Central Asia
Azerbaijanis’ Decades-long Wait to Reclaim Separatist Homeland

BAKU, Azerbaijan

Nazim Valiyev, a dentist, fled his home in Karabakh, Azerbaijan, due to ethnic violence in the separatist region. Over three decades later, Valiyev hopes to return to the region, which is now under Azerbaijani control. The conflict began in 1988 and escalated into an outright war, ending in 1994 with ethnic Armenian forces under Azerbaijan’s support.

A subsequent war in 2020 returned control of much of the area to Azerbaijan, and a lightning offensive last month forced Armenian separatists to relinquish the rest of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev reaffirmed control over the region, but ethnic Armenians fled within days, leaving it nearly empty. A United Nations mission reported that there may be only 1,000 people left in the region, which had a population of 120,000 a month ago.

Azerbaijan has regained control of a city it left to its former inhabitants in 1988, a move that left many displaced. In 2022, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev launched “The Great Return to Azerbaijan’s Liberated Territories” to reintegrate long-displaced individuals through infrastructure improvements, residence construction, and mine clearance. The government has allocated $3.1 billion for reconstruction projects, aiming to return 10,000 people by the end of the year.

The government has set a target of returning 150,000 individuals by 2027. However, mines posed a significant challenge, as the territories under Armenian occupation were virtually completely razed and mined with mines and other unexploded military ammunition.

Since the 2020 war, at least 65 people have been killed and 267 injured in the territories once held by Armenians. If displaced residents can return, they may find their childhood home is still intact, as they only sent a photo of the courtyard wall to a former neighbour.

Valiyev, who lost his family residence in 1988, is eager to return to Karabakh and hopes to start a new life with his 5-year-old granddaughter. He believes that the past must never be repeated and that overcoming enmity is more difficult than rebuilding war-ruined buildings. Both Valiyev and Aliguliyeva spoke warmly of getting along with their Armenian neighbours in Khankendi but also shared the terror they felt when ethnic violence drove them away.

Azerbaijan has promised to respect the rights of ethnic Armenians who want to stay in the region, but the Human Rights Watch organization says these assertions are difficult to accept after months of hardships, decades of conflict, impunity for alleged crimes, and the deteriorating human rights record of the Azerbaijani government.

AzerbaijanAzerbaijanis' Decades-long Wait to Reclaim Separatist HomelandBakuKarabakh