Kerkenj and Qizil Shafaq - The 1989 ‘Village Swap’ that Saved Two Communities

The Caspian Post
An Armenian grave in the Kerkenj graveyard.

Until the late 1980s, a great many villages in Armenia were home to ethnic Azerbaijanis. Similarly, there were villages in Azerbaijan settled by Armenian communities. However, as the USSR started to crumble, decades of friendly coexistence between such settlements started to fray. As nationalism grew, ethnic minorities started to fear for their safety. Some Azerbaijanis from Armenia sought security by heading to Azerbaijan and vice versa. This trickle rapidly became a flood as threats of violence grew into full-blown massacres. Soon whole villages were leaving en masse, with hundreds of thousands eventually displaced as refugees or living with relatives. Both sides came to see themselves as victims, each seeing the other as committing terrible acts of ethnic cleansing and using that to create a dehumanizing narrative.


Hilltop Kerkenj in July 2021: On the face of it, just a typical rural village

However, the reality is that a great many Armenians and Azerbaijanis had been friends and colleagues, neighbours and lovers. In the case of Kerkenj/Qizil Shafaq, villagers stood by their faith in each other. Harnessing a deeper level of trust, this pair of communities on opposite sides of the conflict managed to organize an amicable ‘village swap.’ Azerbaijanis from Qizil Shafaq moved into the homes of Armenians in Kerkenj, then the same trucks took the Armenians back to Qizil Shafaq (since renamed Dzunashokh). The assumption at the time was that the move would be temporary – with the expectation that Moscow would soon come and restore order and allow everyday life to resume. In the meantime, each community promised to tend the graveyards of the other. However, the Soviet Union never did restore order. Armenia and Azerbaijan became separate warring states. So the villagers stayed in their respective new homes.


The whole story of the Kerkenj-Qizil Shafaq village swap was researched in depth during 2006-7, with first-hand interviews collected in a 2008 Russian language book. The English language translation called Beyond the Karabakh Conflict: The story of village exchange appeared in 2012. But what is the situation now? Does the promise of grave tending still hold today, over 30 years after the swap and despite two wars and the creation of national borders? The Caspian Post 's Orkhan Azim visited Kerkenj in July 2021 to find out. And there we met 83-year-old Bayram Allazov, the former manager of the collective farm at Qizil Shafaq, the very man whose efforts were behind the successful village swap.


Bayram: In the fall of 1988, the process had already begun. At that time, Armenian forces had gathered in front of the school in the village where we lived. We were warned to evacuate our villages. They said, “you Turks should leave here.” This was our father’s and grandfather’s land. Why should they drive us out of our village?


Around that time, a man named Muhammad was killed in our village. I had a friend - he was the district committee chairman’s driver. His name was Sergey, originally Ukrainian. I asked him what it was about and why it happened. Muhammad was killed by Armenians. We buried him and had a big funeral ceremony there. After Muhammad’s death, the situation worsened.


In 1989, all Azerbaijani villages began to be evacuated - except for ours. We saw that we were living in danger and started to create self-defence groups. Officials from Moscow had already come to meet us. Among them was a man named Nikolai Vasilyevich. I asked Nikolai what was happening, but he didn’t know and simply shrugged.


So I understood the gravity of the situation. All the villages around us were Armenian. The danger was growing. We consulted with the villagers and decided to vacate the village and move to Azerbaijan: the village of Kerkenj.


The Germ of an Idea

Bayram: How we came to move to the village of Kerkenj is very interesting. My son was studying at the former Institute of National Economy in Baku. Once, when he took the car to be fixed, he got talking to the mechanic, who happened to be an Armenian. The mechanic’s parents lived in the village of Kerkenj. All of them were Armenians in that village. He told my son that the situation was tense and that they wanted to return to Armenia. He suggested that our family move from Armenia. “Why don’t you all move to our village? And we’ll move to your ‘Golden Dawn’[1]


Bayram shows the way to the old graveyard

My son called me and told me about it. So I got up and went to Baku. I reported to the authorities that the situation was tense and that we wanted to move to Kerkenj village of the Shamakhi district. They were skeptical, but after a lengthy discussion, we were told that we could go and look at the village - and then decide. We went to Kerkenj. Armenians were still living here at that time. We came, we looked, we liked the place. Then we returned to our village. A commission was set up to inspect the houses and ensure fairness. When everyone agreed, we loaded up all our belongings from the village into cars and drove to Kerkenj. Then we helped the Kerkenj Armenians load all their belongings into the same vehicles that we’d arrived in. And we sent them on their way to our former homes in Qizil Shafaq.


A Temporary Move?

Bayram explains that things worked so well that folks essentially continued working in the same jobs in Kerkenj that they had had in Qizil Shafaq. The whole structure and hierarchy of society was maintained, making it far easier to continue life with a semblance of normality than would have been possible if they had simply had to start all over again as individual refugees. 


Approaching Kerkenj – on the hills southwest of Shamakhi, Azerbaijan

When we did the village swap, I made a deal with the Armenians who’d been living here. See, we never thought that the USSR would collapse, and we assumed that we would return to our village sooner or later. So I told the Armenians that I would make them a promise, a deal. You protect our cemetery, and we will protect your cemetery. And we kept that promise. We still protect their graves. We take care of this place. And we have told future generations that it is your responsibility to take care of this place after we die.


Could we see the graveyard? He happily agreed to show us. Sure enough, there we found plenty of carefully maintained Armenian graves, some inscribed in Armenian script.


Others in Cyrillic.


Grave of Levon Davidyan, preserved in Kerkenj graveyard.

And while some are at slightly excentric angles, it was clear that the promise was indeed still being kept. The cemetery had been carefully maintained amid young trees and the same spikey thistle grass that you’d likely find at any rural Azerbaijani gravesite.


Meanwhile, according to a 2018 BBC report, the Armenians of Dzunashokh/Qizil Shafaq are still keeping up their side of the bargain by protecting the Azerbaijani graves there too.  


Interestingly, the story of the village exchange was never widely publicized. Some observers have suggested that the story was deliberately ignored or even suppressed as the message of successful cooperation between Armenian and Azerbaijani communities went against the simplistic mainstream narrative in which the two peoples were ‘destined’ to be antagonistic. Hopefully, as Azerbaijan and Armenia come to terms with the aftermath of the 2020 conflict, tales such as this heart-warming village swap can help re-forge longer-standing relationships and form part of the long, complex process of building a lasting peace. 


Kerkenj – a starting point for peace-building?




[1] ‘Golden Dawn’ is a literal translation of Qizil Shafaq