is also no work for them.
Though some did find a way, they run a shop, or make clay bricks and sell them and hope for no rain as the rain can melt their several day work back into mud.
The trip continued to Imishli. There are few block of houses that are settled by IDPs as well as sheds right across the street from the houses. Seems the "lucky" ones get the house.
As soon as I took my first photo I became the star. I could not make a step without having ten little children running behind me. As soon as I focused my camera some little kid would jump into my view to be on the picture. When I decided to take photo of the bunch of them, I would need to make a step backwards to fit them all in the picture but in that moment those at the back would run up front to be closer to the camera. :o)
Later I was taken by one old woman to come and see her place. Her face was so wrinkled and so exhausted it was unbearable to look at her. She was alone living in two room flat. First thing I spotted was that there was endless amount of mosquitoes everywhere. I hardly could stand there and listen as I was constantly annoyed by the little beasts. But then I got stunned, the room that she showed me used as kitchen and storage room did not have any 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 her being an old woman of 76 years old, she could hardly change it herself. The other room was less horrible but the mosquitoes managed to prevent the woman to rest for days.
There were no showers in other flats or sheds on that matter. So there would be common showers for I guess hundreds of people and common toilets. The drainage was an open discharge (koryto) where would be a still water full of garbage. The used water had no where to flow off and created a little lake 5 meters away from the common showers, next to the shed camp.
The area around the houses is full of garbage. That is what disappointed me the most. People have really poor conditions to live but they would use windows as bins. Already little children would throw covers of their biscuits on the ground. I could not believe that the people there do not realize that it is in their power to at least keep the place clean and improve somewhat the conditions of living! Their children play every single day around the streets full of garbage, close to the still water of the drainage.
I was invited to talk to three young girls there. One of them spoke some Russian and was telling me she is to be married soon and that she will move to Baku, away from that place. She hated the rainy weather there as well as the life itself. Well I hope she will be happy in Baku.
We left Imishli at night. Still having the next day to see some more of the IDP camps.
In the morning we arrived to an area where people live in cow sheds (kolxoz). They have their little tents build in the sheds and sometimes share them with cows or some other animals. They have some electricity, but the water supply is only from one hose some 100 meters away from the camp where they need to come with barrels that they fill and carry back home. These people have been living in the cow sheds for 12 YEARS! They have one tent where the whole family lives, they born new children there, care for old invalid grandparents. A life one cannot imagine.
There has been one young woman carrying around her 4 year daughter that has never yet managed to make a single step. She cannot walk. The woman was devastated, she even visited the local administration saying she should have rather died by some Armenian bullet than live a life like that. The answer was that if she wishes, she can be transported across the buffer zone anytime.
The worst was though that anywhere I appeared with my camera, being a foreigner there, I brought so much hope to those people. They think that foreigners can do so much, change so much and I was heartbroken knowing that I cannot 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 the approach? Majority of Azerbaijani people have never seen a single IDP camp. I am afraid that IDPs have slowly been forgotten.
My last visit was bit happier. We went to a camp where new houses were built by one of the international NGO. Each family had a little house, though no matter if the family consisted of 2 or 8 people, and a little garden. The conditions were so much better than in the previous places but the people were still suffering. They suffered remembering what life they led before they were displaced! Life that might for some of them never come back.
I was waiting to leave when this man comes to me. He looked bit shabby, face all wrinkled and instead of starting his speech in Azerbaijani he talks to me in Spanish! I could hardly believe it. I replied him, really stunned and I found out he 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 about the visits. The places where people lived were hopeless, many of the people felt totally worthless as they could not work (some were teachers, historians, artists etc.) but one thing they never lost and that was their hospitability. I do not remember getting so many kisses from women around me like I got in the camps. Warm kisses for the hope that I brought to their lives.