“We left everything behind,” says Irada Guliyeva. “Even money and documents. We didn’t realize that we’d never be back.” In 1993, Irada and her family fled Qasımlı, their village in Aǧdam, a province in western Azerbaijan.
South Caucasus neighbors Armenia and Azerbaijan were in conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, an autonomous region of the Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. The enclave’s majority Armenian population was pushing to join the Soviet republic of Armenia instead. As the Soviet Union fell apart, the dispute between the two newly independent countries escalated into all-out war.
(How the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has been shaped by past empires.)
Gruesome acts of violence committed by both sides broke decades-long habits of peaceful coexistence and resulted in the displacement of more than a million people. Months before their village fell, Irada and her husband, Imran, sheltered a group of distraught families from the neighboring town of Xocalı, just 10 miles south. “They showed up half naked and bleeding at our doorstep,” Imran recalls. “One child was not breathing, nearly frozen.” Armenian armed units had opened fire on civilians fleeing the town, killing hundreds of men, women, and children in a massacre that was later condemned by Human Rights Watch and other international organizations. Dozens of people froze to death in the forests to which they'd fled. “Once Xocalı was taken, we knew we’d have the same fate,” Imran says.
More than half a million Azerbaijanis, including the Guliyevs, lost their homes when the Armenian military seized control of seven Azerbaijani districts—Aǧdam among them—and the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The family took refuge in a decrepit Soviet-era sanatorium on the outskirts of Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, where they languished for more than 20 years with little hope of ever seeing their home again.
But on November 20th, 2020, Irada kissed the television screen with joy. Azerbaijan had reclaimed Aǧdam. Last September, Azerbaijan launched a military operation to regain control of territories that had been previously populated by Azerbaijanis. The so-called Second Nagorno-Karabakh war raged for 44 days amid the crippling crisis of the coronavirus pandemic, ending with a peace deal brokered by Russia that allowed Azerbaijan to retain all of its military gains. “I felt as though a great burden was lifted off my chest,” says Irada.
(Armenians grapple with war's aftermath and COVID-19.)
For the first time in nearly three decades, displaced Azerbaijanis would be able to return to the lands that they’d lost. But it soon became clear that it would be a long time before they could live there permanently. For now, the military strictly controls access to the region. More daunting, almost everything that made the region livable had been destroyed, even in areas where there hadn’t been fighting. Nevertheless, the Guliyevs wanted to see their old home for themselves. I went with them.
“The most beautiful place on Earth”
We traveled together from Baku, more than 200 miles east of Aǧdam. Irada was too frail to make the trip, but Imran was joined by their son Rashad, his wife, and two daughters. Rashad was 12 when he left Aǧdam with his parents. His own children were born in Baku and have only seen their father’s homeland on TV. Nine-year-old Fidan was the most excited to go. “Aǧdam is the most beautiful place on Earth,” she says, beaming. “My father said so. I know it’s true.” In her hands she clutched an old electronic tablet with a shattered screen that she planned to use to document her family’s journey.
After driving for five hours, we reached the former line of contact, where the two opposing armies had faced off for decades since the 1994 ceasefire halted the first Nagorno-Karabakh war. Marked by berms, the boundary snakes through a barren no-man’s land. Grapevine trellises along the broken asphalted road had been wrapped with barbed wire and repurposed as infantry traps. People in protective gear crawled through the fields, combing the ground inch by inch. Clearing landmines from all the recaptured territories could take as long as 10 years, says Khaliq Zulfugarov, the local unit supervisor of the Azerbaijan National Agency for Mine Action. “We simply don’t know yet which areas have landmines and which don’t. So we consider all lands to be dangerous here.”
The family’s excitement and anticipation faded into muted disbelief as they entered the city of Aǧdam, once populated by nearly 40,000 people. The mosque was the only building still standing. Over the last three decades, other structures had been systematically demolished, looted, and stripped bare. Rashad and his wife took selfies with their children in the eerily quiet central square, the only sounds the faint chatter of guards and an occasional landmine explosion in the distance.
In the next town, I stepped into the main chamber of what had been a historic mosque and looked up at the open sky. The dome and minaret were gone. Thick layers of hay carpeted the floor. It smelled of freshly burned straw and cattle manure. The mosque had been used as a barn.
In a town square in which an Old World sycamore tree was growing, we were stopped at a military checkpoint. The officers were reluctant to let us wander in an area that hadn’t yet been checked for landmines. Imran pleaded with the man in charge. “I came all this way to see my home,” he says. “I am an old man and I don’t know when I’ll have another chance. I don’t want to die without seeing it.”
After a succession of phone calls with higher command, the officers relented. They even provided an escort—on the condition that we not leave the asphalt road or stray from the designated tracks.
Rubble and memories
On the outskirts of Qasımlı, the Guliyevs’ home village, we stopped at the graveyard where their family members had long been buried. Imran and Rashad stood by the side of the road, looking from a distance at the tombstones, unable to approach and pay respects.
The walls of some houses on the edge of the village still stood, although most were missing window frames and roofs and some had scorch marks. Some Armenian farmers who settled in the area in 1993 had burned the homes before they were forced to leave in advance of the province’s handover to Azerbaijan in November 2020. Carcasses of gutted cars lay sideways in pomegranate orchards where tree branches hung low with overripe fruit. A couple of lonesome horses grazed in the fields, and famished dogs still guarded the deserted yards.
Our escort, who had entered Aǧdam with the Azerbaijani army after the province was handed back, said one elderly Armenian couple they came upon asked the soldiers to give them a few minutes to gather their belongings. “We waited for them to get their stuff, but they came out of the house with just two boxes of pomegranates,” he recalls. "That was all they took” with them.
Qasımlı village mirrored Aǧdam city in its ghostly facades and blind windows. I began to recognize a distinct style of destruction. This town, like so many others, had been dismantled brick by brick and rendered virtually uninhabitable, with many items of value ferried away to be repurposed or sold, often on the nearby Iranian market.
Nothing looked the same to Imran and his family, but the memory of basic topography guided them toward their former home. We passed a bridge over a river, which Imran easily remembered. Once we entered the town, he looked for a small spring. It was still there at the intersection of two village roads.
“This is our house,” he says, pointing to a single wall standing amid rubble overgrown with weeds. “It’s like Hiroshima.”
The officer reminded us that entering the courtyard was off limits due to possible landmines. The family stood by the roadside posing for photographs in front of what was left of their home.
Imran took his son on a tour of the neighborhood: “This is your aunt’s house here on the left and this one belonged to my cousin from the father’s side.” He spoke vigorously, unperturbed at first by the sight of the destruction. In his vivid memory, the walls of these shattered homes were still intact.
Strolling through the faintly familiar streets, Rashad could not stop filming. He seemed to be using his smartphone’s camera to shield himself from the shock of what he was seeing. “This is the big mulberry tree from which I fell so many times and.… Look, Father, our black rock. It’s still here!” Rashad exclaims, discovering a stone in the shape of an armchair lying amid scattered ruins. “And this is the bridge from which I jumped into the water, remember?”
Rashad speaks excitedly, attempting to distract Imran, whose mood had darkened. The old man walked silently, his initial zeal waning as reality began to set in. “I was worried, so I kept making jokes to prevent him from crying and being stressed. His heart is too fragile,” Rashad explains. “The house is not what it used to be, but all my childhood memories came flashing back. It’s like we never left.”
Plucking a pomegranate from the tree in his family’s orchard, Rashad gave it to his daughter Fidan. “Let’s eat the first fruit from our garden,” he offered, cracking it open. She picked out the saccharine crimson seeds in a cluster of bitter brown ones. As the setting sun cast a golden light on the ruined town, the family reluctantly got in the car for the long drive back to Baku.
Too soon to return
After I said goodbye to the Guliyevs, I traveled through the newly reclaimed territories and joined other internally displaced people searching for their old homes. On the way to Kalbajar, the largest of the occupied provinces, I took the same treacherous road through the Murov mountains over which civilians had fled in 1993 when the province fell to Armenian forces. Thousands of people ended up walking for days in freezing temperatures, and many did not survive the cold. Now landmine markers flicker in the virginal snow.
On the other side of the mountains, the city of Kalbajar was reduced to rubble. When Mubariz Mikailov found the scattered ruins of his home nestled behind a military tent, he burst into tears in front of me. “It looks shrunken,” he says. “It’s so much smaller than how I remember it.” His childhood friend Ceyhun discovered that his home was still standing—someone had settled in it after the first war in 1993, and had even changed the direction of the staircase. But when the Armenian inhabitants left the city in November, they'd set the building on fire.
Nearly 3,000 Azerbaijani servicemen perished in the last round of this brutal, protracted war, and more than 750,000 people remain internally displaced. “We’ve been oppressed for so many years. They restored our dignity,” says a man from Gubatli, one of the provinces occupied in the first war, now recaptured. He lives in a battered maternity hospital in Baku, one of many people enduring wretched conditions in improvised settlements around the country.
Many of the displaced, especially the elderly, yearn to go back to their ancestral homes, but it may take another decade before their towns and livelihoods can be restored. “The air here is impossible to breathe,” says Mulayim Ismaylova, an octogenarian living in a patched hut made of plywood. “In Gubatli, I had everything, my house and my land. I had a cow that made fresh milk every morning, but here I have to pay for milk. What kind of life is this?”
“We are happy to know we got back the lands, but we can’t celebrate,” adds her son, Fazahir. “Too much of our brothers’ blood was spilled over them.”
In a decrepit Soviet-era tourist camp transformed into a refugee settlement in the city of Mingechevir, I met Gunay Hamidova, a young widow and a mother of two. She lived with her parents in what was once the canteen of the camp. When she got married, they split the room in half with plywood to separate the spaces. “It’s cold in the winter and hot in the summer,” her father complains. Still, he shrugged off the prospect of returning back home to Aǧdam. “We’ll go back if the government rebuilds our cities. I don’t even know if my home still exists,” he sighs.
When the war started last September, Gunay and her children moved close to the frontline to be near her husband. Five days later, he died from a shrapnel wound. Their three-year-old son often asks about him, addressing the framed portrait now permanently installed in the living room.
“I let him talk to the picture” Gunay says, gently touching her husband’s watch next to the portrait. “It stopped when he....” she trails off. The watch “shows the time of his death…I hope our son will grow up brave and join the military just like his father,” she adds, ruffling the boy’s curls.
I asked if she was scared to lose him, too. “I am not afraid,” Gunay replies. “The war is over now.”