The Wall Street Journal published a report about Azerbaijani refugees and internally displaced persons who dream of returning to their native lands. The report entitled ‘Azeris Wrestle Over Return to Abandoned Towns, Decades After First Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict With Armenia’ was prepared by Ann M. Simmons, the Wall Street Journal’s Moscow Bureau Chief.
It should be noted that Simmons has spent more than 25 years reporting from Europe, Africa, the Middle East and North America, and most recently was a writer/editor covering global development at the Los Angeles Times. A longtime student of Russia, she served in Moscow for Time Magazine before joining the LA Times and moving to Africa to work as bureau chief in Nairobi and Johannesburg. Born and raised in London, Ann holds a double honors bachelor’s degree in Russian and Norwegian from the University of East Anglia and a master’s from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
The report has a large number of photographs by Polish photographer Justyna Mielnikiewicz, who has devoted her professional career and private life to the Caucasus. Before she left for Georgia in 2001, she had worked as a photo reporter for Gazeta Wyborcza from 1999. Since moving to Tbilisi in 2002, she has remained in constant contact with the paper’s editors and Polish photographic circles, but now works freelance. The main focus of her first projects was the Southern Caucasus, though she is also drawn to the communities of other former states of the Soviet Union (Moldova, Russia) as well as the Near East (Turkey, Iran).
We present this report to the attention of our readers.
Some 30 years on from the war that saw Armenian forces drive hundreds of thousands of Azeris from their homes in and around the conflict-torn enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, many hope they can soon return after Azerbaijan regained much of the surrounding area in a counteroffensive last fall.
But for Sayali Pashayeva, and others like her, that dream is clouded by questions such as where they would live in the rubble-strewn border territories, and whether they could realistically carve out a new livelihood upon their return.
“I thank God for allowing me the possibility of returning to die on my own land,” said Mrs. Pashayeva, 74 years old, on her first visit back to Agdam, once home to her family and 40,000 other people. Her son and daughter unfurled a red rug from the trunk, a gift for the local mosque, the only building left standing here, about 3½ miles from the border with Nagorno-Karabakh, still officially under the control of ethnic-Armenians. The capital there, Stepanakert, is monitored by Russian peacekeepers.
“For 30 years, we have waited for this moment,” Mrs. Pashayeva’s son, Alastun Pashayev, 45, said. Azerbaijan secured control Agdam and several other regions in and around the disputed enclave during a bloody six-week battle before Russia brokered a cease-fire in November.
Actually returning won’t be easy. Mr. Pashayev says he knows his $135-a-month in disability payments and pension paid to displaced people won’t be enough to reclaim the life he lost in Agdam three decades ago, when he was still a child.
The scale of the rebuilding required means the Azeri government budget is stretched, too. Tahir Mirkisili, chairman of an economic planning and business committee in the Azeri parliament, says that over 150,000 homes were destroyed in the areas Azerbaijan recaptured last year, along with 9,000 public buildings, including 700 schools.
Land mines and unexploded ordnance still pepper the landscape. With rail and airport infrastructure long destroyed, the only way in is by road, making it harder to restore public services and rebuild shattered towns.
Yet feelings of nostalgia and patriotism run deep among many Azeris who fled the region and have since struggled to make their way in other parts of Azerbaijan.
The Pashayevs lived in a two-story home in Agdam. The living room measured almost 200 square feet, Mr. Pashayev said. They had a vineyard that yielded up to 15 tons of grapes a year and raised cows and sheep. His father worked as a long-distance truck driver, earning enough to buy land and build a home for each of his nine children.