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Azerbaijani Internally Displaced Persons are Waiting to Return to Their Homes

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Gazakhbeyli village in the Qazakh district of Azerbaijan is witnessing joyful moments these days. Azerbaijani IDPs from seven other villages of Qazakh, who were expelled from their homes by the Armenian Armed Forces 34 years ago, are eagerly waiting to return to their lands, which have been liberated after years of occupation, writes Konul Shahin, researcher at Ankara Policy Center.

The movement to unite Azerbaijan's Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast – NKAO with Armenia in the late 1980s escalated into a large-scale war between the two neighbouring South Caucasus countries, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Armenian Armed Forces occupied not only former NKAO but also seven surrounding districts of Azerbaijan where ethnic Armenians were not living.

More than 800,000 Azerbaijanis were expelled from their homes during this war, which resulted in the deaths of nearly 30,000 people on both sides and displaced over a million people. The occupation extended beyond the former Nagorno-Karabakh region and the seven adjacent districts.

Source: Topchubashov Center

In fact, the first village occupied by the Armenian armed forces was Baghanis Ayrum of the Gazakh district, which is not connected to Karabakh. More than 7,000 Azerbaijanis from the villages of Baghanis Ayrum, Ashagi Askipara, Gizilhajili, Kheyrimli (non-enclaves), Yukharı Askipara, Berkhudarli, and Sofulu (enclaves) in the Gazakh district, located on the border with Armenia, lost their homes due to the occupation.

In addition, Kerki village of Nakhchivan was occupied by Armenian armed forces since 1990.

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After the ceasefire agreement signed between Armenia and Azerbaijan through Russia on May 5, 1994, negotiations continued in various formats, but they did not yield any results. As a result of years of occupation, Azerbaijan's cities were destroyed, plundered, mined, and some areas were opened to illegal settlement for the Armenians coming from Syria, Lebanon, and Armenia.

The Second Karabakh War broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia in September 2020. By the ceasefire declaration signed in November 2020, Azerbaijan liberated most of the territories it had lost in the 1990s. Although the return of four Gazakh villages was initially included in the ceasefire declaration signed by the leaders of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Russia, this article was later removed from the document. 

Following the war, Azerbaijan and Armenia established border delimitation commissions to delineate the borders between the two countries. As a result of the efforts by the border delimitation commission led by Azerbaijani Deputy Prime Minister Shahin Mustafayev and Armenian Deputy Prime Minister Mher Grigoryan, and after months of negotiations, the four non-enclave villages of Gazakh—Ashagi Askipara, Gizilhajili, Kheyrimli, and Baghanis Ayrum—were returned to Azerbaijan on May 24.

Zarbali Khasayevq

"I don't miss house; house can be built anywhere. But I miss my homeland. When I think of my village, my life comes to mind. I spent my childhood in that village," says Zarbali Khasayev, an 85-year-old resident of Baghanis Ayrum.

Zarbali Khasayev now lives with his two daughters in temporary housing built for displaced people in Gazakhbeyli village of Gazakh. He painfully recalls the day he left his village. On March 24, 1990, Armenian armed forces attacked Baghanis Ayrum, a village of 450 people. During the attack, Zarbali Khasayev's sister's entire family was massacred and burned, including her two-month-old grandson. The surviving villagers were forced to settle in different parts of Gazakh. Over the 34 years of occupation, the village was plundered, and all the houses were destroyed.

“Our house was one of the new houses in the village. We had a big garden full of walnut trees,” remembers Zarbali Khasayev's daughter, Khanum. “I look at the photos of our village on the internet and I feel bad. There's not a trace left of our home or the garden,” she remarks with a heavy heart.

Khanum, who was in her twenties when their village was invaded and her aunt's family was massacred, continues to carry the trauma with her. She says she was worried about returning because their village is located on the border with Armenia.

Residents from these villages remember that relations with their Armenian neighbours in the border villages were good before the war. “Our house was close to the fields of the residents of the Armenian villages. Armenians working in the fields and gardens often came to us to drink water and tea. When it rained, they took shelter in our house,” recalls Khanum.

Savat Mammadova

Savat Mammadova, a resident of Ashagi Askipara, was 29 years old when she left the village where she was born and raised. She says that she spent the best days of her life in Ashagi Askipara village. After the village was occupied, she had to flee, leaving her house and belongings behind, and difficult days began for her and her young children. Mammadova is waiting for the day when she can return to her village.

“I want to go back to our village again and drink water from its rivers,” she says and her eyes fill with tears.

Savat Mammadova also recalls that before the war, relations with her neighbors in the border Armenian villages were good: “Our relations were very good. My husband had a bus, we were going to Armenia, we were bringing products from there to sell. They were coming to us and buying dairy products from us.”

Now she thinks it is difficult for those relations to be the same as they were before.

The agreement reached by the border delimitation commissions of Azerbaijan and Armenia on returning the four villages of Qazakh and determining the border was evaluated as a positive step by international organisations and many countries. European Council President Charles Michel stressed on his social media account that this is crucial for the stability of the region and the improvement of relations between the two countries.

Following the agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia regarding the return of four villages, protests that began in the Tavush region's Voskepar, Noyamberyan, and Kirants villages spread to the capital, Yerevan. Archbishop Bagrat Galstanyan of the Armenian Apostolic Church and the primate of the Diocese of Tavush, organised a large rally on 9 May 2024 in Republic Square, Yerevan, which was attended by nearly 30,000 people.

Bagrat Galstanyan, backed by main Armenian opposition parties, called for the resignation of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. During another rally on May 26, the archbishop reiterated his demand and expressed his readiness to become a prime minister candidate. However, Galstanyan's bid for office is constitutionally prohibited due to his dual citizenship—he holds Canadian citizenship in addition to Armenian citizenship.

Despite the protests, border demarcation in the sections of the Qazakh – Tavush border was successfully completed and border guards of both countries were deployed there. The delimitation of borders marks a significant step for the security of residents in the border villages of both countries, where tensions have long prevailed.

Azerbaijani IDPs from these villages also believe that they can safely return to their homes through this process. One of them is Ilhama Poladova who welcomes reached agreement.

Ilhama Poladova

When Ilhama Poladova, a resident of Baghanis Ayrum, was forced to leave her village, she not only left her home behind but also the grave of her 5-year-old daughter, Gulustan. Now, her daughter's photo adorns the wall in the temporary residence where she stays. Having lost her husband and other daughter a few years ago, Ilhama now resides in Gazakbeyli village with her grandchild. Her ultimate dream is to return to her village and the reconstruction the home she once had.

"A sip of water there was like medicine for us," Ilhama reminisces. She says peace is the best solution for the people of both countries: “They (the residents of the border Armenian villages) are also worried, and so are we. I wish for peace, so that everyone can sit peacefully at their home,” she adds.

  • Konul Shahin is a researcher at Ankara Policy Center and focuses especially on the developments in the South Caucasus countries, post-conflict normalisation, and the relations of these countries with Türkiye. Her articles published on BBC News Azerbaijan, Canadian Caspian Post, Baku Based Topchubashov Center, IDD of ADA University etc.

Pictures and text by Konul Shahin.

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