Fear follows displaced families
For families on both sides of the Karabakh conflict, New Year’s has become an annual reminder of the homes they have lost.
Thirty-one years after the conflict started, the thousands of families that were displaced have tried to rebuild their lives. But regardless of where they ended up, one thing unites them: they fear that they could lose everything they have, again.
Azerbaijani families were displaced from Karabakh and the seven surrounding areas that are no longer under the control of the Azerbaijani government.
While the Azerbaijani government has resettled some, others remain in limbo, living in unsanitary and unsafe dwellings, like the Bunyad Sardarov Machine-Building Plant in capital Baku.
The building is unfit for human habitation. Mice, rats and lizards sneak into their makeshift apartments through holes in the floor; rain floods through holes in the roof.
Seventeen families have been living in the building for 18 years. They come from Zangilan (Kovsakan), Kalbajar (Karvachar) and Aghdam (Akna), towns that are now under the control of the Armenian army.
While the building provides a degree of shelter, it has not replaced the homes they lost.
Albina Mammadova, 57, recalls celebrating New Year’s in her home in Kalbajar, some 447 km away from her makeshift apartment in Baku. She says in the village, her family used to buy a real Christmas tree, and plant it in a bucket for the holiday. "We decorated it with cotton as if it was snowing. And hung some glass toys," Albina says.
"On New Year's Eve, relatives gathered, ate, drank and played bingo. Those were excellent times. But now, what can you decorate here? There are no holidays when you do not have a home," Albina says.
"There is just homelessness, distress, and sorrow when you do not have a home. Now, none of us have the holiday spirit."
About 500 km away, in the Karabakh village of Kyuratagh (Dudukcu), Arina Araqelyan, 60, is also nostalgic about the home she was forced to abandon.
Arina and her family were among the ethnic Armenian families displaced during the conflict.
She arrived in Baku as a bride. Thirteen years later, in February 1989, she and her husband fled Baku with their three children. Arina took just a few things – a couple spoons and cups – to remind her of her old life.
Everyday Arina dreams of what she left behind, recalling her garden, her neighbors and her old life. Even today, she and her family try to retain some of their old traditions, preparing Azerbaijani dishes like Shekerbura cookies.
"Even now I don't want to remember what we went through, I just closed my eyes to remember our happy days in Baku," Arina says.
"When the Karabakh movement started, we did not realize that it will have such a tragic development and would continue until today. I lost a lot of friends in Baku, colleagues, my neighbors, and my house," she says.
Her husband died fighting in the war, and it was challenging for the family to adjust to country life. Their village is small and at times lacks drinking water. There is no indoor heating. The family uses beekeeping to supplement their income.
"I am afraid for the future of grandchildren, children and for the young generation, I am afraid to lose everything for a second time. During the war, we lost everything we had worked for, what had been created over the years. It is not easy to lose those closest to you, and then to continue to live an ordinary life," Arina says.
Another resident of the village, Edik Gasparyan, 69, moved to Baku when he was 16. He left 22 years later, in November 1988.
After the war, he built a house and found a job. But soon he found that every step toward a new life was met with a deepening sense of fear.
"During the war, I did not feel fear, it just disappeared. But then it started to become noticeable, little by little. To lose everything for a second time, I do not want to think about it," he says.
Ajabnaz Mamedova, 62, says fear and uncertainty have also filled her life since she left her home in the village of Kalbajar in 1993.
When she heard the fighting was getting closer, she grabbed her children and ran. It was only after she had travelled some distance that she realized she was barefoot and her feet were frozen. In the heat of the moment, she had forgotten to even put on her shoes.
Ajabnaz notes that the war took away their homeland, their homes, their loved ones, and their health, leaving a huge hole. Over time, this hole has filled with fear, uncertainty and anxiety. Foremost is the fear they will become homeless. The family has lost two homes already: their native home, due to the war, and the first home they found in Baku.
"We first lived in an empty house in Baku. They said that it did not have an owner. Then the owner came from Russia and kicked us out," she says.
"Then we came here. Now this building has been sold. The entire property has been ripped up by the new owners and the building is now unstable. Either he will force us out, or the building will collapse over our heads. We have become sick from worry."