The Economist: Azeris return to their ruined old homes
There is plenty of farmland in Fuzuli, one of Azerbaijan’s districts that ring the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. But there is nothing to harvest.
Where wheat and grapes once grew, unexploded rockets sprout from the ground at odd angles, reminders of the vicious fighting that tore through the area in the autumn.
The charred hulks of tanks remain. A cratered road snakes through a wasteland of villages and towns abandoned after an earlier bout of violence three decades ago. Thousands of landmines lurk underground.
Farther north in Agdam, once an Azeri city of 40,000 people, Aide Huseynova, a pensioner, snaps photos of a ruined 19th-century mosque. She escaped from Agdam in 1993, during the first Nagorno-Karabakh war, fleeing before an Armenian offensive.
About 1m people, most of them Azeris, were displaced in the fighting. Now, for the first time since then, she is back. Yet there is nothing left for her to see, bar a sea of rubble and crumbling walls that stretches for miles in every direction, looking like the aftermath of a nuclear attack. The mosque is the only building left standing.
“My heart aches,” says Mrs Huseynova. “I don’t want to see it at all.”
In a campaign that lasted over six weeks and ended with a ceasefire on November 9th, Azerbaijan recovered the seven districts, including Fuzuli and Agdam that Armenian forces had occupied since the 1990s.
The devastation inflicted on Azeri towns during the 27 years under Armenian control will be hard to undo. The Armenian separatists who ran Nagorno-Karabakh used the districts once occupied by Azeris as a buffer zone and a future bargaining chip, making many of them uninhabitable. Buildings were bulldozed. Looters took anything the former residents had left behind. Some put the cost of reviving these ghost cities at as much as $15bn, though Azerbaijan’s government has yet to make an estimate. It could take seven years to de-mine the districts, says Hikmet Hajiyev, an aide of Azerbaijan’s president.
In a shabby block of flats on the edge of Baku, the capital, Aliyev Karim Hasimoglu, a former metal-worker from Fuzuli, shares a single room with four relations. He says he wants to live long enough to rebury a brother, who died in the first Karabakh war, in their ancestral village.