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Lachin Return Starts

On 28 May, the first group of IDPs returned to Lachin, over 30 years since they were forced to leave.


Image: aayda.gov.az

This weekend, the first group of internally displaced people (IDPs) from Lachin made their way back to the town of their ancestors after a hiatus of over 30 years.

It’s hard to believe that less than a year ago, Azerbaijan was still completing the new road[1] that allows a rerouting of the former ‘corridor’ road between the Armenian border and Khankendi/Stepanakert, the main population centre for Karabakh Armenians. With that shift, Baku could go up a gear in organizing the reconstruction of Lachin City. OK, so ‘city’ might sound a little hyperbolic for a place where the population never topped 8000, even during its late-Soviet peak in the 1980s.   

In 1914, what would become Lachin was a small village called Abdallar, named after a regional tribe, and the population was a mere 124—though there had been other historic settlements here in the medieval period. Inscriptions in nearby caves suggest that humans lived here at least as far back as the 6th century BC.  However, the entire Azerbaijani population was forced out in 1992, and the city was essentially burnt to the ground by Armenian forces. Since then, people from Lachin have been amongst the thousands of displaced people eager to regain their homes—or whatever remains of them. That possibility began to dawn with the 2020 Second Karabakh War, by which the town reverted to Azerbaijani control.

Details of the plan to start the return process date back to August 2022, when Azerbaijan regained full control of the area from Russian peacekeepers, with community leaders meeting with the authorities in Baku. A remarkable feature of the IDP situation in Azerbaijan is the degree to which community hierarchies were maintained in exile so that there is a ready-made organizational network to facilitate logistically difficult operations of this type. By December, it was announced that Lachin would be a new priority for the “Great Return” following the rapid progress of repopulating the ‘smart village’ of Aghali in the Zangilan Region since the summer.

The Lachin plan envisaged around 500 private houses being built or restored, along with the reconstruction or ‘overhaul’ of eight multi-story residential blocks and the provision of some 30 public buildings. At that stage, it was considered that late 2023 would be a reasonable target, so the fact that a group of IDP returnees set off as early as late May suggests a truly remarkable work pace.

On 28 May, Azerbaijan’s Independence Day, President Ilham Aliyev met with the IDPs who had returned to Lachin and presented them with their housekeys. During his speech, he congratulated the returnees and noted the symbolic meaning of the date, highlighting how strong Azerbaijan’s independence is for such a feat to be achieved so quickly. 

During this meeting, Adjar Ahmadov, a returning IDP, told President Aliyev, “I note with regret that the older generation, personally my father and mother, are not here today. I am both happy and sad to be here today.” And stated that “I want to inform you that from today we will live and create in our native land. We will do our best to beautify our place.”

The return is likely to be both emotional and testing— true pioneer spirit. We wish them well.


[1] I.e. the new “Lachin Highway”—that has been at the heart of an ongoing dispute for months, but as the route doesn’t actually go through Lachin itself, the issue doesn’t impact the urban renewal project.