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Azeri refugees long to return to Nagorno-Karabakh

Widow Nazakat Valiyeva, an Azeri refugee from Nagorno-Karabakh, with a picture of her husband who was killed by shelling in 2020
— Terter (Azerbaijan) (AFP)

For half his life, 67-year-old Azerbaijani Azad Abbasov has dreamed of returning to his home in the beautiful mountains of Nagorno-Karabakh.

"It's my obsession," said the retired teacher, who will never forget the day in 1992 when his family was driven from the village of Umudulu by Armenian forces.

Baku's lightning victory last week over Armenian separatists in the disputed Caucasus enclave has rekindled his hope of returning to that lost idyll.

Even though he said his home was burned down when the Armenians took over the village, Abbasov keeps an aerial photo of the spot on his phone. "I look at it often," he said, clearly moved.

For the last 30 years he has lived in exile in Terter, an hour's drive away on the other side of what was the line of control.

As the Soviet Union crumbled, conflict broke out in 1988 between Christian Armenia and the neighbouring republic of Azerbaijan, which is mostly Turkic-speaking and Shiite. More than 30,000 people died in the war that followed, with 700,000 Azerbaijanis forced to flee Armenia and Karabakh and 230,000 Armenians going the other way.

- From victors to refugees -

The modern roots of the conflict go back to 1921 when the Soviets attached Armenian-majority Nagorno-Karabakh to the Azerbaijan Soviet Republic. The territory has been disputed since, with civilians on both sides paying the price.

Longing for home: refugee Azad Abbasov who lost his home and his brother

War came to Abbasov's door on February 28, 1992. His brother was shot dead by the Armenian forces who took his village and he was wounded. He recalled how a rescue helicopter was shot down and the family were forced to flee Umudulu on foot.

The memories have never left him.

On Sunday, several hundred Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh became refugees like him, going into exile in Armenia.

The region's separatists, who are laying down their arms, said those who lost their homes in the latest fighting could leave for Armenia.

"We had to leave our home in a hurry in 1992, and we are ready to return just as quickly," said Abbasov, who is ready to quit Terter in his old Soviet-era Lada car.

Terter and its surrounding villages are covered with posters of fists or khari bulbul orchids, symbols of the 2020 reconquest of parts of Karabakh by Azerbaijan. The flower is associated with the city of Shusha, which was retaken then, and which Baku considers as the region's cultural capital.

Some 100 signs dot Terter pointing to the damage it suffered during the 2020 war as if it was a vast open-air museum.

Azeri Javid Ismayilov next to a missile that destroyed his house during the 2020 war

In Javid Ismayilov's garden, the tail of the missile which destroyed his house is still sticking out of the ground. A blue teapot, a twisted fan and a leather jacket still lie among the rubble.

- 'We can live with each other' -

Like Abbasov, all displaced Azeris there interviewed by AFP nurse the idea of returning to Nagorno-Karabakh.

"Of course I want to go back to Karabakh, we are tired of war and fear," said Nazakat Valiyeva, 49, whose husband was killed in shelling during the 2020 fighting.

She also reminisced about her childhood village of Boyahmadl and its beautiful mountains, springs and vineyards.

It has been retaken by Azerbaijani forces, but access is strictly controlled.

While Baku is building settlements in some recaptured areas, they are not yet inhabited.

"We need peaceful conditions to return," said Abbasov. "My village must be liberated properly, mines must be cleared, roads and houses rebuilt -- many things need to be done."

Living together again with Armenian neighbours will not be easy, he conceded.

"We need to remove the seeds of animosity between us," said Abbasov, and settle the thorny issue of rehousing.

He doesn't rule out going back to live in a house that was not his.

"Let the Armenians return to their village," he said.

Displaced Armenians fleeing the enclave on Sunday, however, categorically refused to return home if the "Turks", as many call Azerbaijanis, also return.

"Everything needs time, it's a long process," said Javid Ismayilov. But the 30-year-old is convinced that "we can live with each other".