An Azeri soldier hangs the flag of Azerbaijan in the city of Jabrayil, where Azeri forces regained control during the fighting with Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh on October 16, 2020. Photo: Bulent Kilic/AFP

ANKARA —Descendants of Nagorno Karabakh’s historic Azerbaijani community, displaced since the Armenian majority seized autonomy in the early 1990s, see their government’s new war as a path to return.

Many people in Azerbaijan say they are already planning to go back to their ancestral homes. Few believe Armenians would live side-by-side with them, however, and even fewer are ready to accept them again as neighbors.

Suleyman Hajizada, who was born in the Azerbaijani capital Baku but whose family origins are from the city of Shusha, known to Armenians as Shushi, says he and his family are eager to return as soon as possible.

“My family left Shusha in April 1992, at the height of the war. My father fought for the city until the last day. Before the current fighting, almost no one in our family lost hope that we would return to Shusha,” he told Asia Times.

“No one believed the conflict would be resolved peacefully,” he added.

According to the United Nations, more than a million people were forced to flee the region during the Karabakh war that broke out amid the fall of the Soviet Union. These included Azerbaijanis who fled the former Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast as well as surrounding districts of Azerbaijan that Armenian forces seized during the war.

The OSCE Minsk Group, created in 1992 to mediate between Armenia and Azerbaijan, advocates for the restoration of occupied territories surrounding Nagorno Karabakh to Azerbaijan, the right of return for all those displaced and an eventual determination of the legal status of Nagorno Karabakh through a “legally binding expression of will.”

Hajizada says that most Azerbaijanis no longer see this stalled peace process as means for an acceptable resolution.

His top priority is that he and his family can return to their ancestral lands, “whatever the way it might be.”

“My work and social life, my friends, and so on are based in Baku, but after the liberation of Shusha, I will gradually build a new life there and settle once and for all,” Hajizada said.

The Hajizada family home in Shusha, Nagorno Karabakh. Suleyman’s father, Gunduz, wrote his name on top of the entrance in Azerbaijani Cyrillic. Photo: Courtesy of Suleyman Hajizada

Melek Bayramli, a photographer whose family hails from Kalbajar — an Armenian-occupied district located between Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh — is also set on returning.

“When I was a child, the first Karabakh war had just ended. My brother said, “I will grow up and expel Armenian soldiers from our country. My mother was surprised by this. She asked, ‘If you grow up will this war still be going on?’”

On September 27, after years of intermittent border skirmishes, the Azerbaijani military engaged in a new war for Karabakh; for Bayramli, a long-awaited second Karabakh war.

“As villages in Azerbaijan are being cleansed of Armenians and returned day-by-day, I see my mother is weeping and rejoicing,” Bayramli, 24, told Asia Times.

“I understand that the reason for her joy is not death or the loss of the enemy, but a step by step approach to her home.”

Bayramli’s father, now 53, took part in the first Karabakh war until 1993 and is avidly following the news. She says her brother, now 25, volunteered to join the army, but until now has been told he is not needed.

“Both of our generations, our parents and we were forced into this war,” Bayramli said. “Because Armenians who never lived in Kalbajar have violated our right to go to our region for thirty years.”

Bayramli is currently in the city of Ganja, where Azerbaijan’s public prosecutor said 11 civilians were killed in a rocket attack launched by Armenian forces on the night of October 16.

“Although the loss of so many people left them deeply traumatized, the locals really believe in victory,” she stated.

Azerbaijani citizen Abbas Semedov sits in front of his piano at his heavily damaged house after an attack by Armenian forces in Azerbaijan’s second-largest city, Ganja on October 20, 2020. Photo: Onur Coban / Anadolu Agency via AFP

No other way

Sevinj Muntezir, a 24-year-old social worker, traces her origins to the Armenian-held district of Gubadli, which has been subsumed into the Armenian-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh.

Muntezir lost her mother at the age of three, when her cirrhosis and jaundice were aggravated by by unsanitary conditions amid the family’s grueling flight to safety in the 1990s war. Her uncle, a veteran of that war, still has shrapnel in his leg. Muntezir never saw her home town, but would hear stories about it from her uncle and other relatives.

“The graves of my grandparents, uncle and family members are there in Karabakh. If Karabakh, especially its Gubadli district, my mom’s hometown, is liberated, then I will be able to see the places where she spent her childhood, the house my granddad built with his own hands, and the trees in our garden,” she mused.

The current war, she says, has become a new hope for them after 30 years of displacement.

“I wish we wouldn’t need to have this war to fight back our homeland, I wish we wouldn’t have martyrs but sometimes there is no other way other than fighting,” she said.

Jeyhun Jafarov was born in February 1994, a month after his father’s disappearance in Ashagi Abdurrahmanli village. Growing up and seeing his friends with traditional functional families, made him feel he had been robbed of a paternal figure.

When the announcement came that the Azerbaijani military had entered the same village of his father’s presumed death, he says it brought those raw feelings to the fore. Jafarov admitted that all these years he became filled with a desire for revenge. He summarized his view on conflict with the words: “Karabakh is ours!”

Nearly one month into the war, Azerbaijani society has never been so unified, residents say. Virtually all problems have been forgotten, ignored or postponed.

When the ministers of foreign affairs of Azerbaijan and Armenia held talks in Moscow for a humanitarian ceasefire — which envisaged an exchange of corpses and prisoners of war, Azerbaijanis became angry and became quickly depressed. Were all those martyrs for just a couple of days and hills?

That is likely why, after the second humanitarian ceasefire declaration, Azerbaijani Foreign Affairs spokesperson Leyla Abdullayeva assured Azerbaijanis that it was not permanent.

Baku has thus far declined to release military fatalities, but the number is expected to be in the range of the Armenian troop fatalities, now over 700.

Anti-war minority

Not everyone wanted a new war.

On October 12, Azerbaijani anarchist activist Giyas Ibrahim shared a collage of two young soldiers killed in action, one Azerbaijani and one Armenian. They have since been identified as Nurlan Agakisiyev and Edgar Aghapapyan, aged 18, and their child-like looks gave rise to heated discussions about the realities of war on Ibrahim’s page.

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A photo collage posted to Facebook by Azerbaijani anarchist Giyas Ibrahim on October 12 purports to show two fallen soldiers from the Azerbaijani and Armenian sides of the Karabakh war. Photo: Facebook

Ibrahim shared the collage with lyrics from Pete Seeger’s anti-war song, “What Did You Learn In School?”

It has been shared more than 100 times by Georgian, Azerbaijani, Russian and Armenian users of social media who saw it as a reminder not to dehumanize the other side.

Most Azerbaijani commenters disagreed with Ibrahim’s position on the war, however, arguing it was Armenia which started the war by proclaiming sovereignty and forcing out the Azerbaijani minority, who once numbered nearly a quarter of the population.

Laman Sadigli, an Azerbaijani whose father was injured in the first Karabakh war, says it would be like a dream to return to her family’s home towns of Kalbajar and Shusha, but that she is not enthusiastic about the cost.

“I think war is a terrible event. It is the point where human rights disappear. Soldiers suffer the most. My father is an example for me,” she told Asia Times.

“He mainly fought in the Shikhov battalion in Kalbajar. Although he does not like to talk to us about this much, he explains in detail when he is asked. He talks about how his comrades’ deaths in front of his eyes affected him, and the vengefulness he felt when he later found their burnt or dismembered bodies. He is still visiting their graves.”

Laman Sadigli’s father in Kalbajar, 1992. Photo: Courtesy of Laman Sadigli

Sadigli says the last time she visited the cemetery with her mother, she saw the sister of one of the martyrs crying at his grave.

“My father’s friend Kamran lost one eye due to a war injury. Even in this situation he still has to support the family. Knowing that, I became very saddened by the resumption of the war and the soldiers who fell victim. There will always be gaps in their lives that will not be filled,” she said.

Agil Balakishiyev, an Azerbaijani doctor working in Turkey who left Malibeyli village of Karabakh in February 1992 at age nine, says he would not return under the current conditions.

His biggest problem, he says, is the current government of Azerbaijan, led by President Ilham Aliyev.

Balakishiyev also does not believe there will be peace.

Should the Armenian inhabitants be forced out of Karabakh, he said, “they will have this revengeful feeling of hate against us, just like we did. They aren’t going to move on without any problems.” 

“Enforced peace is not real peace,” he said.