“My house was situated between two streams, whose sound was more beautiful than any melody. Lachin is like a white dove between two mountains, a place that I can never forget. The water from its springs is pure and cold like ice, its aromatic herbs, its thyme …
Since I left Lachin I have never found the taste of that thyme! ”. Sumaya Isayeva, a 65-year-old Azerbaijani teacher, recalls the past, her memories softened by the passage of time and the bitterness suffered since then: “The day we fled was one of those beautiful days in Lachin.
The harvest that year had been good and we were sitting, having breakfast, on a rug under the trees. Suddenly, my brother came and said to us: ‘Pack everything.’ We put the children in the car and it took us far from there.
It was the spring of 1992 and Lachin, a narrow province of Azerbaijan sandwiched between the rebel region of Nagorno Karabakh and Armenia, was taken over by Armenian militiamen . Its 50,000 inhabitants had to flee.
Now, after six weeks of war between Azerbaijan and Armenia and a ceasefire agreement signed last November with the mediation of Russia , Lachin returns under Baku control (except for a five-kilometer-wide corridor for Yerevan to continue sending supplies to the small territory of Nagorno Karabakh still controlled by Armenia).
Isayeva will be able to return home: “I will take the water from the stream in my hands and drink from it. Later, I can die in peace. ”
In the war of the 1990s, unleashed when the Soviet Union disintegrated, the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh not only took control of their region. To prevent further attacks by the Azerbaijani government, they conquered the surrounding provinces and expelled their population: in 2000, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) counted 572,500 internally displaced persons in Azerbaijan.
Now there are more, about 750,000: they have had children, grandchildren, who in official statistics are still linked to their provinces of origin.
Isayeva resides in a fairly decent apartment building in the town of Barda (central Azerbaijan), built in 2015 for refugees from Lachin like her. But, until then, the more than half a million displaced people lived in infected fields, train cars, old Soviet warehouses.
There are those who accuse the Government of Baku of having kept them like this, in misery, to prevent them from integrating into the rest of Azerbaijani society and forgetting their roots in the occupied territories. “Even my grandchildren, who never saw Lachin, dream of going back,” explains Asif, a relative of Isayeva.
The Isayevs, however, will have to wait. The demining of the recovered regions, and the reconstruction of cities and infrastructure damaged by the fighting will take between three and five years and, according to some estimates, will cost about 15,000 million dollars (about 12,300 million euros), the equivalent of the budget annual of Azerbaijan.
European companies are attentive to possible reconstruction contracts and one, the Italian Ansaldo, has already been commissioned to rehabilitate power stations in the territories that Azerbaijan has recovered.
Dozens of trucks, bulldozers and road rollers are working piecemeal to complete the new road that – crossing what until a few months ago was the front line – reaches Suqovusan (Mataghis in Armenian), one of the towns reconquered by Azerbaijan from Armenian hands.
There, 19 families will settle, the first displaced from Nagorno Karabakh to return home. Among them, Xaliq Humbetov, who left the village when he was 14 years old.
Humbetov’s house – the best in town – is complete and in good condition, since in all these years of separation it was occupied by an Armenian family. He knew it himself, he had seen it on YouTube and Facebook videos.
In Soviet times, Suqovusan-Mataghis was, in fact, a mixed population, but after the conflict began the environment became rare. The Armenians expelled the Azerbaijanis. Now, almost 30 years later, the opposite has happened.
The houses built by the Armenians are now covered in gunshot marks and full of graffiti from Azerbaijani soldiers. Its interior, thoroughly destroyed. In front of the stairs of one of them, in the garden, there is an imitation leopard skin high-heeled shoe, as an absurd icing on the destruction of the war.
In the Armenian nursery and school, among the documents scattered on the floor, there are strips of colored tinsel and a plastic fir tree: this year there will be no Christmas in Mataghis.
Because, as the more than half a million Azerbaijani refugees prepare to return to their ancient hometowns, some 40,000 Armenians have packed their bags and said goodbye to their homes. Some set them on fire lest they serve as a dwelling place for any Azerbaijani.
In the Caucasus – a territory smaller than Spain, more than 50 different languages, three major religions and a multitude of variants, four recognized states and three others in rebellion – nationalist conflicts have been installed for decades in a zero-sum game
To that some live others have to die; for some to regain their homes, others must lose them. A constant cycle of destruction and construction on its ruins.
“Imagine that, after many years, you return to your city and there is nothing left.” It is the first time that Malahat Guliyeva steps on Agdam since 1993. Her joy at the return is drowned in the memories of what was and now are only rubble:
“There was a shopping center where we bought clothes, these were the gardens of the Park Lenin, that was a teahouse and there was the stadium, where every year we celebrate the Recollection Party with the girls from my brigade ”.
Agdam is known as the Hiroshima of the Caucasus, as the devastation is reminiscent of the atomic bomb. Only instead of a withering explosion, it was caused by systematic looting and vandalism: doors, shutters, beams, masonry … Even the graves of the cemetery were desecrated to snatch their gold teeth from the dead.
Things were not always like this. For most of history, Armenians and Azerbaijanis have lived together in peace. They may pray and speak differently, but their culture, traditions, character, physiognomy, are similar. But the battles for the historical narrative started decades ago by nationalist intellectuals have ended up creating an abyss of hatred.
Armenians – especially those more nationalists who trace the genealogy of their people back to Noah’s descendants – tend to look at Azerbaijanis with condescension, if not contempt: they consider many to be a people without history, Turks, Tatars or simply Muslims.
If there is a cross or a church nearby, they think that these villages are Armenia, even though Azerbaijanis have lived in them during the last centuries. On the other side, Azerbaijan has built its national identity in opposition to its neighbors.
Moreover, to counter the historicist justifications for the right to land, Baku has devised its own: those churches, those crosses, are not Armenian, but from the Albanians of the Caucasus, a Christian people who lived on the shores of the Caspian Sea. in the first millennium d. C.
For the Isayevs and their native neighbors from Lachin, Armenians in Azerbaijan are “guests” and not citizens with as much right to stay as they are. Even worse: “Fascist is a soft word to describe Armenians,” says Asif Isayev.
“I want them to suffer all that we suffer, and for their mothers to cry like the mothers of our martyrs,” adds Sumaya Isayeva when asked how they feel about Armenians now turned refugees as they were before.
It is the result of years recounting the crimes of the other side and hiding their own under the rug, of a simplified story of heroes and villains. And it will take much longer to fix it than to rebuild the devastated cities of Nagorno Karabakh.