Azerbaijan's forgotten remnants of war

Some 750,000 Azeris live in refugee camps, and survive on $5 a month in food rations.

Rana lives in a windowless mud hut with her husband and two children.

In the winter, rain turns the ground into a cold and muddy soup that sloshes beneath her plastic-covered floor. On blazing July days, the temperature peaks above 120 degrees and the room becomes a toxic mix of damp heat and smoke from the cooking fire.

Next door live Esmira and her husband. Though both are under 40, they cough constantly and move with the careful precision of old age.

"We have been living on bread and tea for seven years and never get meat or even vegetables," says Esmira. "We are afraid that next winter the children will die or, even worse, we will die and leave the children alone."

Rana and Esmira and their families are among the forgotten remnants of an ethnic war between Azeris and Armenians over Nagorno-Karabakh, which killed 35,000 between 1988 and 1994. Today, an uneasy cease-fire holds the peace, but 15 percent of Azerbaijan's land, purged of its Azeri inhabitants, remains in Armenian hands.

The image of poor refugees is numbingly familiar in Africa and parts of Asia. But in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, such conditions seem incongruous with the country's effort to cast itself as a modern, European state.

This summer the Council of Europe conditionally admitted Azerbaijan as a member, sparking rumors that NATO membership would follow.

Since taking office in 1993, the president, Gaidar Aliyev, has taken a secular, pro-western stance and encouraged oil company exploration in Azerbaijan's sizable Caspian reserves. To date, Azerbaijan has generated $1 billion from oil sales and signing bonuses.

Little of that money seems to have reached the 750,000 Azeris who live in internally displaced person camps throughout the country. They survive on $5 a month in government food rations, occasional deliveries of kerosene and intermittent assistance from nongovernmental organizations.

Some of the men make mud bricks, which they sell for a few cents at market, or work as day laborers. But the nearest town is miles away, and isolation, coupled with no public transportation, makes work nearly impossible to find.

International agencies help with housing and clothes, but many are pulling out of Azerbaijan to spend their money in high-profile areas of conflict like Kosovo and East Timor.

This year the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees' $9 million budget was severely cut, a phenomenon UNHCR staffer Vugar Abdusalimov attributes to donor fatigue: "The war was over seven years ago, and still the governments have not settled the issue. Donors are leaving because they would prefer to fund a success story."

The prospects of a long-term resolution between Azerbaijan and Armenia on Nagorno-Karabakh seemed close a year ago after both presidents met several times. The assassination of Armenia's Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian in October 1999 froze negotiations, however, and there has been little movement since.

Araz, who is among the displaced, seems confident that President Aliyev will resolve the issue soon. His wife is less sanguine, however: "We moved to the desert because we thought the war would only last a few weeks, and then we could go home. But we are still here. If we have to stay, then the government needs to provide us with land and irrigation or they must move us to Baku."

Esmira salvaged little from her village but the huge black-and-white TV that dominates her tiny house. Every night she watches advertisements for cell phones, fancy Baku restaurants and boutiques - luxuries that appear worlds away. Like most rural Azeris, she has had little contact with the hard-edged capitalism of modern Azerbaijan. She waits for the wealth of Baku to trickle down to her, but as the years pass, she senses that her government - rated fourth most corrupt in the world in the Transparency Index - cares less and less about people stranded in the displaced-persons camps.

"Aliyev is okay," she says carefully, "but he is better with foreigners than he is at home."

Some are leaving the camps, mostly young men hoping to find work in Baku. The old and young are left behind to survive as best they can.

Women occupy themselves with household chores, child-rearing and small enterprises. Jobless, men spend most of their empty days in the camp's "entertainment hall" playing backgammon and smoking. One relief worker says, "All their lives these men were told what to do by the Soviets. Now they live in a desert without any options. It's hard to say who is to blame."

Azad Ifazozade, a psychologist and former army officer who visits the camp each weekend to counsel children traumatized by the war, says poverty and isolation are straining marriages and families to the breaking point. In traditional Azeri culture, men provide for the family, while women raise children and keep house.

As women become both breadwinners and housekeepers, they have gained status in the community, particularly in the eyes of the children, and the men feel diminished.

Azad says "children don't respect their fathers or their grandparents anymore. In the villages people have always looked to the family for support, but if that falls apart, where will they turn? Certainly not the government."

Esmira affectionately ruffles her son's hair and asks her husband to help her fix the TV reception. He obliges, then trudges off to see his friends.

"When we lived in Fizuli, we had an orchard, a farm and the children went to school," she says dreamily. "Now we live in a salty desert, and no one seems to remember us. We need to go home soon, or there will be nothing left of us, or of the old ways."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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