Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev visited Khankendi, a city in the region where Baku has retaken Karabakh from Armenian separatists, in a symbolic move to cement Azerbaijani rule. Aliyev raised the Azerbaijani flag in every place he visited, including the Sarsang Reservoir, Aghdara, Khankendi, Khojaly, Askeran, Shusha, and a town near Khankendi.
The president’s visit was his first since being elected in 2003. Azerbaijan’s counterterrorism operation against separatists in Khankendi ensured Baku’s full control in Karabakh, retaken from Armenia after a 2020 war. The leaders of the separatists either surrendered or were captured by Azerbaijani forces.
Azerbaijan is actively pursuing the reintegration of ethnic Armenians who were previously under separatist rule in Karabakh and is also engaged in peace talks with Armenia. The resettlement of Azerbaijanis hoping to return to Karabakh after being forced to flee Armenian forces’ invasion is high on Baku’s agenda.
Nazim Valiyev, a dentist, was forced to flee his home in Karabakh, Azerbaijan, over three decades ago. He hopes to return now that the region is back under Azerbaijani control, but it could take years before he realizes his dream. Valiyev is among the estimated 700,000 Azerbaijanis who fled or were forced out of the region due to violence that flared in 1988 and grew into an outright war. The conflict ended in 1994, with the territory under the control of ethnic Armenian forces supported by their neighbouring country.
The blinding speed of recent events has raised spirits among those who had fled so long ago and longed to return to its mountains and thick forests. Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev established a program called “The Great Return to Azerbaijan’s Liberated Territories” in 2022 to bring back long-displaced people. The program envisions improvements in infrastructure, construction of residences, and laborious efforts to clear the region of mines.
Azerbaijan’s budget for this year allocates $3.1 billion for reconstruction projects in the region, but mines pose a significant challenge, as Armenian-occupied territories have been razed and mined for 30 years, resulting in at least 65 deaths and 267 injuries since the 2020 war.
Displaced Armenian residents, Aliguleyeva and Valiyev, are uncertain about the state of their childhood home in Karabakh. Aliguleyeva’s childhood home was destroyed in 1988, but a separate building for dental equipment survived. Valiyev, who lost his family residence, is eager to return to his childhood and hopes to start a new life. He believes that enmity must never be repeated and that overcoming it is more difficult than rebuilding war-ruined buildings.
Despite their warm relationship with Armenian neighbours in Khankendi, they also experienced terror when ethnic violence drove them away. The process of overcoming enmity may be more challenging than rebuilding war-ruined buildings. The Armenians must start a new life, despite the challenges they face.