Oil-rich Azerbaijan’s IDPs stuck in student accommodation 20 years after displacement

Thousands of IDPs have lived up to ten-to-a-room in rundown former student halls for nearly 20 years.

Thousands of IDPs have lived up to ten-to-a-room in rundown former student halls for nearly 20 years.

Living with your parents, partner and kids until you can afford to move out can be stressful for the most harmonious of families.

Doing so for years with one room between you to eat, sleep and relax in is psychologically damaging.

But that is the reality for thousands of Internally Displaced People in Azerbaijan who were promised new homes for years by the oil-rich state before it spent the best part of a billion dollars on new trophy buildings, roads and gardens to impress the world in the run-up to Eurovision.

Unfortunately none of that money benefited the families living up to ten-to-a-room in rundown student accommodation in the capital Baku.

Instead they were left to watch state TV portray the country as a beacon of success and modernity as the more affluent and compliant spoke of the nation’s pride in holding the competition; a glitzy party the IDPs were never invited to.

Around 600,000 Azeris were made homeless by 1994 after a three-year war with Armenians over Nagorno Karabakh – an autonomous piece of land that sits within Azerbaijan’s borders – following ethnic tensions and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

While the Armenians’ essential victory left them in control of Karabakh they also cleansed and occupied the surrounding districts in Azerbaijan proper where some half a million Azeris once lived.

Following an internationally declared ceasefire in 1994, Azeris hoped they would soon return home, but as the years passed it became clear they would need to be rehoused.

Many lived in tents and disused train carriages for years before the government began to seriously address their predicament.

While the camps have been emptied, 300,000 IDPs were still living in ‘dilapidated and overcrowded collective centres and makeshift accommodation’ by the end of 2011, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).

One 23-year-old woman, from Stepanakert, the capital of Karabakh, who wished to remain anonymous out of fear of her government’s reaction to criticism, showed me the six by three metre room she shares with her parents, partner, sister and two children in the former student halls where she has lived since 1993.

She said: “Year-by-year the government gives new promises but nothing ever happens. We were told that after Eurovision we would be resettled but we don’t believe them. When we came from our home [in Karabakh] we were three people, but now we have seven living in the same place. We have one room for dressing, living and sleeping.

“We had separate rooms before and used to have a moral curtain [so a husband and wife can have some privacy] between the rooms, but now its not possible. Its shameful. Sometimes I think the way I live I should die.”

Oruj eats, sleeps and relaxes in the family room with his wife, mother and two siblings.

Her mother blamed Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, for their situation saying he is more interested in looking after the rich.

She said: “I understand the reality of IDPs. One day we should go back, but until that time we should live as human beings not as animals, so why don’t they give us just a small apartment to live. You see the skyscrapers in the city [Baku], who are all these buildings for?

“Eurovision was a party for the wealthy. They went there and spent so much money and got entertained, but that wasn’t for us. Everything in this country is for the rich people not for people like us. We also wanted to see the show and have some fun, but its not possible.”

With employment among IDPs low, with many coming from a farming background and the younger generation having suffered major disruption to their education, it is difficult for them to help themselves.

While reports abound of massive corruption among the ruling family and elites, billions of dollars has been spent on aiding IDPs and refugees, including a monthly food allowance, over the past ten years, however, it is a drop in the ocean given the cost and numbers in need of help.

In 2007 a billion dollars was earmarked for a four-year government programme to build 15,000 homes along with schools, hospitals and community facilities that would cater for around 75,000 people, the UNHCR reported.

Unsurprisingly then, only 100,000 IDPs had been properly housed by the end of 2011 although current funding should increase that to 185,000, the IDMC stated.

At this rate it could be another 20 years before the task is complete, however, some of the new housing has come under criticism for their poor build and bad water and electricity supply while many of the new settlements are so remote residents cannot access employment or essential services.

While the housing should only need to be temporary given their right-of-return under international law, the lack of progress in negotiations between the Armenian and Azeri government – brokered by France, Russia and the USA – over the past 18 years and the regular ceasefire violations means that doesn’t look like it will be anytime soon.

Consequently the mother from Stepanakert believes military action is the only way forward.

She said: “The only solution is to … start a war to get back the lost territories and sign a peace agreement. This is the only solution. To take real action.”

Ironically it is the same kind of rhetoric the Azeri government uses to distract its citizens from domestic problems such as hers.

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