To the Ruins of Jabrayil: former IDPs search the wreckage of their childhood homes
Photography by Orkhan Azim
“If you haven’t been through it, the feelings are impossible to express.”
We’re talking to a group of four former school friends who were forced to leave their homes in 1993 and never returned – until now.
Their return was the latest heart-wrenching moment in a whole series of emotional waves that have swept over them in the past 28 years. Hearts have filled with interspersed feelings of tragedy and hope – a situation that characterizes hundreds of thousands of IDPs (internally displaced persons) and refugees in Azerbaijan. And millions more worldwide. Yet, at the same time, each lived experience is intensely personal.
In the early 1990s, the four returnees were children in their early teens—a time of life fraught with its own challenges, no doubt. Perhaps there was initially a frisson of adventure when it came to hiding in the cellars as missiles flew overhead.
But if there was any excitement, it was short-lived. They could sense their parents’ anguish, which rapidly turned to fear when it became clear that Armenian soldiers were closing in. Suddenly there was a new urgency. Carrying what they could for a short stay away, the families fled eastwards, staying with relatives in villages at the edge of the province. They imagined that it would be a short time before the world came to its senses and that they’d be going home. But things didn’t normalize. Indeed the rest of Jabrayil and several other districts were soon also under occupation, and they fled towards the Caspian, ending up in Baku’s outer suburbs. As time and chaos stretched on and on, shock turned to confusion and sadness. Then boredom. Then frustration. At what point did the ever-lengthening period of exile start to turn their frustration to hopeless despair? It’s hard to tell. But they never gave up dreaming.
In 2020 the Second Karabakh War saw Azerbaijanis advancing back into the areas that Armenia had continued to occupy until then. On October 9, the news came that Jabrayil ‘City’ – their home-town – had been retaken. And within two more weeks, the rest of the district was in Azerbaijani hands. The now-former IDPs were euphoric. But that doesn’t mean that everything is back to normal, even now.
For nearly three decades, Jabrayil had been left depopulated as a ghost town with the only ‘inhabitants’ based in a military complex maintained by Armenian forces. Jabrayil’s houses were plundered for anything useful. Photos of better-known Aghdam had shown the world how occupation had turned that city into the ‘Hiroshima of the Caucasus.’ However, the visiting friends didn’t automatically compute that the situation might have been as bad in Jabrayil.
“I imagined that I would go and see our house as we had left it,” Yaver Orujov told us. “But the opposite was true. Every single place was destroyed. We searched for a while but couldn’t make sense of all the scattered ruins. Then I remembered that there had been a plane tree on the way to our house. Facing that plane tree, there was a police station, and from there, you would turn right to reach our neighbourhood. After finding the plane tree, I started looking for our house. I finally found where it must have been. But there was no sign of the place – which had been a two-story building. When I saw the bare walls of our destroyed house, it felt that all my childhood, everything I had ever had here, was buried.” Searching through the debris of tumbled walls and twisted metal, he pulled out a child-sized plastic watering can. Surprisingly little weathered, it was a strangely poignant discovery – as though symbolic of lost childhood.
For Samira Shukurova, the shock was a little less severe. Although she hadn’t told her friends, she had already got at least some sense of what to expect. “In June of last year,” she admits, “I found… the ruins of our house by looking on Google Maps. I hid my phone from everyone.”
Nonetheless, knowing that even fragments of her lost home remained to be visited someday, the images continued to be a quiet source of hope for her, the phone view offering a strange sense of connection to her past. “I thought I had a magic mirror in my hand. Every time I looked at it, I would see our house,” she muses. And this brought flooding back a whole series of childhood memories glinting with silver linings, beloved dolls, summer fruit and New Year presents. Despite harsh conditions and frigidly cold winters, she remembers that “[as a child] I lived a strange, fairy-tale life. I don't know - maybe all children's childhoods have a fairy-tale effect on them over the years. But that really was my childhood. We were the children of the Soviet era. At that time, there was communication, kinship, positive attitudes. On long winter nights, people would visit each other, chat, laugh and sometimes stay until midnight.”
It was Samira’s idea to encourage the group to return to Jabrayil.
Despite what she’d seen on Google Maps, the reality of the destruction was still a shock. For her and her sister Ulviyya, a particularly moving moment was the discovery of a seemingly banal piece of enamelled metal, rusting in its corners. This, they were convinced, was part of the outdoor burner on which much of the family food was once cooked.
Nijat Feyzullayev tried to look philosophical as he poked around the sparse remaining stones of his former home. He almost managed a smile when showing us the way to the cellar where the family used to take shelter in the early days of the First Karabakh War.
However, he admits later, “it was especially disappointing – I felt like weeping to see the walls of our ruined house, our pool, and the rabbit hutch deserted and destroyed. When I found my father's gas tank and our rusty refrigerator in our yard, it was as if I had returned to my childhood.”
So was it worth going back?
There’s no doubt about it.
Samira explains: “Houses were destroyed, noisy streets were silenced, and the owners of those noises had disappeared. It was wild everywhere. But when I set foot on that land, everything came to life [in my mind] as it had been 28 years ago. I became a thirteen-year-old girl again… For this, I prayed to God that whatever happened, he would take me to that land. Thankfully, my dream did not remain only a dream.”
Nijat agrees. “Thank God for all this. It is good that I was able to go to the places where I was born and grew up, and it is good that those lands were liberated from occupation. Above all, I am glad that now I can say to my children with all my heart, “you have an ancestral homeland.”
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 A city by name but never much bigger than around 6000 souls at its peak