All Change in Zabukh: Who is Telling Who to Leave and Why
A year and a half after its victory in the 2020 Second Karabakh War, Azerbaijan is keen to show its people that the era of a full-scale return to the de-occupied regions is getting closer. However, with virtually every former village and town in those areas in utter ruins, the job is bound to be time-consuming. As we reported recently, the first few families have returned to one reincarnated ‘smart village,’ and massive road-building schemes are underway, but that’s just a start.
One area of reconstruction that Azerbaijan was not able to get started on is the town of Lachin and villages accessed through that town. That’s because, as part of the tripartite agreement that ended the 2020 war, a 5km wide corridor between Armenia and Khankendi has remained under the control of Russian peacekeepers (and out of Baku’s hands) until an alternative supply road is built. A month ago, we reported the road was nearing completion. Now it is finished – at least on the Azerbaijani side. However, the link road’s construction is barely past the planning stage in Armenia. Even more pressingly, somewhere between 200 and 350 Armenians who live along the old Lachin Corridor route are facing a major decision. Should they move to Armenia or take Azerbaijani nationality and stay within the de-occupied regions? Three settlements are affected, Zabukh (Aghavno/Ariavan in Armenian), Sus and Lachin itself, which Armenians call Berdzor.
A google maps satellite image of Zabukh, nestled alongside the current Lachin Corridor. Both sides of the river were once Azerbaijani homes, the ruins of which can be seen quite clearly online. The red-roofed structures are the newly built homes where current ethnic Armenian residents are living.
Given the climate of mutual distrust between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, it was widely assumed that all of the villagers would simply move west.
Indeed on August 5, a meeting of Zabukh residents was told by an Armenian politician that they should get out within 20 days. This appeared to be a significant change of plan from the Armenian side, with Yerevan previously confident that there would be at least another year to resolve the issue. The new advice was perhaps encouraged by a notable escalation of violence in the area at the start of August, in which soldiers on both sides died. Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev also reminded observers that the Russian peacekeepers “would be deployed on [the new] road after its construction,” shifting their duties away from the old Lachin Corridor.
Eurasianet noted that Zabukh’s current Armenian residents were “confused and disappointed” about the changed timeframe, with one saying that they would “probably take the children out” but that the adults would “stay until the last day, the last hour.” The report suggested that each affected household is being offered a voucher for 10 million Armenian drams (around US$25,000) to help them find new homes elsewhere. Ironically, Zabukh’s residents are relative newcomers – many of them originally ethnic Armenians from Syria who only arrived after 2016 in a project funded by a Lebanese-Armenian foundation.
By Azerbaijani law, the newcomers are technically illegal immigrants on Azerbaijani soil, and their houses lack any Baku-approved planning permissions. Moreover, the construction of new settlements in occupied territories anywhere on the planet has long been considered a violation of international law, as has been repeated by the UN for decades.
Nonetheless, Azerbaijan has not, apparently, insisted on the evacuation of Armenian residents as an ‘indispensable precondition’ so long as they “become citizens of Azerbaijan and live in accordance with the laws of Azerbaijan.” According to an interview on Caliber.az, at least seven of Zabukh’s 54 families do intend to do that rather than move to Armenia.
Meanwhile, after three decades, families who were summarily ejected from their homes in Zabukh, Lachin and Sus will, at last, have a chance to reclaim their properties and restart their community lives in the lands of their ancestors.
Although thirty years have elapsed, the Azerbaijanis who once lived in these places have never for one moment forgotten the homes of their childhood. We talked to 72-year-old Meher Quliyev, who was born and raised in Zabukh like his father and grandfather before him. Though now settled in Baku, he says he is “very sure that I will return to my place, my village, and my homeland.”
Zabukh in 1972, Meher Quliyev (centre front) and other villagers returning from visiting friends in another village. He told Caspian Post he is the only survivor in the photo, and all the others were lost either during the war, or the occupation.
Speaking with a measured wisdom full of pain but strikingly lacking in spite, he accepts that the situation might be hard for those Armenians who feel obliged to leave. But at least those newcomers are given the time and conditions to organize their departure in good order. It’s a noticeable contrast to the situation for Azerbaijanis three decades earlier. “In 1992, when Armenians occupied our village, all my fellow villagers and I were ejected at gun-point… we had to leave behind 800 head of livestock [a major financial loss]… All our property was destroyed, and many people were killed and wounded.” “For 30 years, we have been living as refugees in someone else's house,” yet “now, respecting international rules, we offer them the chance to leave in peace.”
The scars of a protracted conflict will take a long time to heal, and rebuilding is bound to be tough, but for people like Meher, there’s no time to waste.