BBC Russian Service just published this very moving report (authored by Olga Prosvirova and Olga Ivshina) about Azerbaijani refugees trying to return to the now liberated, but heavily mined Karabakh region as well as the scale of destruction of the liberated areas. I am presenting here some excerpts in English:
“For 28 years, the authorities of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic controlled the cities, which have now returned to Azerbaijan. These ghostly cities do not at all resemble the places where people live: around at eye level there are broken bricks, protruding fittings, shards of glass. But the land is full of stories that have no beginning or end.
A child’s photograph in the courtyard of a destroyed house. A jar of leftover jam on the smashed porch. A men’s shoe — size 42 . Psalter for the military in Armenian. An old anti-tank mine shining in the sun. Empty water bottles and cigarette packs abound.
Around — for many kilometers — minefields.
Nothing else is needed
Natik Allahyarov arrives at the meeting point an hour earlier than agreed.
It’s cold outside — in such weather, they usually wear down jackets, but Natik gets out of the car in a sweater with a thin vest over it. He takes a few steps, leaning on his cane, and from the way he reaches out and says a few words of greeting in bewilderment. It is clear how much he worries.
“I could not sleep all night. I was all worried that I would oversleep, that the phone would not ring, that you would leave, but I would stay. God knows how much I was waiting for this day.”
For the first time in 28 years Natik goes to his hometown of Aghdam. As a teenager, he was forced to flee from there during the first Karabakh war. Defending Aghdam from the advancing Armenian forces, Natik was blown up by a mine and at the age of 17 he was forever lame.
“I have no right to live now, because I left my native land, and my dead friends stayed there. It seems to me that they will be able to forgive us only when I return and bow to their graves, when I kiss my native land again.”
Natik uttered these words back in October. The war was still in full swing.
For the past 25 years, Natik has been living with his family in a refugee hostel in Mingachevir. The atmosphere there is Spartan: shabby walls, bundles of firewood for the stove on the bumpy floor, bundles of wires hanging on the walls instead of wiring, dim lights and a shared toilet on the floor. Natik did not pay much attention to the situation in the hostel — his thoughts were always in Aghdam. A few months later, he had the opportunity to see his native land again.
The roadi s blocked by a red and white barrier. The military at the checkpoint demand to stop and check the documents for a long time. They reconize Natik immediately— this is his third attempt to get to his native land. He came to the checkpoint twice, called his friends, begged them to let him through, so that at least from the car window he could look at his hometown. The military was adamant, and Natik returned home twice with nothing.
The third time it worked out — but only because the journalists took him along. The barrier rose, and Natik exhaled loudly, raising his palms to the sky and beginning to read a prayer in an undertone. The car rolled for some time along a country road and stopped briefly at the entrance to the city to check the tires.
Natik sat in his seat for a minute. Across the window to his left, one could see bare roadside bushes sticking out. On the right there were brick ruins. “Sorry, please,” he said and got out of the car. He leaned his cane against the trunk and gently knelt down, pressing his forehead against the dusty road. For several minutes he kissed the ground.
When he looked up, there were tears in his eyes: “Thank you that after 28 years my long longing is over.”
Natik asks to go to his native village — it is a few minutes drive from Aghdam. He dreams of seeing the house in which he grew up, although he knows that the house has not survived.
From the house where Natik lived remain only three walls and a pile of bricks, from which you can guess that there was once a porch here. There is no life in this place — only bare white bricks and grass beginning to turn green. But Natik sees a different picture.
“This was our yard. This is where we played. Over there my uncle lived. And our ducks were there. These were good times. Now there is nothing left of the village. Thank you all for returning me to this village, for making my dreams come true. If I die now, I will die happy. I don’t need anything else, except this very place, this very path. “
Natik unrolls the package and takes out printed photographs of young men.
“This is my school friend Israil,” he shows one of the photographs. “We were both wounded together when we hit a mine. May the mothers of our fallen soldiers forgive me — I could not print all the photos. Allow me to hang them…
Natik approaches the surviving wall, attaches photographs, again raises his palms to the sky. He reads the first surah of the Quran in Arabic and brushes away tears again.
More valuable than life
Aghdam is lifeless. Under the high blue skies and bright sun, the deep wounds of war are visible. Thirty years ago, 30 thousand people lived here. Now — not a soul.
Very few things survived. Therefore, the preserved fragments of colored mosaic on the wall of a destroyed house seem foreign. This is all that remains of the Bread Museum, which was badly damaged during the first Karabakh war and since then has been slowly deteriorating.
Neither the delicate weaves of the ornament, nor the colored stained-glass windows have survived. Only a mosaic panel with ears of wheat against the background of the sun. The approach to the museum is cordoned off with a tape — the ground around it has not yet been checked for mines.
In the center of the city, surrounded by ruins, two minarets stretch to the sky. The mosque, built here in 1870, survived both wars. In the winter of 1992, the bodies of the murdered [Azerbaijani] civilians of Khojaly were brought to this mosque. Now the inside is empty.
In the town of Barda, far from the former front line, Irada Gurbanova stands at the grave of her youngest son. Khudayar, 22, died in this war. Irada comes to the grave of her son, lined with red carnations, three, sometimes four times a day.
Two dozen graves of new victims of this war are all in flowers. Monuments with photographs were erected long ago.
Irada Gurbanova, herself a native of Aghdam, is proud of her son who died for the land.
“Are these lands worth your son’s life?”
Irada does not understand how such questions can be asked.
- When I think about my son, I don’t want to live. But someone had to do the job. Our president gave the order, and our martyrs gave their blood and life to liberate our land. The son is for the homeland. If he hadn’t … — Irada pauses for a second, brushes away a tear. — We have been waiting so long for our land, the land of my father, grandfather and grandmother, to be free. It is very difficult that I have lost my son. But what he did was important.
A few minutes from the cemetery is the house of the local taxi driver Elchin Shirinov. On October 28, a Smerch rocket arrived at a busy intersection in Barda, killing 21 people. Elchin survived at the epicenter of the explosion.
Shirinov is sitting on the bed. A portrait of Aliyev hangs directly over his head. One of the legs is tucked up high — Elchin is missing a leg.
“The rocket fell right in front of my car. When I crawled out of the car, I did not feel pain. I looked and saw my leg hanging. And all around me were dead bodies.”
In the evening, relatives found Elchin in the hospital. The leg had already been amputated by that time. Along with his leg, Elchin lost his job — he can no longer taxi, and the car burned down.
Elchin has two small children — “future soldiers will protect their homeland,” he is sure.
“I’ll go to the border troops and I’ll kill them all,” an 11-year-old child suddenly says. He begins to cry, his mother hands him a handkerchief.
People who fled the war in the early 90s, like Natik Allahyarov, dream of returning to their native lands. Officials are promising that electricity and water supply will be restored in the coming months.
But mines, many of which have survived in the ground since the first war, cannot be defused as quickly. In the territories returned by Azerbaijan, in the absolute silence of the deserted land, sometimes sharp sounds of explosions are heard. This is mine clearance.
The city of Fuzuli was taken by Azerbaijani forces on October 17. At first glance, it resembles Aghdam — destroyed, devastated. But not dead. Traces of military life are everywhere here. Abandoned mobile radar — with a rocket engine protruding from the hood of the car. Military camouflage sweater on the ground. Empty barracks building. Overripe pomegranates and someone’s half-eaten breakfast remain in the metal cabinets. Mattresses and pillows are scattered around in every room. Among them is the corpse of a fluffy dog. There is a small dugout next to the barracks; a military helmet is on the parapet. You can’t go down — there is a gas grenade on the deck.
There are minefields for many kilometers in the Fuzuli region. The sappers ask to follow them strictly — step by step. You can only walk along the narrow corridor one at a time — blue pegs are stuck into the ground on the right and left. This means mines.
Some mines have been in this land for nearly three decades. During this time, the soil, getting rid of foreign matter, began to push them outward, and the upper parts of the mines are now visible above the surface of the earth. Other mines have been planted recently and cannot be seen.
After the end of the war, more than 40 people were blown up by mines in the area of Aghdam, Fuzuli and Aghjabedi, despite the fact that the territory is constantly patrolled by the military. The main work here is carried out by ANAMA, the national demining agency.
“We cannot say how much time it will take,” says Madad Mammadov, who is responsible for demining in the Fuzuli region. “All lands are different: residential areas, vacant lots, forests, mountainous areas. All this has its own methods of cleaning, and it takes different time “.
According to the most rough estimates, one person can clear 25 square meters of land in a day. ANAMA employs 560 people. With such personnel, it will take more than 10 years to completely clear the land of mines. Azerbaijan intends to attract specialists from other countries. Pakistan agrees to preliminary help.
“We have so far cleared a small area, but have already found thousands of mines. We come across, for example, a mine strip 30 meters wide and find there 100–150 mines. And then we come across seven to eight mine strips in a row. As the front line changed, the territories were mined. Again and again”.
Madad Mammadov stands on the edge of such a minefield — seven strips, thousands of mines. In the middle, a passage 200 meters long has been cleared. In the distance, on a hillock, surrounded on all sides by mines, a large white dog barks incessantly. She doesn’t move. How she can get out of there is unclear.
10 minutes by car from this field construction work is underway in full swing. People are laying bricks, an excavator is working. A substation is being built here, which will supply Fuzuli with electricity.
To begin construction, ANAMA cleared the area for 15 days, digging up the ground to a depth of six meters.
“We have already begun to install electrical equipment and assemble metal structures. We plan to finish this substation in two months. Construction is also underway in other regions, for example, in Shusha,” explains foreman Khayyam Mustafayev.
The plan is ambitious — the substation must supply electricity to the airport, which is planned to be built nearby. President Ilham Aliyev, who proclaimed the returned Shusha the cultural capital of Azerbaijan, hopes that the airport will be international so that foreign tourists can visit the region. For now, at the site of the future airport, there is a rolled field.
As a result of the war, Azerbaijan regained all seven districts around Nagorno-Karabakh. But civilians can’t get here yet — it’s too dangerous.
To get to the regained cities and villages, you have to go along the roads broken by time and war, which wind through the mountains and foothills. Stepping off the side of the road is deadly — you never know where your foot can step on a mine. This week, another person was blown up in the Aghdam region.
For many in the country, these roads are a symbol of the path to victory and a bright future, which, as it seems to them, is already coming. For the summer in Shusha, the route to which is still mined, a national festival has been planned.
But even according to the most careful calculations, civilians, and with them a full life, can return here only after years, which will be spent on demining and building new roads and houses.”