MINELRES: Caucasus Reporting Service No. 357: New Setbacks for Refugees in Azerbaijan

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Tue Sep 19 21:16:03 2006

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AZERBAIJAN: NEW SETBACKS FOR REFUGEES More than a decade after they were
displaced from homes in Nagorny Karabakh and Armenia, refugees finally
swap tents for homes, only to encounter new problems. By Shahla
Abusattar in Aghdam and Barda districts and Baku 

GEORGIA CLAIMS COUP THWARTED Opposition and Russia condemn mass arrests
of alleged plotters. By Tina Tskhovrebashvili in Tbilisi

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More than a decade after they were displaced from homes in Nagorny
Karabakh and Armenia, refugees finally swap tents for homes, only to
encounter new problems.

By Shahla Abusattar in Aghdam and Barda districts and Baku 

As the Azerbaijani government completes the process of shifting
thousands of refugees and internally displaced people from tent camps to
newly-built settlements, many complain that their new living conditions
are grossly inadequate.

>From a distance, the purpose-built settlements of Alibeyli-1 and
Alibeyli-2 in the Aghdam district of western Azerbaijan look promising,
with houses painted pink and lampposts lining an earth road. 

However, first impressions can be deceptive. The people who have moved
in here complain of damp walls, peeling plaster and unpainted ceilings.
There is not a single tree in the entire settlement.

In the Nineties, Azerbaijan had one of the highest refugee populations
in the world, with more than a half million internally displaced people,
IDPs, from the conflict in Karabakh joining more than 200,000
Azerbaijanis who had earlier fled from Soviet Armenia. 

For years, tens of thousands of them lived in tent camps, but these have
been gradually closed. In 2001, former president Heidar Aliev signed a
decree allocating 359 billion manats, around 81 million US dollars at
the time, from the State Oil Fund to build housing for refugees and
IDPs. According to the oil fund's official reports, more than 900
billion manats, over 200 million dollars, have been earmarked since 2001
to provide these homes. 

In early August, Ali Hasanov, the head of the state committee for
refugees and IDP affairs, said the programme to dismantle all tent camps
would be completed by the end of this year. He said the new settlements
built for the displaced people were completely fit for habitation. 

Yet, despite the large funds being spent, many refugees say no proper
planning has gone into the new settlements. 

Mehbali Kerimov, originally from the town of Aghdam, now under Armenian
occupation, told IWPR, "When moving to this settlement [Alibeyli-1], I
had to sell all my livestock. They built four walls in a total desert
and forced us to move in here. They've given us no land, no financial
assistance, and no jobs for us to earn a living." 

Kerimov tried to complain to President Ilham Aliev himself when he was
visiting a neighbouring refugee settlement. However, as he attempted to
approach the president, security men seized him and locked him up in the
police station, where he stayed until Aliev left. 

Chaman Mukhtarova, the headmistress of Alibeyli-1's school, said the
village had no sanitation, and her school did not have a gymnasium. 

"They've built a medical centre, but it has neither water nor
electricity. What's more, it has no doctor," said resident Sadagat
Hasanova. "It's been almost a year since we moved here, and never a once
have we been given medical assistance. Pregnant women have no choice but
to give birth at home, there aren't even any medicines to relieve their

Another new settlement, the village of Ergi lies very close to the
Armenian-Azerbaijani ceasefire line. The road leading to Ergi is not
easily passable by offroad vehicles, let alone ordinary cars, and with
no telephone lines, there is a sense of isolation from the outside

To get water, the refugees have to queue up at outside standpipes, one
for every four houses. The village school needs major repairs, even
though it was only built four years ago, while the yard of the medical
centre is so overgrown that it's difficult to imagine that the place is
ever visited by doctors or patients. 

Jamil Iskanderov, who lives in Ergi said, "Yes, we've been given a
one-off grant to help cultivate the land. But most of the plots we're
offered are close to the front line, and there's no water there either.
That is why the local folk cannot work the land." 

The refugee committee, which built settlements like Ergi and the two at
Alibeyli, paints a rosy picture of progress. But Himayat Rizvangizi, who
heads Himayadar (Guardian), a non-governmental charity, says her group's
monitoring of the situation has shown up major discrepancies with
official accounts. According to Himayadar, refugee families are packed
densely into the new houses, with many people of both sexes sharing

Rizvangizi said only seven of the projected 17 settlements have been
finished and occupied to date, and none of these has sanitation or
telephone lines. Only two of the six schools have sports facilities, and
only one has a computer room. 

While the refugee committee says the new villages have 195 kilometres of
asphalt roads, the Himayadar group disagrees, saying that four of the
seven existing settlements have no roads at all, and the other three
only have asphalt on their central streets. When the committee says
there are 13 bath-houses at settlements, Himayadar says there are just

Asked to account for these discrepancies, Sanan Huseinov, who is head of
international relations for the state refugee committee, said his agency
was not responsible for the quality of the building work, and redirected
IWPR to the government's fund for IDP social development.  

Arif Aliev, who coordinates construction work for the IDP fund, conceded
that there were "minor shortcomings" in the building of the settlements.
"For example, all the bathrooms have been built to plan, but some of
them lack taps," he said. 

Aliev said the construction work had been put out to tender, and the
work awarded to the firm that offered the lowest price. "We did what we
could. In the real circumstances of Azerbaijan it was impossible to do
more," he said.

But the displaced people insist the authorities have an obligation to
improve things. 

One refugee, Rafiga Gulieva, who lives in the Ayag Gervend settlement,
said her house was damp, there were cracks in the walls and the windows
were coming out of their frames. 

Under an agreement with the IDPs, the refugee committee is obliged to
carry out repair work but Gulieva said their requests for help had gone

The agreement also stipulates that once Azerbaijan regains the occupied
territories and the refugees return home, the houses they are living in
must be restored to their original state and handed back to the
committee. "That means that if my house gets ruined, I will have to
build a new one for the refugee committee at my own expense," complained

Residents also complain about a basic lack of public services, saying
there is no public transport or rubbish collection in their villages. 

Independent economic expert Allahyar Muradov said that when the
government failed to provide the IDPs with land, it should at least
provide basic services and help them find employment. 

"Every month the refugee committee earmarks billions of manats to pay
for communal services in the settlements. Who is keeping track of the
money?" he asked.

Shahla Abusattar is a freelance journalist in Baku.


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