CHRIS KUTSCHERA 40 YEARS of JOURNALISM (Texts and Photos)

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AZERBAIJAN: The Forgotten Refugees

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Saatli railways stationThe scene in Saatli is depressing. At the railways station, near the center of the city, some trains have stopped -- for good. Their trucks are occupied by several hundred families of Azeri refugees. The people are not technically refugees, but rather displaced people who have fled areas of their country occupied by the Armenians since 1993. Enjoying an exceptional sunny day, elderly people and children are sitting or playing along the immobilised trucks. Women cook bread under the axle of the trains.

Usually, one family occupies one truck, but sometimes two families are forced to share. At this time of the year things are manageable but during the summer, heat is so unbearable that people have to leave the trucks soon after sunrise. Sometimes it is so hot inside the trucks that people have to sleep under them, which is freezing cold during the winter. There is electricity, but no water. The women have to walk to neighbouring houses and carry buckets of water to the railway sidings. Some children go to school in a wagon set up as a class room by Oxfam. But most just wonder around idly.

The situation of the children is all the more shocking because just across the railway lines, besides the station, stands a pretty small town school, with a few children playing in the yard. But the town school does not cater for the refugees’ children who, although they are Azeris just like the local inhabitants of Saatli, are treated as if they were foreigners, or worse, completely ignored -- both by the local community, and by most of the NGOs there to assist the refugees. Help has only been forthcoming from IRC (International Rescue Committee) and Oxfam, which distribute food aid from time to time and have built sanitation units.

Trucks occupied by refugeesThere are many large houses, obviously half empty, in Saatli and in the adjacent villages, which could provide a shelter for these “cousins” from Gebrayil and Shusha but their owners display a total lack of solidarity, which clearly shocks the foreign relief workers.

Twenty-eight year old Hymat, his wife Minara, 27, and their three children, Heinour 9, Heisel 8 and  Zaouy 5, have been living in one of these trucks since October 1993. Their tragedy began on 12 October 1993, when they left their comfortable home in a village near Gebrayil where Hymat was working on a collective farm: “Our village was shelled by the Armenians, and the Azerbaijan forces which were protecting us ran away, so we all went to hide ourselves in the forest” Hymat recalls. “After two days, we decided to cross the Araxes (the river that marks the border between Azerbaijan and Iran). The whole population of the village massed on the bank of the river. Those who could swim did so, others crossed in boats, like us. The Iranians helped the people to cross the river, but even so entire families disappeared in the water and were drwowned”.

For two days, Hymat and the other villagers waited on the Iranian bank of the Araxes, hoping that the Armenians would leave their village. When it became clear that they would not withdraw, the Iranians re-grouped the refugees in camps, first in Iran, then some weeks later, they transported them back inside Azerbaijani territory. While Hymat and some 150 other families found a shelter in the railway trucks, many refugees were forced to settle in tents where they were provided food by the Iranian Red Crescent. Two years later, it is not easy to say which refugees are better off -- both the tents and the trucks are hell.

Refugees in BakuIn October 1994, the Iranians, facing economic difficulties at home, decided to pull out and handed over the running of the camps to different relief organisations. From that time the “International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies” (IFRCRCS) have managed seven camps in Southern Azerbaijan, near the towns of Sabirabad, Saatli and Imishli, with a total population of some 45.000 displaced people. Manwhile ECHO (European Community Humanitarian Oranisation) and other organisations (Islamic International Relief Organisation, from Saudi Arabia; Turkish Red Crescent, etc) are running other camps.

Torsten Wegner, an energetic German running the IFRCRCS in Azerbaijan, says one of the major problems  is that nobody seems to know how many refugees and displaced people there are. “These people were registered first by the Iranians”, says Torsten Wegner, “and we inherited lists written in Farsi. Many people registered twice to get more food but we have no way of checking.” While the government claims that there are about one million displaced people and refugees in Azerbaijan (out of a total population of seven millions), Torsten Wegner and many other foreign relief workers think 600.000 displaced people and 100.000 refugees is probably a more accurate figure, in any event a terrible burden for a ruined country to shoulder.

IFRCRCS is distributing 20 kgs per person, per month, in food aid (given by UN World Food Program); it also runs clinics, and supervises schools set up with the assistance of the Norvegian Red Cross, as well as feeding 160.000 “vulnerable people”, including the elderly people, invalids and orphans.

“Some of these elderly people are really in a very bad situation, they are worse than the people in the camps”, says Torsten Wegner, “it is the dirty end of the Soviet Union”. But despite the good that is being done, Torsten Wegner has had second thoughts about the whole operation. “We jumped into a mined field by taking up a challenge we should have left alone. The more we do, the more these people lean back”. Torsten Wegner will not elaborate further, but many relief workers say they are shocked by the absence of solidarity between Azeris: “The Azeris are always complaining about the international pro-Armenian and anti-Azeri conspiracy but why don’t they start to help themselves at home? Why should the international community take care of these elderly people when are neglected by their own relatives?” 

“Why do we bring aid from outside”, says another relief worker, “we could feed thousands of people for weeks with the money it must have cist to buy all the gleaming new Mercedes cars that are being driving around the streets of Baku?”

Tension is rising in the camps. Most refugees enjoyed a reasonably good standard of living before the war made them destitutes. Now, except for some seasonal work on the cotton farms, there is nothing and so they sit idle. Lately, the UN has been reducing the amount of food distributed, partly because donations are down but also to promote new    income-generating activities such as mechanical repair workshops or weaving projects.

The idea of such schemes meet mixed feelings: “Do you mean that we are going to stay here another year”, screams Tamara, 40, a woman telephone operator from Fizuli who has been living for two years under a tent with her husband and her four small children and about to loose her self-control. “I don’t want sugar, I don’t want flour, I don’t want your loom... I want my land”... 

“The people are  stressed and very aggressive, and start quarrelling for no reason”, says a doctor in Sabirabad camp 1. “We have sent several to the mad house”. “Our president is trying to solve this problem peacefully”, says Ali Javat, Saatli 1 camp leader, “but if he does not succeed, we will go and fight. out of one million refugees, we can find 150.000 good men to fight; it is better to die for our land than to die here”.

Everywhere in Azerbaijan, even in the industrial suburbs of Baku, hundred of thousand of displaced people and refugees are desperately looking forward to the day when they will go back home. “If a solution is not found soon”, warns Torsten Wegner, these “unbeloved children” will create another Palestinian-like problem”.

(The Middle East magazine, April 1996; Le Nouveau Quotidien, 14 Février 1996)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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