We Ended Up in Grey Places – Part Two
The First Karabakh War and the breakdown of the USSR meant that schools were virtually non-existent for IDP children. Gulmammad had attended first grade back in Sheylanli, in Lachin. But when his village was ethnically cleansed of Azerbaijanis, his teachers had also fled.
Unlike other young boys his age, Gulmammad Mammadov educated himself by reading what others threw away. Image: EvgeniiAnd/Shutterstock
“Because we hoped we would return to normal at any point,” Dr. Gulmammad Mammadov paused, “we didn’t seek opportunities elsewhere to improve our lives… for years.”
As we saw in The Caspian Post’s previous article (part one) about this remarkable man, Dr. Mammadov speaks for his fellows more than himself. But the emotions he expresses are all too understandable, a feeling of one’s life being on hold that stands in the way of making plans or forming new ambitions with all else overshadowed by the priority of first returning to normality.
Dr. Mammadov is one of the 700 000 Azerbaijanis who, for nearly three decades, were referred to as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), having been forced out of their homes by Armenian forces during the First Karabakh War of 1992 to 1994. Until November 2020, one out of every nine citizens of Azerbaijan was counted as an IDP. And Gulmammad’s home region was one of the first to be occupied.
At eight years old, he found himself and his immediate family plucked out of his ancestral lands and stuck with their mental wheels spinning in confusion. In the spring of 1992, they had brought their flocks across the mountain foothills of Karabakh to the winter pastures in the steppe region of Azerbaijan. As a winter camp, the basic conditions were facts of life. It wasn’t ever meant to be ‘home,’ especially not in the fly-blown heat of summer. But the expected journey back to their mountain home with its cool summers was cancelled - indefinitely. He remembers their Lachin house, crackling with a wood fire, floors and walls draped with soft bright rugs and photos of their family – reminders of decades of the life they used to know. As we now know, that return trip never happened. Like so many others, the family ended up stuck in limbo – in a refugee settlement “waiting room” where their lives remained on hold until November 2020.
He remembers their Lachin house, crackling with a wood fire, floors and walls draped with soft bright rugs and photos of their family – reminders of decades of the life they used to know.
“Not only just my family, but most of these IDP families, hundreds of thousands of them, came from fertile lands to… – I don’t know if you’ve even been to those [steppe] regions in summer – it’s like hell.”
Life in the Camp
They had built a makeshift house of dried cane in that “hell.” In summer, it was an oven that failed to keep out the snakes. With so many refugees competing for resources, it was tough to gather enough brush to keep warm in the damp winter. The food situation was precarious until his father re-learned how to farm in the very different conditions of the far-from fertile steppe land. Gulmammad, like all the kids, didn’t go to school. He would tune their family radio to Baku stations and listen to children’s programs like Tumurjuq ‘Leaf-bud’ and Nagil Akshami ‘Fairytale Night.’ These told stories about school, gave music lessons and featured tales of kids running with their siblings along the Caspian Sea boulevard with ice cream in their sticky hands. Imagining himself as one of these lucky children, Gulmammad lived out his childhood in a world of daydreams.
The cane house that Dr. Mammadov grew up and studied in, in the Takhta Korpu settlement.
What would his life be like if he had been born elsewhere – on the east side of the country instead of the west? He was careful never to mention these things to his parents. The situation was outside their control…
What would his life be like if he had been born elsewhere – on the east side of the country instead of the west? He was careful never to mention these things to his parents. The situation was outside their control, and he didn’t want to add to their pain. Aid trucks did come to the settlement with non-perishable groceries, and they often had school textbooks to pass out. Admittedly, as there was no fuel, his family used many of these books to light fires in their stove. Still, Gulmammad and his brothers collected the more interesting ones, and when not reading them, kept them carefully stacked in a relatively dry corner of their damp cane shack.
Education as a "Way Out"
Dr. Mammadov’s family had a history of seeking education against the odds. His father’s father had died in the Second World War, and Gulmammad’s father was raised by his mother. After completing primary and middle school in his village, Gulmmamad’s father did military service. He only then was able to receive his high school certificate at the age of twenty-seven. To do this, he went to the nearby village of Minkend as educational options in his native Sheylanli did not go beyond middle school. But what does a farmer living in the mountains need a high school diploma for, you might ask? “He didn’t need it, exactly,” Dr. Mammadov explains, “for my father, and my grandmother too, education was something that attributed value to a person. It developed and shaped who you were.” At age thirty-nine, again at the urging of Gulmammad’s grandmother, his father went to college and eventually got his associate’s degree in agricultural engineering. The family attitude of seeing education as a “way out when there was no way out” would be proved right when they found themselves stranded in the Takhta Korpu refugee settlement, Mr. Mammadov’s education in agriculture would now be put to the test. The camp’s ground and the artesian well water was full of salt, but through various techniques and tricks and the hard labour of digging deep canals, he turned the ground into productive soil. The eventual result was produce – fruits and vegetables.
For a time, people were able to feed themselves and experience some stability. They ate watermelon, eggplants, beans, tomatoes, pomegranates, alcha, and plums. Even friends from the regional urban centre of Aghjabadi would come and gather food so it wouldn’t be wasted.
“Soon, everyone in our IDP camp would come and learn, and help themselves to what they needed – there was more than enough food for us. We would give it to everyone.” Mr. Mammadov taught the other IDPs in the settlement how to cultivate the land, and slowly things began to turn around. For a time, people were able to feed themselves and experience some stability. They ate watermelon, eggplants, beans, tomatoes, pomegranates, alcha, and plums. Even friends from the regional urban centre of Aghjabadi would come and gather food so it wouldn’t be wasted. It was a huge struggle to get to a cycle of food sustainability. Unfortunately, it didn’t last. The water was pumped from the Kura river through canals. In the chaos of the collapse of the soviet system and war, infrastructure like this was often overlooked as responsibility was transferred. Conditions changed, the agricultural water supply dried up, and so did the fruit trees.
Gulmammad, as a teenager, second from the right, with his siblings and father Mr. Mammadov.
A Turn Toward the Future
While his father was struggling with the soil, Gulmammad and his older brother, Intigam, struggled with the textbooks they had stacked in the corner. Taking a note from their father’s example, they buckled down to do the impossible, to educate themselves. The First Karabakh War and the breakdown of the USSR meant that schools were virtually non-existent for IDP children. Gulmammad had attended first grade back in Sheylanli, in Lachin. But when his village was ethnically cleansed of Azerbaijanis, his teachers had also fled. People from the same village were now spread all over Azerbaijan. Some of the teachers at his former school ended up in Sheki or Baku. The school system existed on paper, teachers still got a token salary, but how do you regulate a school system of 700 000 refugees in the middle of a war? As Dr. Mammadov explains, “The government just wanted everyone to get through this difficult time. Everyone would “graduate” from school and get their certificate, but admittance to State Universities was merit-based. Not every student in Azerbaijan was a refugee, after all. But for sure, there was no formal education at Takhta Korpu when I was growing up.” If Gulmammad wanted to go to university, yes, he would have his high school certificate in hand – but he would have to teach himself in order to pass the university exams.
His older brother did it. He was admitted to the Mathematics Department of Baku State University in 1997. This lit a fire in Gulmammad, who - already reading whatever he could find - admits that his parents had always treated him a bit like he was a genius. At fourteen, starting with first-grade math, Gulmammad taught himself the entire Azerbaijani school curriculum from start to finish in two and a half years. Now at university in Baku, his brother kept his eye out for books and brought them ‘home’ to the camp. Big changes were happening in the capital – and for reasons unknown, he would find large piles of Azerbaijani books in Cyrillic script at the dump. The young man back at the camp would devour every piece of writing his brother scavenged. He told me that at 15, he read a book about Van Gogh, a novel, a love story. He didn’t know who Van Gogh was – just that he was the hero in the book. Years later, he first saw one of his paintings. After they tired of teasing him, his friends and siblings began to take him seriously, always a book in hand while he sat near the thistle-grazing sheep.
It wasn’t easy. There was no ready source of writing paper or notebooks to do his math exercises or to sketch out his essays. Certainly, no computers. Ten kilometres away in Aghjabadi town centre, he would find pieces of cardboard behind the market, rip them up, and use them for his notes and ever-growing list of questions. These, he would store up for his brother to answer when the latter came to visit at the end of the semester. He had no one else to ask.
The Road to Success
When Gulmammad turned 16, he took a University entrance exam, and, although he scored very high, because of his age, he didn’t have the nominal graduation certificate he needed to get in. However, the following year, with the highest score in his region, he was admitted to Baku State University on a full-tuition scholarship. The Takhta Korpu settlement exploded with pride. Elders asked him why he didn’t go in for business or law with his high scores, but Mahammad loved physics. He wanted to be a teacher of a subject he loved. Making money was simply not his motivation.
Gulmammad’s one room dwelling, constructed by hand, that he would live in for four years while attending university.
A tuition scholarship did not include housing. One of Gulmammad’s other brothers travelled with him to Baku in 2001 with only money for food. They went to the Shikov quarry yard and transported some discarded building stones to an abandoned area of Badamdar. They fashioned a one-room structure for Gulmammad to live in, right in the middle of the garbage dump. There were no windows, but he could see outside through the spaces between the rocks. His family saved and sent enough money to pay for public transportation and one meal per day. He lived like that for a year before he was able to renovate and plaster the walls. This was his home for four years. The details sound like a real-life Cinderella story - repairing his own shoes and clothes while at university, he won award after award. Socially, however, he was avoided by his peers for being “too serious” and overly focused on his work.
With the rector of Baku State University when Gulmammad graduated first in his class, 2005
Gulmammad graduated with honours, a 4.0 GPA and a scholarship to do his masters, which – this time - covered living expenses. But instead of using the extra on personal comfort, he chose to hire an English tutor: gaining an international language being another key step if he was to fulfil his great promise as a scientist of global importance. He was encouraged in this direction by Moscow-based physicist Emil Ahmadov who had realized the unusual depth of Mammadov’s seminar questions and wanted to encourage his career. His English vocabulary developed well enough for him to apply for international predoctoral work in Italy at the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics. He was accepted as one of ten international students in the program. From there, he went on to complete his Ph.D. in biological physics at Syracuse University in New York State with a full scholarship. Both as a doctoral student and after obtaining his Ph.D. degree, in tandem with carrying out research, he continued to teach there for eight years, until 2016.
Left: Gulmammad at the Abdul Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Italy, 2006. Right: The now Dr. Mammadov, speaking with President and Chancellor of Syracuse University Kent Syverud, on the day he graduated with his Ph. D. in Biolological Physics. 2015.
Dr. Mammadov explains that his achievements were not only talent but a result of incredible pressure. “I saw my possible failure at any of these steps as the failure of displaced children all over Azerbaijan. I am one of hundreds of thousands, who found themselves without support in education, people whose normal childhood was ripped from our hands before we could even recite the alphabet with confidence. I was already a role model, whether it was my choice or not. I could not fail them. They had been through enough, and I would not confirm their suspicions that an IDP could not succeed.”
 A form of green plum often made into tangy sauces.