Frozen Conflict

Lost in Karabakh:

This project has been given a start with the photographs of belongings of people lost during the Karabakh war. This was a joint project with the Red Cross Azerbaijan. Each photo is unique because here you may see one thing that used to belong to a person who never came back home from Karabakh war.

The slideshow was featured as part of the program of
Night of Photography 2012 – the central event of Tbilisi Photo Festival

Kerkenj: Looking Back at Armenia

Once a year, 83-year-old Azerbaijani Bayram Allazov travels from his house a few hours outside of Baku to the hills of southern Georgia for a look back in time. From the village of Irganchai, he tries to see the location in neighboring Armenia, just three kilometers away, that he still considers home. But the effort inevitably fails.   

“I look out from there. There is nothing. Emptiness,” Allazov says sadly.

In late 1988, Bayram Allazov, the chairman of the state-run collective farm, or sovkhoz, of the ethnic Azerbaijani village of Qizil Shafaq (Red Dawn) in northern Armenia, took a momentous decision. He shared with his village a proposal that they exchange their homes with those of Kerkenj, a village of ethnic Armenians in Azerbaijan, some 540 kilometers to the east.  

One of his sons, then a student in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, had phoned with the proposal from an Armenian friend from Kerkenj.

With violence mounting between ethnic Azerbaijanis and Armenians over Azerbaijan’s breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, it seemed to the villagers like a sensible move. 

The February 1988 violent attacks against ethnic Armenians in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgayit already had prompted many Armenians to flee Azerbaijan. By late that year, ethnic Azerbaijanis in Armenia no longer felt safe – a rock thrown from a window in the town of Kalinino (modern-day Tashir) had recently killed an elderly Azerbaijani man, Allazov is quoted as saying in a Heinrich Böll Foundation study of the village exchange. Qizil Shafaq  [modern-day Dzyunashogh] was already the last ethnic Azerbaijani village left in Armenia, he told Chai Khana.

At one of his regular meetings with villagers to share the news from Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, Allazov, who doubled as the village’s school principal, passed on the proposal from Kerkenj.

“[W]e men decided to go and see it,” he says of the village. “There was no time and no other choice.”

A mutual verbal agreement to preserve and look after each other’s cemeteries – a point of honor in both cultures – was key to the exchange. With that done, the male heads of Qizil Shafaq’s households voted for the move to Azerbaijan.

In May 1989, the migration began. It lasted three months. Two hundred out of Qizil Shafaq’s 330 families moved to Kerkenj. The others opted for Baku, about 120 kilometers to the south.

Allazov claims he was the last to leave Qizil Shafaq. “I was sure” about what we were doing, he says.

Before they left, the Azerbaijani villagers followed tradition and organized a funeral feast to say farewell to their ancestors buried in Qizil Shafaq’s cemetery.   

Already, the villagers understood that they would not likely return.

Today, memories of Qizil Shafaq are what they mention first.

“Pastures, springs, big, two-storey houses, natural products, 800 healthy cows, a river crossing the village, full-fledged winters, no humidity,” reminisces Allazov. “When guests from Moscow used to visit Yerevan, their first destination was [the regional town of] Kalinino [Tashir], to see this beauty.”

The villagers remember how they cried and kissed the walls of their houses in Qizil Shafaq before they left; how, when they moved to Kerkenj, they did not want to enter their new dwellings, but spent most of their time on the streets.

“I often have a dream,” shares 81-year-old Mamed, a former tractor driver in Qizil Shafaq’s sovkhoz. “I dream of my village, I dream of my tractor.”

Like other villagers, Mamed, who came to Kerkenj with his wife and four children, returned to Qizil Shafaq a few times after the move. Administrative-border guards and local officials “let us do it without any problems,” he says.

Even so, the sense of risk meant these were brief visits. “I was the guest of the Armenian family in my own house, but I did not stay there overnight,” says Mamed.

Communist Party officials allegedly attempted to convince them not to leave Armenia.

Kerkenj’s new inhabitants also had wanted to name the village Shafaq, but their request was denied. “Kerkenj” was a Turkish name, they were told, and, therefore, could be left unchanged. (Kerkenj’s former ethnic Armenian inhabitants say the name means “harder than stone” in their dialect of Armenian).

Traveling to Kerkenj today, nothing except its past distinguishes this village from neighboring villages.

On a hillside that is to the left of the villages lie the graves of its former ethnic Armenian inhabitants.  

Locals concede that children have scratched a few tombstone photographs and knocked over a few tombstones, but say it is hard to keep a constant eye on youngsters. They maintain that the cemetery has been preserved.  

The cemetery’s care-keeper, a local mullah who guards both the village’s ethnic Armenian and ethnic Azerbaijani cemeteries, declined to comment to Chai Khana.

Allazov, the village’s main aqsaqal or male elder, described the damage with a frown.

Despite his nostalgia for Qizil Shafaq, however, he does not believe that a friendship between Armenia and Azerbaijan can be revived. 

“Imagine, you have a small garden,” he says, speaking of Nagorno Karabakh and the surrounding seven territories now under Armenian control.  “You grow the trees that bring the fruit, you grow the flowers, and then your neighbor comes and takes this garden from out of your hands…”

That connection with the earth matters deeply to him.  

In Kerkenj, as in Qizil Shafaq, Allazov served as the sovkhoz chairman. Though his 70-year-old wife, Khanim, and he have tried living in Baku, home to his daughter and three sons, he says he cannot.

“I was born and spent all my life in the country. I missed it. I wanted to hear the sound of the rooster, how the cow is mooing, a barking dog, and how my cat meows,” he says.

So, every morning, he changes his clothes and heads to the fields to help with the farming in Kerkenj. The setting may be different, but his devotion to his work is not. 

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The Edge:

The borderline zone, Aghdam – the city that separates both Azerbaijan and occupied territories. The daily life of people still living there in spite of danger and risk are of importance to me. Despite the frozen conflict in this region the shootings and fire take place on the daily basis, soldiers as well as peaceful civilians die as a consequence. In the 1990s, the aftershocks of the Soviet Union’s collapse kept on coming in the fractious southern Caucasus. Georgia fought two separatist wars. Russia battled Chechen rebels. And the tiny disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh exploded into conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

In the 21st century, two out of the three — Georgia and Chechnya — went back to war. And this year — on the 25th anniversary of a vote that launched two decades of unresolved ethnic strife in Nagorno-Karabakh, a leading expert on the little known region says it could be next. Nagorno-Karabakh was shared for centuries by Muslim Azeris and Christian Armenians. But after the First World War, the newly-formed Soviet Union created a largely Armenian autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh within the republic of Azerbaijan. In February 1988, the local Soviet parliament for Karabakh voted to join Armenia, touching off an inter-ethnic explosion.

Some 30,000 people died in conflicts that left ethnic Armenians as victors, who occupied new territory in Azerbaijan to create a buffer zone and corridor linking Karabakh and Armenia. The enclave was declared an independent — but unrecognized — republic. War broke out again, and pogroms of Armenians and Azeris forced both groups to flee their homes. A Russian-brokered ceasefire ended the fighting in 1994. But more than 1 million ethnic Azeris and Armenians still cannot return home.

Since then, the tiny territory of about 160,000 people — one-fifth the area of Nova Scotia — has become a “frozen conflict” zone despite rounds of peace talks to settle its status. Both sides routinely attend sporadic peace talks and say they want a peace deal. But with Azerbaijan demanding a return of Karabakh, with some autonomy, and Armenia insisting on independence, it’s unlikely to happen soon.


Cash-rich Azerbaijan appears policy-poor when it comes to the thousands of veterans who fought in its 1988-1994 conflict with Armenia and ethnic Armenian separatists over the breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh. Some veterans receive financial support, free medical treatment, cars, apartments and government praise. Other veterans, though, claim that they receive nothing and criticize the authorities for it.

Arif Kamal Aliyev fought during the Nagorno Karabakh war from 1990 to 1993. Aliyev lives with his family in Baku in a former student hostel, which is now completely settled by war refugees. Aliyev lives with his wife and three daughters in one room. On July 23, 1993, the day when Agdam was taken, Aliyev stepped on a land mine and lost both legs at the age of 26.Former Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev and former Iranian President Aliakbar Hashemi Rafsanjani visited him in the hospital. Following the hospital visit, Aliyev was sent to Iran to receive artificial limbs for both legs. Because Aliyev finds it difficult to walk far with his artificial limbs, he spends much of his time at the local café. For his service, Aliyev received the “In the Name of Protection of the Motherland” medal. Aliyev says his family lives on the monthly pension he receives of about $470 (370 AZN).

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