A painful limbo: displaced Azerbaijanis tell their stories

More than ten years after the Azeri-Armenian conflict came to an end, there are still 800,000 displaced people and refugees in Azerbaijan - one of the largest groups of internally displaced people in the world in per capita terms.

The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the mountainous enclave of Nagorno Karabakh was a front-page story; journalists flocked to cover it and the international community united to resolve it.

After more than five years of intermittent fighting, the war dragged to a halt in 1994 with a ceasefire but no peace settlement. As a result, the people it displaced still live in a painful limbo, no longer the focus of the world's attention.

Here, four of them tell their stories to WFP public information officer Mia Turner.

Adil Garayev's Story

Five thousand old train carriages scattered around Azerbaijan have become homes to survivors of the Azeri-Armenian conflict. Adil Garayev describes the horrendous living conditions and remembers the good old days before the war.

Adil Garayev lives with his family in car 240 on Track 12, outside the railway station in Imishli.

They have been living here since 1993, when Armenian troops forced them to flee Horovly village in the now occupied Jabrayil district.


"We had everything there," Adil recalls nostalgically, leaning against the rusty cattle car that has become his home.

"We didn't have to buy anything because we grew all our own fruit and vegetables. If I needed money, I simply sold a cow," he says, his creased face making him appear older than his 44 years.


But on 23 August 1993, Adil lost everything.

"The Armenian soldiers came and just began to shoot and we began to run," he recalls.

"We had friends among the Armenians. We used to stay in each other's homes. There was no border between us," he adds, still apparently confused about how things could have changed so suddenly.


Today Adil is one of 500 displaced people living in 382 wagons in the railway community of Imishli, a small city in southern Azerbaijan.

They are part of a total population of over 800,000 displaced people, representing one of the highest concentrations of displaced people per capita in the world.


Many of the displaced live in some 5,000 old railway carriages scattered around Azerbaijan, and the living conditions are horrendous.

Residents must deal with the regular grinding sounds of trains on other tracks. The metal carriages that are their homes are not only overcrowded, but suffer frequent electricity cuts and have no running water.

They are also suffocatingly hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter.


Most of the train-car residents are sitting under the carriages on Track 12 to escape the sun.

"In the summertime the heat is so bad that we have to wait until evening to enter the carriages. We're like fried chickens being roasted in an oven," complains Muzaffar Khanaliyev, 65, another Track 12 resident.

And with no jobs to be had, there is no money to spend on easing the discomfort.


To help them survive, WFP provides them with food rations including flour, vegetable oil, pulses and salt. Sugar was once also included but funding shortages mean it has been dropped from the food basket.

Since 1994, WFP has provided 90,000 metric tons of food to assist over 500,000 people affected by the conflict.

And a recent WFP food security and nutrition report - the first of its kind in Azerbaijan - warned that nearly 300,000 of the 800,000 Azerbaijanis displaced by the conflict with Armenia will continue to rely heavily on food aid for the foreseeable future.


But to continue its assistance, WFP desperately needs more funds.

The US$21 million, three-year operation, which began in January 2003, is currently underfunded by US$5.6 million.

Due to the lack of resources, WFP was forced to suspend nearly all assistance for one month. Existing stocks are sufficient to last until August 2005, but by September there will be a shortage of all commodities.


Moreover, with the plight of the displaced people of Nagorno Karabakh no longer in the public eye, the situation of the survivors gets worse.

While no survey has yet been done with regards to malnutrition, many of the children look dangerously small for their age.

Without work, there is no money to buy fresh fruit and vegetables, say the parents. And there is no money for planning events such as marriages.


"I worry about the young generation. We have 30-year-olds who still have no money, no homes and little chance to get married," says Rustamov Eyyub, once the proud representative of Gumlakh village and now the inhabitant of a dilapidated wagon.

Eyyub fled his home along with 2,000 other villagers. He went to Iran and then on to Imishli, where he now lives with 12 family members in a train carriage.


"I was a worker in the days of the former Soviet Union. I had an eight-room home, 40 sheep and a job. It was good. Now I live in a wagon," he adds, dragging heavily on a cheap cigarette.

"We have food, and in winter we have oil for heating, so in general we are in good spirits," he says with a shrug.

"But a wagon is a wagon," he adds wearily.


The displaced people of Nagorno Karabakh are a worry for the young Azerbaijani state.

While oil resources have grown in recent years and the government has set up an oil fund that has reached US$1.2 billion, this is a country that is still grappling with massive poverty.


Nearly 50 percent of the population is impoverished and 37 percent live in extreme poverty.

Most of the survivors of the Azeri-Armenian conflict live in the countryside, where poverty is endemic.

The government is trying to take over some of the caseload from humanitarian agencies, but WFP continues to assist nearly 130,000 of the most impoverished.


While they appreciate WFP's help, the train-dwellers of Imishli have not given up on the hope that their stay on the tracks is temporary.

"At the moment we can't live without WFP's assistance, but I also live with the hope that one day we will be going home," says Adil.

Miriam's Story

A school has brought hope to the community in Fizuli camp for displaced people, but with no chance of employment or further education, there is increasing frustration among the youngsters growing up there. The future for 10-year-old Miriam looks bleak.

Miriam lives in Fizuli camp, amid the lush plains of Fizuli district, over three hundred kilometres southwest of Azerbaijan's capital Baku.

At ten years old she is small for her age, like many of the children in this settlement for displaced people.


All the children were born to parents who fled the Nagorno Karabakh region in 1993, when Armenian military forces drove them out.

While there has been a truce in place since May 1994, there is still no peace and everyone is awaiting the outcome of the ongoing political negotiations between the two countries.


Some 600,000 people are displaced within Azerbaijan as a result of the conflict with Armenia, which first erupted in 1988, while another 200,000 ethnic Azeris fled Armenia, their country of origin, and are now refugees in Azerbaijan.

Nearly 140,000 of the 600,000 internally displaced people came from Fizuli district, half of which has been occupied by Armenian forces since 23 August 1993.


Miriam stands in line waiting for the monthly food ration being distributed by WFP.

As part of the agency's Food for Education programme, launched in the camp in March 2003, the distribution targets all 130 primary school students.

As one of them, Miriam is entitled to nearly three kilograms of vitamin-fortified wheat flour, 300 grams of vegetable oil, 150 grams of sugar and 150 grams of iodized salt for attending school on a regular basis.


"WFP food is a big help. Though there are no surveys, we worry about malnutrition among these children," says Gulyiev Faig, a teacher in the school.

"You can see that many look small for their age, and this food helps ensure they receive the proper nutrition."


Faig arrived at the camp in 1993 when 65 Armenian tanks entered Horovly, his hometown in Jabrayil district, forcing him to flee with his family.

"We had everything and we lost everything. We fled on foot with only the clothing we were wearing," he explains, bitterly.

His brother was unable to escape and is now among the nearly 4,000 Azerbaijanis still missing.


When they arrived in Fizuli camp, they thought it would be a short stay.

"We were brought to a camp in an empty field. There was nothing here, not even trees, but it was supposed to be temporary," Faig explains.

He gestures to the trees planted later which are now fully grown and bear witness to the number of years that have passed.


Thanks to funds from the European Union (ECHO), three white, pre-fabricated buildings were built in 1996 to house the camp's school.

The school has brought hope to the community and a sense of direction to the children, all of whom were born here.

"We continue to teach our children that they will be going home," stresses Faig.


But with the passing of more than a decade, he worries about his young graduates. Most are unemployed like their parents and few can contemplate marriages or furthering their education.

Their frustrations have not yet translated into adult misbehavior but his concern is deep.

"The youth don't have money to get drunk or into drugs, but the joblessness troubles us all," he adds.


When her turn comes, Miriam hands over her birth certificate. It is her only identification.

At 10 years old, Miriam is the youngest person collecting food; most of the other beneficiaries standing in line are parents of the students.

But Mariam's parents are both ill and her mother, who had a nervous breakdown two years ago, is living in a psychiatric hospital.


The ration is heavy for someone Miriam's size, but she carries it alone; up the dirt path, past the classrooms, past the music school where she plays the piano and the rows of containers that house this community.

The sound of instruments fills the air. For many people from Nagorno Karabakh, music is part of the culture; some of the best Azerbaijani musicians come from the region.


Miriam lives in a white metal container with her four siblings, elderly grandparents and her sick father, Shahsuvar Hasanov.

A graduate from the Music Institute in Fizuli in 1968, Hasanov later trained as an electrical engineer in Kostrama, Russia.

Assigned by the then Soviet government to work in the Agricultural University in Ganja, Hasanov left teaching to return to Nagorno Karabakh as a voluntary soldier when war broke out.


Six years later he fled with his wife and elderly parents when Armenian troops occupied the territory in 1993.

They settled in Fizuli camp along with other displaced people from Horovly and began to raise a family.


When Miriam was seven, Hasanov began to have serious health problems. Doctors say he won't survive without open-heart surgery.

A year later his wife was institutionalised. The four young children take turns in the hospital so that they can be with their mother and assist her.


The future looks bleak on all fronts.

Miriam says she has a wish list: she wishes for the health of her parents, she wishes to be a teacher and she wishes to go home.

Adil Aslanov's Story

Ten years after the Azeri-Armenian conflict ended, an area of Azerbaijan estimated to be as large as 830 million square metres is still contaminated by landmines, and the number of ordnance victims continues to cliimb. Adil Aslanov explains why he is risking life and limb to reclaim the land.

Near Horadiz, the last border town before reaching the occupied Fizuli district, the land is lush with vegetation but the marks of battle are everywhere.

Signs along the road warn of landmines as yet uncovered. The skeletal remains of destroyed buildings and factories are a reminder of the war fought here.


Adil Aslanov is a member of the Azerbaijan National Agency for Mine Action, popularly known as ANAMA.

Set up by the United Nations Development Programme in 1999, ANAMA has already cleared 14.3 million square metres of agricultural land.

"We couldn't do this without the help of the UN," stresses Aslanov.


But much more remains to be done. The total area contaminated with explosive ordnances is estimated to be as large as 830 million square metres, and the number of victims continues to climb.

To date, more than 400 civilians and countless animals have lost their lives to landmines.


Nearly all of those employed by ANAMA are displaced people like Aslanov, who has been working as a de-miner since 2000.

"The work is dangerous and not well paid, but we do it because this is our land and we are working to get it back," he explains.

As he talks he is watching intently as a team of de-miners and dogs gently cover the surface of a nearby field.


Aslanov was an accountant when the Armenian tanks rolled into Fizuli.

"When I heard shots fired, I ran out of the house and saw the tanks. At first I thought they were from the Azerbaijani military and then I saw they were Armenians," he remembers.


"I ran indoors, rounded up my parents and wife and jumped into the car. We were fired on as we were fleeing.

"It's amazing we were not hit. I guess God had it in mind that we should escape and live," he recalls, shuddering still at the close brush with death.


Today, Aslanov spends his days a mere four kilometres from the nearest Armenian military outpost with his team of de-miners.

As the land is cleared, there is hope that the truce that has stopped the fighting will lead to a peace that will end the war.

"We just want to go home," says Aslanov. "If we can go home, everything will be alright."

Nana's story

More than ten years after the Azeri-Armenian conflict came to an end, nearly 300,000 Azerbaijanis displaced by the war are still dependent on food aid and likely to remain so. Nana explains how her hopes for her grandchild keep her going.

"Nana" (grandmother) has been living in a dugout on a dusty plain in a remote part of Azerbaijan since 1992, when she fled her village after it was engulfed by the Azeri-Armenia conflict over the disputed region of Nagorno Karabakh.

Her home is part of a settlement in which the houses are holes in the ground, covered with sticks, plastic or cardboard.

Mosquitoes and snakes are often present as uninvited roommates, and living conditions are harsh, with limited access to water and sanitation.


Despite the gloom, Nana remains hopeful, especially for the future of the children. Sending her grandchild to school is her mission.

"How else will we express our thoughts and feelings to the world, if my grandchild does not attend school?" she asks, concern etched into her face.


WFP has been running a school feeding programme in Azerbaijan since 2003 which now involves 99 schools, reaching some 5,300 children.

The UN agency provides a basket of fortified food rations for each enrolled student as an incentive for maintaining attendance. Most of the children come from families displaced by the Nagorno Karabakh conflict.


The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the mountainous enclave was a front-page story; journalists flocked to cover it and the international community united to resolve it.

After more than five years of intermittent fighting, the war dragged to a halt in 1994 with a ceasefire but no peace settlement. As a result, the people it displaced live in a painful limbo, no longer the focus of the world's attention.


A recent WFP food security and nutrition report - the first of its kind in Azerbaijan - warned that nearly 300,000 of the 800,000 Azerbaijanis displaced by the conflict will continue to rely on food aid for the foreseeable future.

Internally displaced people (IDPs) constitute over 10 percent of Azerbaijan's population, making them one of the largest groups of IDPs in the world in per capita terms.


After more than ten years, most of the displaced - including Nana - still live in crumbling, "temporary" shelters.

Deprived of their homes and land, and with limited employment opportunities, they are highly dependent on external assistance.

Moreover, the unsanitary living conditions have worsened the already poor nutritional condition of displaced women and children.


WFP provides food rations to nearly 130,000 of the most impoverished survivors of the conflict, 70 percent of them women and children.

Since 1994, WFP has supplied 90,000 metric tons of food, assisting over 500,000 people affected by the war.


However, WFP's three-year, US$21 million operation in Azerbaijan, which began in January 2003, is currently facing a funding shortfall of US$5.6 million.

If more funds aren't pledged soon, Nana and the people like her will be left without food.

Their lives are surely hard enough as things stand; to stop supporting them now would mean depriving them of even the hope of a better future.