The War is Over, but Azerbaijani Refugees Remain Displaced
Following the outbreak of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war on September 27, ethnic Armenians residing inside of Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region mobilized. In a few short weeks, Nagorno-Karabakh’s capitol Khankendi, referred to as Stepanakert by ethnic Armenians, transformed from a city of more than 50,000 to a ghost town.
Approximately 150,000 ethnic Armenians lived in Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding occupied regions before the beginning of the war. By October 7, the Nagorno-Karabakh regime’s Ombudsman Artak Beglaryan estimated that 70,000-75,000 ethnic Armenians had been displaced, and many were being evacuated to Yerevan, the capitol of the Republic of Armenia.
After the signing of the November trilateral peace agreement between Russian President Vladimir Putin, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, a clear procedure was established for ethnic Armenians to vacate the territories liberated by Azerbaijan during the war. Under the Sixth Article of the agreement, Armenia was to return the Kalbajar District to Azerbaijan by November 15 (later extended to November 25) and the Lachin District by December 1.
International media provided widespread coverage of the return of the Kalbajar district to Azerbaijan. In this handoff, ethnic Armenians burned down their homes, slaughtered livestock, and razed entire plots of forests before beginning their exodus to Armenia. With the return of Kalbajar and Lachin to Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan cooperated with Russian peacekeepers and ensured the safety and security of ethnic Armenians.
While international media was focused on the departure of ethnic Armenians from lands internationally recognized as part of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan has demonstrated full compliance with additional aspects of the trilateral agreement as well. By late December, approximately 43,000 Armenians had returned to the parts of Nagorno-Karabakh retained by ethnic Armenians with the signing of the peace agreement. By late January 2021, this number surpassed 50,000 civilians.
While the population of ethnic Armenians within the territories of the Republic of Azerbaijan are still not at their pre-war levels, approximately one-third of the population has returned in less than three months since the settlement of the conflict.
The same cannot be said for the Azerbaijani IDPs (internally displaced people). After thirty years of Armenian occupation, the future remains uncertain for the displaced Azerbaijanis and their families. According to a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Azerbaijan has one of the highest populations of IDPs globally, with an estimated one million individuals displaced by conflict during the early 1990s.
Azerbaijan’s victory in the 2020 war gave a sense of hope to the refugees who have been unable to return home for the past thirty years. The resolution of the conflict and partial restoration of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity is only the first step, and for many reasons, the refugees’ displacement will unfortunately continue for many years to come.
During the thirty years of occupation, entire cities were leveled by ethnic Armenians. A prime example of this destruction is the city of Ağdam. What was once a city home to approximately 40,000 Azerbaijanis and countless cultural sites, including the Ağdam mosque and Soviet-era Bread Museum, became known as the ‘Hiroshima of the Caucasus’ due to its complete obliteration.
Ağdam is only one example of this annihilation. The liberated territories are in no condition to support the refugees who once called this home. Agricultural lands have been plundered and infrastructure is in disrepair. Lands that appear to be usable are often times not; due to extensive mining efforts, the Azerbaijani army faces an uphill battle with demining operations. In consideration of all of these factors, the Azerbaijani government is currently conducting a series of inventories on the extent of the damages in order to calculate the amount of money needed for reconstruction efforts.
Although a timeline for permanent resettlement is still unavailable, the Azerbaijani government is taking steps to provide a sense of resolve for its IDPs. The inventories of damages will lay the foundation for the Azerbaijani to seek investment from the international community in reconstruction efforts. It will also give the government of Azerbaijan a valid and legitimate platform to seek restitution from the Armenian government in the international legal system, especially since the Armenian Prime Minister signed the agreement which implicates Armenia as an occupying force in the internationally-recognized territories of Azerbaijan.
Diplomatic actions and lawsuits may prove successful in the long term for restoring rights and properties to the displaced, but the Azerbaijani government has also recognized the importance of offering short-term guarantees as well. After the cessation of hostilities, Azerbaijan’s Deputy Chairman of the State Committee for Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons Fuad Huseynov affirmed that refugees would not lose their protections. According to Huseynov, the Azerbaijani government will continue to provide social assistance and social protection for IDPs until three years after they return to their native lands.
Azerbaijani IDPs may not see tangible results immediately and it will likely be many years before families are able to return to territories with restored infrastructure, demined lands, and quality housing. However, in the past three months since the end of the conflict, the Azerbaijani government has taken a number of steps to establish a foundation for refugees to return home. Moving forward, the international community should provide support to Azerbaijan, not only financially, but within the rule of law, to ensure that Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity is secure and to reduce the chances of any further displacement.
Image Source: Azerbaijani Refugees from Karabakh