Baku, Azerbaijan – It has been three years since Rasmiya Ahmadova last saw her hometown in Kalbajar, a tree-lined area in western Azerbaijan, full of fruit and walnut trees.
Her adult children have never been there and spent their entire lives in temporary shelters. The family has never stopped dreaming that they will return one day.
This wish is very close now.
Last year, following the outbreak of prolonged conflict around the mountainous enclave, Azerbaijan regained Nagorno-Karabakh and parts of seven surrounding areas, including Karbaj.
More than 6,000 soldiers died on both sides of the war-half of the Armenians, or about 75,000 were displaced.
However, for the more than 600,000 Azerbaijanis who have been displaced since the first Karabakh War in the 1990s, victory is justified when Armenia ceded control of the vast territory recognized as Azerbaijan.
This is also bittersweet-in the past 30 years, Ahmedova has lost six family members in battle, including her eldest son.
“He is a very considerate person. He is not only a son, but also a friend of mine,” she said, reading a hardcover book proudly with a photo of 27-year-old Nijat Atayev in military uniform and slim fit. The charcoal-colored suit looks very capable.
In Azerbaijani tradition, a year after Nijat was killed, neighbors gathered to commemorate him when his tank hit a landmine on the first day of the war last year.
Everyone has their own lost story: the brother who fell to protect his comrades; this friend was washed away by the rushing Alas River in the 1990s when they tried to cross to Iran to escape the Armenian army.
Ahmedova’s third-floor apartment in Gencler Seherciyi, Binagadi District, Baku, is surrounded by wasteland and oil refineries.
It is one of several so-called “little Karabakh”, a slum for long-term displaced persons-residents were resettled here in 2012 after many years of living in dormitories, schools and tent camps.
According to the United Nations, the Azerbaijanis of Nagorno-Karabakh are one of the countries with the most internally displaced persons per capita in the world, accounting for 7% of the country’s population at one time.
However, outside of oil-rich countries, their plight has basically not attracted people’s attention.
Armenia and Azerbaijan, the two former Soviet republics, started a six-week war for Nagorno-Karabakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) since last September. Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as Azerbaijan. , But mainly Armenians.
The two countries signed a peace agreement in November, but the dispute has been in a frozen conflict for decades.
The origins can be traced back to more than a century ago, when the enclave council voted to join Armenia in the 1980s, friction first evolved into war. An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 people were killed in the first war, which ended in 1994 when Armenians took control of the area.
In addition to the internal displacement of more than 500,000 Azerbaijanis, the first war also allowed at least 300,000 Armenians to seek refuge after leaving Azerbaijani territory.
Some people later lived in the occupied areas around Nagorno-Karabakh-but fled after being won by Azerbaijan last year.
A whole generation of people grew up in exile.
Azerbaijan stated that 70% of the displaced want to return to the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
However, Deputy Foreign Minister Ernur Mammadov told Al Jazeera that the complete removal of landmines and unexploded ordnance areas may take up to 10 years.
Large-scale infrastructure projects are underway to connect the newly regained territories with electricity mainframes and transportation connections. According to Mammadov, the first batch of returnees will be relocated to a purpose-built smart village in Zangilan District early next year, and more reconstruction projects are planned to be completed soon.
However, this can be a slow process, and it turns out that for some people, the wait is too much.
According to Azerbaijan’s National Mine Action Agency, more than 60 people have been injured in mine accidents and two people have lost their lives after evading military restrictions to return to their homes.
At Gencler Seherciyi, the collective trauma of this protracted conflict that has shaped everyone’s life is tangible.
The mountain people who used to live by the oak forest and graze on the verdant grassland now live in rows of the same land.
The inner sense of loss is very heavy, and it manifests itself as firm nationalism—a belief that full dedication to the cause is not only important, but also a responsibility. This emotion will only be amplified in young people, who grew up in the story of a magnificent mountain paradise that they have never seen before.
Although the pain in her eyes is clear, Ahmedova is only proud of the price Nijat has paid for this cause.
“Nothing is sweeter than a son, but nothing is more valuable than giving one’s life to the country,” she said. “I still have two sons, but if the country needs them, I am willing to sacrifice.”
Before moving to Gencler Seherciyi, her family lived in a room in a sports university dormitory for 10 years.
Nijat was posthumously awarded three medals for his service and will be commended by the local school, which plans to name a classroom after him. He is fascinated by Nagorno-Karabakh.
He wore the military uniform that he begged his parents on the first day of school and liked to play with toy guns. As a child, he said he was “ready to fight Armenians”.
“My last and final memory of him is that he called home the day before the war started. He was in the army and he knew it would happen,” Ahmedova said.
“His voice was filled with joy and he was still laughing. When I asked him why, he said,’Mom has good news, but I can’t tell you yet.'”
She played a video on her mobile phone. The video showed three young men in military uniforms sitting in a car. They were happy when they drove to the troops near Fozli. On September 27 last year, the Azerbaijani army Right there.
“This is the last fall in our lives,” Nijat said in the video.
All three died the next day. They did not reach Nagorno Karabakh.
“You can see that they are not afraid,” Ahmedova said.
After being absent for nearly 30 years, many people are so attached to Nagorno-Karabakh that two senior residents of Gencler Seherciyi told Al Jazeera they feared a heart attack when they finally saw it again .
‘Return is our duty’
To commemorate the year the war ended, some families were allowed to enter the hilltop town of Shusha (called Shushi by Armenians), which overlooks the Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh area.
The strategic settlement was recovered in the last and most brutal battle of the 2020 war, and was therefore named the cultural capital of Azerbaijan.
In Shusha’s flag field, a memorial service was held for the dead father.
Their children planted 100 pine trees. An official of the Yashat Foundation said that the foundation was established to help the families of soldiers who were killed and injured last year. They said these pine trees would grow 4 to 5 meters long.
A 17-year-old girl has an Azerbaijani flag on her shoulder. When asked what it means to see Karabakh for the first time, she shares the same opinion with others on Al Jazeera: “There is no words.”
“You can’t really describe these emotions. Sahnaz Abbasova, 47, said she was a student in her last class before escaping from Shusha School in 1991. She and her former classmates were allowed to visit the town for Filming of a national television documentary.
“My grandmother’s mother’s mother lives in Shusha. Our roots go back a long time ago, and my grandmother said she would not be forced to leave. So she stayed and was killed,” Abasova said.
Although most of the regained territory has been destroyed by war or negligence, the long-term displacement’s promise to return to their homes transcends the physical: it’s an opportunity to reconnect with forgotten childhood memories and regain their identity — no more Displaced people in need, but became the proud residents of Karabakh.
For Ahmedova, no matter how many years her family has spent in Baku, they will never feel at home. Once it is announced that Kalbajar is protected and safe, she plans to move back the next day.
“My son and many others died for these territories,” she said. “We have sacrificed too much for this land-it is our responsibility to return.”