Azerbaijan's Displaced People Seek a New Life
Between the two lines of boxcars, a young woman wearing a headscarf is hanging clothes to dry, children play on the tracks while 70-year-old Alamgulu Guliyev sits on the narrow steps outside a wagon, lost in thought. Like many displaced families, Guliyev, a father of five, has been living in a windowless railroad car without water and utilities for nearly 10 years.
Nazanin Mikaylova stands proudly outside the tent she has been calling home for the past 10 years in the Galagayun refugee camp.
Far from the oil derricks that have mushroomed along the Caspian Sea, Saatli is a stark contrast to the bustle of Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, where the population is still hoping for a long-awaited oil boom that has so far eluded the country. Here, in this dry region close to Iran, where temperatures can reach both extremes, train cars and refugee camps lacking basic facilities have become quasi-permanent homes to thousands of Azeris. Guliyev does not talk much. However, he nods forcefully when asked if he still hopes to go back to the village he left behind when the conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno Karabakh territory escalated into a full-scale war in 1992.
For Azerbaijan, the timing of war with Armenia could not have been worse, coinciding with the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1991, as Azerbaijan was struggling with a transition to democracy and market economy, the war with Armenia that had started with violent clashes in 1988 reached catastrophic proportions. By the time a cease-fire was signed in 1994, the war had resulted in heavy casualties and nearly a million refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem, Azerbaijan's government sought help from the international community to provide emergency assistance. Tents, food and other emergency equipment were provided and refugee camps were created, but the number of displaced people was so large that thousands of them ended up squatting in old, disused trains, dug-outs and condemned apartment buildings.
Today, nearly 10 years later, little has changed. About 10 percent of Azerbaijan's population of seven million are still living in the shelters. To date no peace agreement has been signed. One-fifth of the country remains occupied by Armenia.
A half-an-hour drive from Saatli, the same quiet despair hangs over scattered refugee camps in the Sabirabat region where thousands of families still live in tents that were meant as temporary shelter at the height of the conflict with Armenia. "Come in, come in," says 100-year-old Nazanin Mikayilova, opening her damaged tent, repaired many times over, to welcome visitors into the tiny space that has been her home for the past eight years. Inside, a colourful carpet, a tiny bed and a water kettle are her most treasured possessions. Mikayilova is the oldest member of the internally displaced population living in the camp. A mother of seven, she is proud to be an active member of the Galagayun camp community. "Here, I am everybody's grandmother," she says with a smile.
While Mikayilova has witnessed the integration of Azerbaijan into the Soviet Union in 1922 and lived through its collapse in the early 1990s, most children born after 1988 in the Nagorno Karabakh region have known only life in camps. They attend a school run by displaced teachers and have limited interaction with the local population. Despite some progress in recent years, economic difficulties in Azerbaijan have exacerbated tensions between host communities and displaced people, as villages and cities are often unable to economically assimilate them. Internally displaced people are given a monthly allowance of 15,000 manats (US$3.50) by the government for bread and 9,000 manats ($2.10) for each child. Families are also eligible for 30 litres of kerosene during each of the five winter months.
The biggest challenge for the government and the international community is to move from humanitarian assistance to long-term development. In collaboration with the World Bank, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other partners, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) was among the first UN agencies to launch a reconstruction effort to allow displaced people to return home. UNDP played a crucial role in strengthening the capacity of the government by helping to establish the Azerbaijan Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency (ARRA).
In 1996, with $500,000 in seed money, UNDP started a pilot project to rebuild the severely damaged town of Horadiz located in the Fizuli district, where 65 percent of the town's homes were totally or partially destroyed after the Armenian withdrawal in 1994. UNDP allocated $2.9 million and the Government of Azerbaijan contributed $329,000 for reconstruction activities over a three-year period.
Today in Horadiz, destroyed or roofless buildings awaiting reconstruction stand alongside new houses already occupied by returnees. Some 350 homes and several public buildings have been rebuilt and more than 200 permanent jobs have been created. According to UNDP Resident Representative ad interim in Azerbaijan, Mustafa Ghulam, an additional 2,700 houses, in liberated villages throughout the Fizuli region, have been rehabilitated by ARRA and international non- governmental organizations.
While the initial approach of ARRA was to select the most vulnerable groups of people to return to Horadiz first, the sustainability of livelihoods for returnees had to be taken into account. Says Valeria Mustafayeva, UNDP project officer for reconstruction and rehabilitation in Azerbaijan, "The revitalization of the economy and the rehabilitation of the social infrastructure required a select group of professionals among returning people, including teachers, doctors and electricians."
Isulidin Jafarov is a young man who recently returned with his parents to help reconstruct his home in Horadiz. A former soldier, he now teaches music in the local school and has started an animal farm, with a UNDP loan of $500 administered through World Vision. "I am optimistic about the future," he says. "I am so happy to be back here. I know I will be able to expand my business and I am not going to sit and wait." Former cook and canteen manager Nizami Adygezalov recently started a furniture workshop with his son. "Business is good, I can barely keep up with my customers," says Adygezalov, who also received a UNDP loan and was able to hire three helpers. He plans to expand his workshop.
Eighteen women who were among the returnees are now working in a large room converted into a sewing workshop. Here, they are trained to make bed sheets and baby clothes. They are contracted by a local hospital and they also sell their products in the market. Most of them use their salaries to buy food for the family.
While the rehabilitation of Horadiz is clearly a success story, the task ahead remains daunting. Strategic development in Azerbaijan is now a top priority for UNDP and other UN agencies. UNDP allocates its core resources to three areas: strengthening democratic infrastructure, support for institutional transformation and economic reforms, and post-conflict reconstruction and development. "It is important to support the government's priority to assist IDPs and refugees by providing sound policy advice and moving away from short-term humanitarian assistance towards longer-term sustainable socio-economic assistance," says Ghulam. "We need to provide returnees with potential sources of income through employment generation and access to public services, so that people can get on with rebuilding their lives."
For Jafarov, Adygezalov and other returnees Horadiz is proof that there is life after the refugee camps. However, for the 700,000 IDPs and refugees like Guliyev and Mikayilova, who are still living in camps and railroad cars, they wait in hope to return home.
In his speech at the international conference on refugees and IDPs held recently in Baku, President Heidar Aliev called for continued support from the international community. "The perception that
Azerbaijan does not need international aid because of oil revenues is wrong," he said. "We need your assistance because we face a long process. Development cannot happen overnight.".
Françoise Gerber is a communications officer at the Communications Office, UNDP