It was an exodus - people squeezed on trucks and buses, piled suitcases on horse-pulled carts, and carried children. In the early 1990s, as the Soviet Union was faltering, hundreds of thousands fled the armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorno Karabakh: communities were driven away from their homes, and, as the conflict remains still unresolved, most still live in a limbo as they cannot return.
The war, which claimed over 30,000 lives by the time the 1994 ceasefire was agreed, produced over 600,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) and some 250,000 ethnic Azeri refugees from Armenia according to figures from the UN Refugee Agency. Since 1993 the Azerbaijani government, with the support of international organizations, has allocated 6.2 billion Azerbaijani manat (USD 3.65 billion as of 2018 rate) for the social needs of IDPs and refugees, including subsidies for food, utilities and housing allocation as well as a monthly allowance of up to 36 Azerbaijani manat per person (USD 21).
Poverty, however, is dire among the displaced population and housing is critical for many. Evacuees settled anywhere they could find as a refuge -- schools, hospitals, kindergartens, libraries, abandoned public baths, crumbling factories, deserted libraries. They were supposed to be temporary shelters, yet over 25 years later, for many these non-houses have become permanent dwellings.
Vali Akbarov’s life is a stage. Literally. The 65-year-old amateur folk singer had never thought that one day the wrecked stage of an abandoned dom kultury, house of culture, would become his home. In April 1993 his native town of Kalbajar fell to the Armenian forces, pushing him on a journey that took his family first to Tartar, then to Sumgayit and, in 1995, to Nagharakhana, a village in the municipality of Shamakhi, about 122 kilometers west of the capital Baku. Once there, they walked into the deserted house of culture of Soviet memory.
“Our immediate focus was our kids’ education,” explains the father of four children, now between 33 and 42 years of age. “We overcame hardship, in poverty. The displacement took so much from us.”
The family survives with the 36 manat of IDP allowance plus 140 manat of pension (USD 82) that Akbarov receives. Only two sons still live with them and financial hardships mean that Akbarov has been unable to support him to get married.
The building has no heating, no toilet and curtains are used to create the different living areas - the kitchen is in the parterre, the dining table on the stage. Garbage and wood collected from the forest used to heat the place, with little result.
“It is cold here, we keep our coats on as it feels like winter for nine months of the year. We cook where the audience used to sit, and then we eat on the stage. Was life like this in Kalbajar? Leaving your native place behind is not a good thing at all. I do not even wish it to my enemy.”
The dream to return to their homes is what keeps Akbarova going, she says.
“We are not in a foreign country, Shamakhi is also ours, but Kalbajar was our homeland. We lost so much, but I would endure all these again if I could see Kalbajar again one day.”
During Soviet times, factory #3 in the Darnagul district of Baku produced concrete, employing hundreds in the area. As the USSR melted, the plant fell in disuse only to return to life as a shelter for the displaced fleeing the conflict. At the end of the 2000s carpenters set up small workshops in the large space. These laboratories are noisy and dirty, producing fumes that spread across the area, infiltrating the makeshift rooms and the residents’ lungs.
Not quite the home Khayala Davudova ever dreamt of. Her family of six, including four children, live crammed in a 25-square-foot hut inside the plant.
“We all suffer from neurosis, it starts at a young age. We have to shout to talk to each other, we are so many…” says the 27-year-old who hails from Agdam, today a ghost town. “We did not want to leave our homes, we had to. Sometimes I think that it would have been better to stay in Agdam and die there.”
Unlike Davudova, Fiyala Ahmadova’s dream is simply to leave. Like many of the 70 residents, the 25-year-old was born in the factory, it is all she knows.
“When I visit someone living in a proper house, or when I see a real home on television, I hate myself, my life. I wish I was not born into this world. No one deserves this cruelty.”
The Public Bath
It is like a slap, piercing your nose as soon as you enter. It is a heavy and muggy smell that 11 families, living in a former public bath, have been struggling every day with for decades.
The bath #59 in Lokbatan’s Puta settlement, a suburb of the capital, is home to about 60 people hailing from various Nagorno Karabakh villages -- Fuzuli, Aghdam, Gubadli and Lachin. There are three generations in total, with children who were born in displacement, only knowing the crammed concrete rooms of the hammam. There is a sewage pipe sneaking across the rooms.
“Especially when it's windy, it stinks. We have covered it with a rug, but it is not enough to stop the smell,” laments 64-year-old Rafiga Askerova who struggles every day, with cockroaches and mice. “Today a big snake entered to our room. It has not left the room yet, it is hiding somewhere. Be careful, they saying that snakes love guests,” she jokes.
Originally from the village of Kurdlar, in the south-western district of Fuzuli, she fled with her family in 1993, and for ten years her life was packed in a suitcase.
“First we lived in Beylagan, in a building near the cotton fields, then we moved to a village in Masalli. Then we came to Hajigabul, and finally in 2003 to this bath. This place is killing us.”
In 2013 Askerova lost her 25-year-old son. The damp air and pervasive humidity attacked his lungs and he contracted tuberculosis -- a few months afterwards the disease claimed the life of Askerova’s husband too.
“Now it is in my grandson’s lungs. It is the moisture, the concrete, and the cold. Many here have died of tuberculosis,” she laments.
Fakhriya Akhmedova was a child when her family fled from Lachin. She has no memory of her family house, what she remembers is just the fear she felt.
“If you ask me what the difference is between places [like this hammam] and a real house, I cannot say,” says the 30-year-old. “My memories of home consist of just random places, not homes. I just feel old and exhausted. I wish my children will not live the same fate like mine. One of my children got tuberculosis.”
He is nine.
Journeys, December/January 2018