Drowning in Orchards: Azerbaijan’s De-occupied Minjivan – a Personal Diary
Railway in de-occupied Zangilan region of Azerbaijan Image: Aybaniz Islmailova
This article was originally published at The Tribune. Thanks to their collaborative spirit, it is being republished here.
Minjivan: Drowning in Fruit Orchards
Minjivan is a town that hugs the Araxes River along the border with Iran and it is bursting with fruit orchards. I was born there in 1976. My childhood was carefree, seemingly idyllic. The lives of our extended family revolved around our Grandfather’s home. That is until, like hundreds of thousands of others in the broader Karabakh region, the last residents were forced to leave when Armenian militant groups moved in. Minjivan was looted, dismantled, and destroyed during the ensuing 27-year occupation.
Aybaniz, at two and half years old, with her father and mother.
Our town thrived as a railway junction connecting Baku with Yerevan. The rails themselves now lie decayed and rusted. My Grandfather was Dr Karam Mammadov.
Dr Karam Mammadov, Aybaniz's grandfather.
His sprawling two-story home was surrounded by a lush collection of fruit trees: peaches, mulberries, apples, and cherries. We held our family gatherings amid them—birthdays, weddings, and holidays. These family events always included long feasts and endless socializing.
Though we lived close to the administrative border with Soviet Armenia, in those times the so-called frontier was little more than a theory. On our occasional crossings we barely noticed the Soviet-style welcoming signs that preached the “fraternal friendship” between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Crossing back and forth between the two then-Soviet republics was an afterthought.
Our Minjivanis would often head over to the Soviet Armenian side of the border to sell fruits and vegetables. Lying along the Araxes River, our climate was green and our country was lush—a veritable hothouse for growing produce.
The town on the Armenian side was Kafan. Given Armenia’s more arid, dry climate, the produce we brought would fetch more Soviet rubles there than at home. In a stilted exchange, due to the vagaries of the USSR’s byzantine central planning system, some coveted goods ended up in Soviet Armenia in greater abundance than on our side. For example, I was told that my grandfather took my mom to Kafan to buy her gold and clothing for her wedding.
A few Armenians lived in our town of about 5,000. They were mostly women who had married Azerbaijani men. No one batted an eye at this. After all, we had many common traditions and my parents—if they spoke of the Armenians at all—talked of them simply, as ordinary neighbours.
Yet I would sometimes hear occasional talk by my grandparents about Armenian “adversaries”. This attitude was perhaps due to perceptions among some Armenians that Azerbaijanis were the same “Turks” who had driven them from the Ottoman Empire in 1915. So, while in general there was amity between us, there was a latent and lurking historical enmity remembered by the older generation.
Minjivan was at the critical railway junction of the borders of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Iran. A large proportion of the people in our town, my father among them, worked in some capacity related to the railroad. He worked as an engineer on the train route from our town to Nakhchivan, an Azerbaijani exclave separated from the rest of the country by a 40-km strip of former Soviet, now independent, Armenia. The rails were of particular importance to us because it was the straightest and shortest road to the nearest villages.
As children my brother Karam and others jumped from sleeping platforms in the train wagons. This was our unique fun. Of course, we had no mobile phones and many people did not even have a landline. The main form of communication emanated from the railroad terminal in the form of voices from a giant loudspeaker.
“Machine driver A, your shift starts at B time, please come to the station.”
If the driver did not hear the edict the neighbours who did would pass the message along.
When our family boarded the train for trips to outlying towns locals stood selling fruit on the platform to those travelling to Nakhchivan or Kafan on the Soviet Armenian side.
On the train platforms sellers hawked cherries strung on skewers. The brilliant colours of the fruit were mesmerizing; the sun’s rays were caught by them and then reflected. Everyone seemed to be smiling. It was such a vibrant life but it would soon be cut short by the looming war.
I later heard from many internally displaced people from the Zangilan region that for a long time their dreams were full of audio hallucinations—the sound of the clattering rails, as if trains were still passing through. In their dreams they were tormented by being separated from their homes.
Many of us Zangilanis went to live in the Balajari district of Baku. Ironically, and perhaps not by chance, trains pass to Baku via the Balajari station. By 1990 relations between Azerbaijanis and Armenians were deteriorating fast. In 1998 the majority of ethnic Armenians in the former Azerbaijan Soviet Autonomous District of Nagorno-Karabakh started demanding either union with Armenia or full independence. Isolated violent incidents increased and, in response, locals formed armed militias. Yet we still managed to travel from Baku to Minjivan when we could. Gradually, however, the taken-for-granted normal ties began to fray.
Last Trip Home
My last trip to our hometown was in August 1992, to attend my uncle’s wedding. By then Azerbaijan and Armenia were both officially independent countries. The USSR had collapsed and the former USSR republics were now openly at war. The hostilities had long since begun in other places—for instance, the Azerbaijani town of Khojaly in February 1992.
Almost all the people in our town feared for their lives. We travelled in the evening from Baku by night train and, in the morning, we were already in Mijivan. When we arrived I saw that it was no longer the village I remembered as a child. There were a lot of military men and the atmosphere was gloomy and dark.
As a group of 20 women, we went for our henna bridal decorations—a pre-wedding custom. It was done in complete darkness. We did not even dare light candles because everyone said that it was too dangerous. My memories of those times are deeply ingrained. I vividly recall how it affected me because I could no longer experience the taste of the summer, the fragrance of bountiful fruits. As I was affected, so were the people that I knew. Despite my uncle’s wedding celebration the guests wore no smiles on their faces. So stark was the situation that we have not a single photograph from the wedding—all the local photographers had left for the war zone.
Months later, the same trains which my father had been responsible for completely stopped. My hometown being so close to the now “official” border made it an obvious target for occupation. Our army at the time was poorly organized and poorly equipped and as tensions increased more and more of the townspeople left. The final blow came on October 28, 1993, when the Armenians closed in. Many of those who remained fled, often barefoot, through the Araxes River on the Iranian border.
Minjivan suffered the same fate as many such towns in the occupied territories, which the Armenians were finally forced to relinquish in late 2020. It was looted down to bricks, wiring, and metal: anything that could be re-sold. A fearless few tested their luck and remained, mostly the elderly. Those who eventually made it out reported instances of citizens being frog-marched into forced labour for Armenian troops, tortured, or held as hostage-bait to be later exchanged for Armenian POWs.
Like hundreds of others, my town was systematically looted, dismantled, and destroyed during the nearly 30-year occupation by Armenian armed groups. Having become internally displaced, we lost everything that we had gained. Our lives were turned upside down. We lost our friends and neighbours because everyone was forced to flee in different directions, depending on where they had relatives or opportunities. In Azerbaijan, it is said that “a close neighbour is better than distant family”. Now we were scattered around as if a bomb had detonated and thrown us all in different directions.
In Baku, however, everything was different. Although it was our place of refuge the taste of tea had changed and the meat didn’t taste the same. The greens and herbs unique to Minjivan were nowhere to be found.
We managed a four-room apartment in Baku with 50-60 relatives. They had nowhere to go so we took them in. In the mornings there was a long line of people to use our tiny toilet.
This all coincided with my final school year. It was my family’s dream that I follow in my grandfather’s footsteps and become a doctor. But life with dozens of other relatives in an extremely cramped apartment made it impossible to properly prepare for medical school admission. After a while our relatives were able to resettle. The lucky ones moved to simple cottages or “dachas” outside the city, while the less fortunate moved into converted dorms or even half-built houses.
We clung to the expectation that we would return home at any moment. But even as the years passed our conversations were never hopeless. Every round of talks by the international mediators, the OSCE “Minsk Group,” gave us hope that the conflict would be resolved peacefully. Over all of those long years we talked about the house in the present tense. When planting seedlings in pots, my father, now 70, and my grandmother, now 93, still hoped to replant them in our garden in Minjivan. Women from our community always hoped to settle the conflict peacefully. After all, we didn’t raise our sons just send them off to war.
House Still Standing
In the end Azerbaijan had no choice but to reclaim its lands by war. After the occupation ended my cousin returned to see what was left of our town. By a small miracle our extended family home, my grandfather’s house, was still intact. Evidently, it was considered attractive enough that some Armenian occupying troops used it as a base. While it is in deplorable condition it is still there, ready to be renovated and enjoyed again.
Left: Aybaniz's grandfather’s home, one of few homes still standing in Minjivan Right: Ms. Ismailova’s grandfather’s gravestone.
Perhaps more amazing still, my Grandfather’s gravestone was not pilfered to be sold off as expensive stone. Few in the town were left like this. The reasons it was left undamaged are unclear, though he did come from a long line of Seyyids, people accepted as descendants of the prophet Muhammad and son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib. Such people are considered to have special powers.
My grandmother’s house, by contrast, had been dismantled to its brick foundations. It was overgrown with weeds and a large tree had sprouted in the middle.
Aybaniz’s maternal grandmothers home.
No one has yet returned to permanently live in our town, let alone the larger region of Zangilan, even eight months after the liberation of the territories. After all, landmines have killed many. Almost all homes were systematically looted down to their baseboards. Only infrastructure workers, soldiers, and border troops are now there. Zangilan is now a huge construction site for rebuilding houses and destroyed infrastructure.
After 30 years the heritage railway is being rebuilt to be even better than before. The groundbreaking reconstruction of the 100-kilometre-long Horadiz-Agbend railway is currently underway. This is of great importance for transporting passengers and freight to the recently liberated territories.
For 30 years we have lived in uncertainty. But on November 10, 2020, everything suddenly fell into place. Now we are thinking about transferring part of our business to Karabakh, about opening schools and hospitals. We need to catch up. We are no longer the refugees or Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs) of the 90s who went through those difficult days—the collapse of the Soviet Union and the first Karabakh war—when we lived in hardship.
Today, refugees, or IDPs, live scattered in different cities. Many of them want to return and elevate the region to a higher economic level. With happy childhood memories filling my head, I too wait impatiently for the day I will go home.
Aybaniz Ismayilova leads outreach and fundraising efforts of the Karabakh Revival Fund, “Build Back Better.” With 20 years of experience in international development, and as a woman and a displaced person from the recently de-occupied Karabakh districts, she brings a unique perspective.
In this personal story, Aybaniz Ismayilova describes her hometown of Minjivan in the Zangilan region of Azerbaijan – a town now cheering its de-occupation. However, Minjivan is deeply wounded—having been destroyed during 27 years of occupation. She tells of her deep attachment to this multicultural, colourful, and geopolitically important Eurasian town.