BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) – When Azerbaijan regains control of land it lost to Armenian forces a quarter of a century ago, civilians fleeing the fighting decades ago are wondering if they can return home now – and if there is still a home to return to.
An estimated 600,000 Azerbaijanis were displaced during the 1990s war, which left the Nagorno-Karabakh region under the control of ethnic Armenian separatists and large adjacent territories in Armenia’s hands. During six weeks of renewed fighting in the autumn, ending on November 10, Azerbaijan recaptured parts of Nagorno-Karabakh itself and large shards in the remote areas.
More territory is returned as part of the ceasefire that stopped the recent battle. But as Azerbaijani forces discovered when the first area, Aghdam, was turned around on Friday, much of the reclaimed land is uninhabitable. The city of Aghdam, where once 50,000 people lived, is now a shattered ruin.
Adil Sharifov, 62, who left his hometown in 1
Jabrayil is one of the remote areas recaptured by Azerbaijani troops before the recent fighting ended. Shortly after it was taken, one of Sharifov’s cousins went there and told him that the town was destroyed, including the large house with an orchard where Sharifov’s family once lived.
Nevertheless, “the day I return, there will be the greatest happiness for me,” he said.
For years, he said his family had been following reports of Jabrayil on the internet. They knew the devastation was horrific, but Sharifov’s deceased mother retained a desperate hope that their house had been spared and held on to the keys.
“I want to build an even better house,” he promised.
Ulviya Jumayeva, 50, may return to better, albeit not ideal, conditions in her original Shusha, a city that Azerbaijani forces took in the main offensive of the Six-Week War.
Her younger brother, Nasimi, took part in the battle and called to tell her that the apartment their family fled in 1992 was intact, although it was mostly deprived of family belongings.
“According to him, it is clear that Armenians lived there after us, and then they took everything away. But our large mirror in the hallway, which we loved to look at as children, remains, ”Jumayeva said, adding:“ Maybe my grandchildren will look in this mirror. ”
“We all have houses in Baku, but everyone considered them not permanent, because in all these years we lived in the hope that we would return to Shusha,” she said. “Our hearts, our thoughts have always been in our hometown.”
But she acknowledged that her feelings towards Armenians had become more bitter.
“My schoolmates were mostly Armenian. “I never treated ordinary Armenians badly and thought that their criminal leaders who released the war were to blame for the massacre, the war and the grief that they also brought to their people,” Jumayeva said.
“But after the current events, after the shelling of peaceful cities … after Armenians, who are now leaving our territories, which are even outside Karabakh, are burning down the houses of the Azerbaijanis where they lived illegally … something broke me. I changed my attitude towards them, ”she said. “I understood that we, Azerbaijanis, will not be able to live peacefully alongside the Armenians.”
Sharifov has less to return to, but he has a more moderate view, saying the two ethnic groups with different religious traditions still have the potential to live together amicably.
“If the Armenians abide by the laws of Azerbaijan and do not behave like bearded men who came to kill, then we will live in peace,” he said. “The time to shoot is over. Enough injured. We want peace, we do not want war. ”
Associated Press authors Aida Sultanova in London and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this story.