Memories of home start to fade

They are among the thousands of internally displaced persons from Nagorno-Karabakh still in temporary homes 16 year after a ceasefire was signed.

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN // Gulmemmed Huseyinov often thinks back to his life in Nagorno-Karabakh, where he lived in a two-storey house with eight rooms and had his own farmland. But the memories are starting to fade, because for the past 17 years he has lived in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku with his wife, two sons and daughter.

The five of them fled Nagorno-Karabakh in 1993 during the war that erupted in the enclave between ethnic Azeris and ethnic Armenians, and since then have lived together in a single room in what was once student housing. They are among the thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Nagorno-Karabakh still in temporary homes 16 year after a ceasefire was signed. "I would leave Baku for Karabakh today if it were possible," Mr Huseyinov, now 58, said. "My children want to get married, but they don't have a home. They still live with me and they cannot make their own families. There's not any help for our situation."

Nagorno-Karabakh was an Armenian-majority region within Azerbaijan, but since the war it has been under Armenian control, making it impossible for its Azeri former residents to return. Mr Huseyinov makes a living running a tiny shop he built himself among a row of outlets created by other IDPs beside the former Baku State University student residence where he lives. There are dozens of other families in the same estate as Mr Huseyinov in similarly crowded conditions. They share communal bathrooms, toilets and kitchens, and many have struggled to adjust to city life and find proper jobs, having previously worked in agriculture.

Kouhin Jafarov, 36, is luckier than some. His next door neighbour moved out, so he was able to knock their two rooms together and create more room for his mother, sister, wife and 12-year-old daughter, with whom he lives. The family even have their own kitchen and bathroom. Like Mr Huseyinov, he remembers the "good life" in Nagorno-Karabakh and would return "with great pleasure". "In Karabakh I had my own home, my own car. Everything I had was my own. This home, it is not my own. We have nothing," said Mr Jafarov, who works as a driver and earns about US$500 (Dh1,836) a month.

"The Armenians can never feel the same thing that we do, to be occupied by another country, to be a refugee. I feel angry to Armenians, because I would have liked my daughter to have been born in my own land." According to Elkhan Polukhov, a spokesman for Azerbaijan's ministry of foreign affairs, the reason IDPs still live in temporary accommodation is that there are so many of them. He said more than 800,000 people fled Nagorno-Karabakh and the regions around it now held by Armenia. In addition, 200,000 Azeri refugees arrived in their home country from Armenia itself, just as thousands of Armenians left Azerbaijan.

"More than one million [people], that is one in eight citizens of Azerbaijan, is a refugee or IDP," he said. Azerbaijan says the IDPs should be allowed to return to their homes in Nagorno-Karabakh and the regions that surround it, although there are few indicators that the impasse over the territory will be solved soon to allow this to happen. The moves by Turkey and Armenia to establish diplomatic relations, announced last year but currently facing particular opposition in Turkey, could affect the issue.

Turkey shut its border with Armenia in protest at the latter's seizure of Nagorno-Karabakh, and Azerbaijan is against the two establishing links without the enclave's status being finalised. In the absence of a diplomatic settlement, the possibility of renewed conflict remains, and many of the IDPs who fought in the war say they would bear arms again. "I lost lots of my childhood friends, college friends," said Mr Jafarov.

"They were soldiers on the same front. Even my friends died in my arms, in my hands. I know what is war and what it is to lose someone, so I hope it will be a diplomatic solution. I believe it's possible. "But it's already 17 years they've talked about a diplomatic way and there's no result. I'm ready to fight tomorrow for my region. I'm ready to fight."