By Ashot BEGLARYAN
Refugees comprise one of the most vulnerable population categories in post-war Karabakh. The issue of displacement with its socio-political, social, humanitarian and moral aspects, is further exacerbated by the unresolved Azerbaijani-Karabakhi conflict and the lack of international recognition of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR). Unlike those in Azerbaijan, refugees in Nagorny Karabakh (NK) do not have official status, depriving them of international aid and imposing further difficulties on this part of the population, which has already suffered more than its fair share of horror, hardship and loss.
This article presents Karabakhi perspectives through the views of the political establishment in the NKR, civil society, NGOs and refugee organizations and ordinary refugees, mainly gathered in interviews conducted by the author in November 2010 with some additional media sources.
1. Who are the refugees in Karabakh and how do they live today?
Originally the issue of refugees was predominantly viewed in NK through the prism of morality, which brought both merits and disadvantages. The following unwritten rule applied: those who had come to NK and most of whom had Karabakhi roots must not feel alien in their native land. They were therefore not referred to as ‘refugees’, and there was consequently no issue of their return or even compensation for lost property. Integration was deemed a priority, and any artificial subdivision of NKR citizens into ‘refugees’ and ‘non-refugees’ has never been accepted by Karabakhi society. Over time, however, the problems of those who abandoned ancestral homes and property on the other side of the border are becoming more pressing and demand more than a purely humanitarian response. “The former Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic and even much less so the current Republic of Azerbaijan made no moves towards accepting their political and moral responsibility for the flagrant violation of their former citizens’ rights”, according to Ruzanna Avakyan, a representative of the NGO “Refugees of the NKR” in Stepanakert.
The Law on Refugees in the NKR was adopted in 2004, according to which refugees were granted some financial compensation by the state for the loss of their property, moral and psychological damage and so on. However the provision of accommodation remains an acute problem. According to Avakyan, approximately 3,200 refugee families are registered in Stepanakert today, and half of them do not have their own accommodation: “in 2009 approximately 20 families were resettled in the Achapnyak neighbourhood. In 2010 there were no such programs, because of the world financial crisis”. In the meantime the Karabakh government, despite reductions in the state budget for construction, promises to continue its construction activities in 2011 to provide accommodation for refugees.
Albert Sarkisyan, a refugee from the town of Ali-Bairamly, war veteran, sculptor, and a member of the NK and Armenian Artists’ Union, had his accommodation problem resolved immediately upon arrival in Stepanakert: “Today I do not feel like a refugee. I feel a fully-fledged citizen of the NKR. I vote in all the elections, I participate in the socio-political life of the republic. I received a house the first year I moved to Stepanakert, in 1988. The only thing I could possibly wish for is that all the refugees, and all other citizens of the NKR, will have a roof over their heads”.
Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are also rebuilding their lives. The Karabakh village of Nor Erkedzh (New Erkedzh) celebrated its tenth birthday recently. The village was founded in 2000 in the Karvachar district of the NKR by a number of people from Erkedzh village, who, together with the populations of the Manashid, Buzhlukh and other residential areas of the Shaumyan district of the NKR, were deported in July 1991, as a result of the Azerbaijani Interior Ministry special forces’ ‘Operation Ring’. In the beginning 10 houses were built in Nor Erkedzh, and today there are 25 houses in the village with a population of 130. Arutyun Khachatryan, the local school cadet leader, recounted how mourning the loss of their native village, they had to make a life for themselves in a new place: “New Erkedzh became the motherland for all the children, born here. However, we still are harbouring hopes, that some day we shall return to our native place”.
The Refugees of the NKR NGO was founded at the beginning of the Karabakh movement, when in 1988-1989 Armenian refugees from Sumgait, Baku, Kirovabad [Ganja] and other districts of Azerbaijan fled to Karabakh. “Armenians lived in almost every town in Azerbaijan, and they were forced to abandon their homes for obvious reasons”, says Sarasar Saryan, chairman of the organisation. “Initially we were mainly working to house the refugees, to provide them with humanitarian assistance. A number of social projects were organised – acquisition of houses for the refugees, distribution of gas cookers to those living in ‘Finnish cottages’ [a type of emergency housing-Ed.], provision of material assistance, and so on. However that activity was interrupted because of the war”.
According to Saryan, Armenians from Baku today live all over the world; the majority of those who came to NK were those with roots in the area. “If they had no opportunity to defend their rights on the territory of Azerbaijan, then they defended their rights during the war, on the territory of the NKR. Many of the refugees died during the war and many became disabled”. According to the NGO’s data, currently there are approximately 25,000 refugees and an equal number of IDPs in the NKR. The NGO intends to continue the struggle for the compensation of moral and material damages by Azerbaijan.
As part of a program to assist their integration, the NGO also ran Armenian language and computer literacy courses. Psychological rehabilitation was offered with the assistance of foreign experts, especially from New York, and assistance given to low-income families, students and those requiring treatment in Yerevan. However, the issue of housing remains insurmountable.
“We must face reality: the salvation of Karabakh lies in filling it up with people”, Saryan says. “A strategy to populate the vacant lands has been long overdue. This needs to be seen as partial compensation to refugees from Azerbaijan who left their ancestral homes and property in that republic. Our refugees cannot understand why Azerbaijani refugees are allowed everything – to occupy Armenian houses, use Armenian property and on top of that to receive multimillion international humanitarian aid, while Armenian refugees, who suffered more than they did, are allowed nothing”.
2. Refugees from Northern Karabakh
Ruben Zargaryan, a political scientist and historian, stresses the issue of the refugees from northern Karabakh as another essential component of any final resolution, together with the issue of the refugees from the Shaumyan district and those parts of Mardakert and Martuni districts now under Azerbaijani occupation.
“Up until 1988 the Armenians represented the vast majority of the population in those areas of northern NK that were compactly settled, which encompassed the mountainous parts and some lowland areas of the Khanlar, Dashkesan, Shamkhor, Kedabeg districts and of the town of Gandzak of the former Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. In 1988 these lands in northern NK, despite forced emigration due to deliberate and systematic pressure from the Azerbaijan authorities, were home to one third of the overall Armenian population of NK”: over 83,000. According to Zargaryan, this population was forcibly deported, beginning in the summer and autumn of 1988; the deportation was completed after the start of the armed phase of the Azerbaijani-Karabakhi conflict. The last remaining Armenian residential areas – Getashen and Martunashen – were devastated in April-May 1991. Shaumyan district of the NKR was later seized by Azerbaijan during hostilities against the already independent NKR in 1992, and its 20,000-strong Armenian population was either killed or expelled.
To complete the picture, it should be noted that even before the mass exodus of the Armenians from Azerbaijan at the end of 1987 Azerbaijani Ministry of Interior forces, aiming to intimidate and quell the emerging liberation movement in Karabakh, carried out a pogrom in the large Armenian village of Chardakhlu in Shamkhor district, homeland of the famous Soviet generals Ivan Bagramyan and Amazasp Babajanyan. Between July and December 1987 the first secretary of Shamkhor district party committee, Asadov, supported by Azerbaijani party leaders, drove out the indigenous Armenian population from Chardakhlu. These repressions intensified and the deportation of the people of Chardakhlu continued for a year, until in November 1988, when the last Armenian left Chardakhlu. This famous Armenian village, the homeland of two heroic generals of the Second World War, was no more after five centuries of existence.
3. Exploiting the issue of refugees
Zargaryan further writes, “the leadership of Azerbaijan is a proponent of the Turkish-Azerbaijani doctrine vis-à-vis Armenian refugees, which in essence is not to allow under any circumstances their return to the homeland”. Elsewhere in the same article he writes, “Azerbaijan refuses, categorically, to discuss and resolve the issue of Armenian-Karabakhi refugees. The attempt to distinguish between different classes of refugee – putting Azeris first and Armenians second – is illegal and amoral, and it must be condemned by the international community”.
According to David Karabekyan, an independent analyst in Karabakh, “the notion of ‘refugee’ in Azerbaijan is manipulated to serve the manifestly cynical policies of the authorities…instead of resolving these people’s problems, the government of Azerbaijan prefers to use them to further its own propaganda and political goals, to make a show of the tent camps, in order to persuade the world that the situation of the refugees is difficult”. Why did the government of the most affluent republic in the South Caucasus create such difficult conditions for its own citizens, whose interests, if the ruling circle is to be believed, are so important? Why are refugees accommodated near to the Line of Contact, and made to live in the waterless steppes? Will these refugees become the first victims of renewed violence, considering the Azerbaijani leadership’s threats of a new war? These are hardly idle questions.
4. Is the return of the refugees possible today?
Recently the return of the Azeri refugees to NK has been debated in Karabakhi society. “The broad paradigm of conflict resolution proposed by mediators, naturally foresees the return of refugees and IDPs to their places of former residence. However, this applies to all refugees and must be viewed equally and proportionally in relation to all conflict parties. It is unacceptable to talk about the return of the refugees from one party to the conflict and forget about the other party”, according to Vagram Atanesyan, Chairman of the Permanent Commission on External Relations of the NKR parliament. “Azerbaijani propaganda tries to portray Azeri refugees as the only object of a return policy. But 18,000 Armenians were deported from Shaumyan district. From a humanitarian point of view, these 18,000 refugees are equal to all those on whose behalf Azerbaijan speaks today. This is a humanitarian problem demanding a comprehensive solution”.
Bako Saakyan, President of the NKR, also insists on the need of the comprehensive approach to the issue. “If we are talking about Azeri refugees, then we must not forget the half million Armenians forced to leave their homeland. Therefore we cannot accept any one-way interpretation of the return of displaced people. We are ready to consider this issue holistically, i.e. including the interests of Armenian refugees”, confirms the Karabakhi Head of State.
Georgy Gazaryan, coordinator of the NKR League of War Reporters takes a tough stance: “Currently there is a generation in Karabakh born and raised hiding in basements. Azerbaijan is to blame for this. A generation whose childhood was spent in fear and horror will not want to repeat the mistakes of their ancestors. Many of these children are now in the military and it is impossible to bring them around. The people of Artsakh are not going to live together with Azerbaijan’.
According to Gagik Bagunts, Chairman of the ‘Artsakh Intelligentsia Union’, refugee return is fraught with multiple dangers: “Against the background of staging the ‘return of the peaceful Azeri population’ multiple incidents will unfold, which will be presented as Armenian aggression. This situation will deteriorate over time, and the implementation of the referendum, proposed by mediators will look increasingly doubtful”.
Sarasar Saryan agrees: ‘without a doubt I can say that the return of refugees is quite impossible today. This is a difficult, even global issue, which at this time invites strong emotional rejection, and so logically it cannot be put on the agenda. Why? Firstly, the territory of the NKR gave shelter to numerous Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan, and second, Azerbaijani and Karabakhi societies recently experienced a modern war. It is impossible to talk about the return of the refugees for as long as NK does not have de jure status. Only after the status issue has been resolved, together with social issues, will it be possible to prepare societies for mutual concessions on return. These are processes for the future’.
At the end of 2010 the International Center for Human Development published a report, The Resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh Issue: What Societies Say, surveying the results of parallel Armenian and Azerbaijani ‘town hall’ discussions about the conflict. Respondents from Karabakh in particular expressed the view that first of all the NKR’s independence needs to be recognised, and only then can other issues, including refugee return, be tackled. In response to a question about a referendum on status after the return of Azeri refugees, NKR respondents noted that Azerbaijan will try to send more refugees to NK than were there originally.
5. Measures to resolve the issue of refugees
The civil society network ‘Refugees and international law’, which includes a number of NGOs, representing Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan, has produced a draft paper ‘On citizenship of the NKR’. The document suggests several options for acquiring NKR citizenship, principally through birth. NKR citizenship is the birth right of any individual of any nationality living in the NKR when its independence was announced. But this particular paragraph does not apply to those Azeris who left together with the Azerbaijani army during the course of military operations, or from the territories located outside of the NKR’s borders at the time when it became independent but over which the NKR has control today. These Azerbaijanis recognized and acquired the citizenship of the Republic of Azerbaijan instead.
In turn, the acquisition of NKR citizenship gives Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan an opportunity to turn to the NKR government to assist them in obtaining compensation for their losses in Azerbaijan starting in 1988. This includes reparations in the form of territories now under NKR control. So far, however, this notion remains at the level of discussion only.
In the meantime, lamentable as it may be, the issue of refugees, together with escalating tension in the conflict zone and deepening mistrust, is becoming ever more intractable and threatens to become a Gordian knot. However, it should be remembered that this particular knot will be impossible to cut, since it comprises a huge number of real people. Therefore the only feasible solution is to recognise existing realities, take an objective approach and to attempt to resolve the issues one step at a time.