Azerbaijan’s First Set of Returnees Head for the Completely Reconceived “Smart Village” of Aghali
A group of wellwishers sends off the first returnees to Karabakh, Azerbaijan. July 19, 2022. Image: qafqazinfo.az
Azerbaijani media and a crowd of well-wishers gathered on July 19 in the outer Baku suburb of Masazir, giving a warm send-off to the first group of ‘returnees’ – people who had been internally displaced from the southwest of Azerbaijan since the First Karabakh War of the 1990s. Now, at last, they will live once again on their home soil, in the newly reconstructed ‘smart village’ of Aghali in the Zangilan Region.
Vahid Hajiyev addressing journalists in Masazir.
Vahid Hajiyev, the President's special representative for Zangilan, told massed reporters that all but 100 of the 1457 people registered as displaced residents of Aghali’s three original villages had expressed the desire to return. In the end, some 201 people from 41 families were selected, having ‘won’ a kind of relocation lottery to gain the honour. Today’s send-off was for 58 of these individuals, representing ten of the lucky families. This is the first of four such parties slated to make the journey to reclaim their long-lost homeland over the coming month or so.
The group gathered at a triangular ‘square’ overlooked by the Zangilan Region’s administrative quarters ‘in exile’ (de-facto located in Masazir pending the eventual reconstruction of Zangilan City). After various press statements, a convoy of trucks and passenger vehicles set off for the dusty journey to Aghali.
On arrival, a wind-whipped haze somewhat diminished first impressions, but rapidly the mood improved as the arrivees strolled around the lawns of the manicured main square. For many of the younger individuals, it was like walking into a dream sequence as this was a place that many had only previously heard of from the tales of their parents and grandparents. TV cameras following one family into their new home captured a sense of genuine delight from Fermeyil Ismayilov, who was half speechless in disbelief at finding such a well-appointed home already partially furnished. Other new furniture and appliances appeared to be boxed and awaiting unpacking, aside from the returnees' personal belongings.
Returnees get a first view of Aghali.
Once the brigade of journalists returns to Baku, however, it will be interesting to see how the villagers fare longer term. In principle, each family has at least one member ensured sensibly paid employment. The village has been thoughtfully built with a management centre, agricultural services offices and a sewing factory, as well as necessities such as a health centre, kindergarten and a secondary school. These structures’ green energy credentials have been carefully noted, but it remains to be seen how well the new residents, now accustomed to living within reasonable proximity of the metropolis, will cope with their new lives in this comparatively isolated oasis of rural modernity. Already they have had to undertake a course on landmine awareness.
‘Peace’ fountain pool at the centre of the re-incarnated ‘smart-village’ of Aghali as it looks on a sunnier day. Image: yalan.info
Their return comes nearly 29 years after the whole region fell to Armenian occupiers in October 1993. During that time, the settlement had been essentially left as abandoned ruins without any structure viable for habitation, and the possibility remains that areas were mined by retreating Armenians. The new Aghali is a brand new series of constructions, albeit close to the original villages whose sites were reclaimed during the Second Karabakh War of 2020.
As well as designing an eco-aware settlement, planners have been careful to avoid building generic box-houses in soul-crushingly straight rows, a mistake often made in earlier refugee settlements – some of which had all the charm of prison camps. Instead, the homes in Aghali are set in sensibly sized plots of land, and the road system looks less like a grid than a stylized jellyfish. The administrative buildings are ranged inside a circular loop of parkland from which four waving ‘tentacles’ of road flow south, wiggling between homesteads.
It is hoped that, in time, Aghali will develop into a regional hub, seeding life and opportunity into the surrounding area and thus encouraging others to return and rebuild other villages in the region - or to expand upon the impressive if small-scale start made here. In the meantime, Tuesday was a day of celebration in Azerbaijan, where many citizens see this as the symbolic first step in a momentous national revival. It’s labelled by some “The Great Return” with the hope that before too long, tens or hundreds of thousands will follow the lead of these returnee pioneers.