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Azerbaijan displaced await end of conflict

Former students' residence at the Technical University in Baku
The buildings at one centre for displaced people in Baku are in need of repair

By Martin Vennard
BBC News, Baku

Tazagul moved with her family in 1993 into a room in the students' residence at the Technical University in Azerbaijan's capital, Baku.

Sixteen years later, she is now a widow and still living in one room in the residence.

She shares it with her three grown-up children - two of whom have mental disabilities - her daughter-in-law, and a grandchild.

Tazagul and her family are internally displaced people (IDPs) within Azerbaijan - victims of its conflict in the early 1990s with Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh - an Armenian-controlled enclave within Azerbaijan.

People live in very bad, unbearable conditions
Elsevar Agayev
UNHCR Azerbaijan consultant

According to the Azerbaijani government and the United Nations, there are 570,000 IDPs in Azerbaijan out of a population of around 8.5 million - one of the highest concentrations of IDPs in the world.

As well as the IDPs, more than 200,000 ethnic Azeris came to Azerbaijan from Armenia as refugees during the conflict, while most ethnic Armenians left Baku and other parts of Azerbaijan.

Make-shift facilities

Some 4,000 of the IDPs are living in the former student complex, alongside Tazagul and her family. Many of them have been there for at least 15 years.

Map

There are dozens of such centres in Baku, which house around a third of the country's IDPs.

The UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, says IDPs have problems accessing health and education services, but that their main problem is their living conditions.

Elsevar Agayev, a consultant for the UNHCR in Azerbaijan, recently travelled to see IDPs in the west of the country.

"In collective centres, I saw people living in very precarious conditions," he says.

"It is the same in Baku, in Sumgayit and other places where IDPs live. People live in very bad, unbearable conditions," he adds.

The IDPs in the former Baku student residence have make-shift cooking facilities in the corridors outside their rooms or on the balconies, while the hygiene facilities are communal.

With her grandchild tied to her back, Tazagul says that every morning the family members have to pile up the mattresses on which they sleep during the night.

She says she used to work in a bakery, but that the family now lives solely on benefits.

Tazagul
Few people work in official and regular jobs
Tazagul

An employee at the centre tells me that the IDPs who do find jobs generally work in the black economy.

"Sometimes they find jobs, but sometimes they could wait weeks to find a job. Few people work in official and regular jobs," she says.

Many of the IDPs came from rural areas where agriculture was the dominant industry and have difficulties finding work in an urban environment.

The buildings at the centre are in urgent need of repair, while outside the road is more like a muddy track. It is lined by wooden stalls and shacks, set up as shops by the IDPs.

Just a short distance away in central Baku, Azerbaijan's oil wealth is ostentatiously displayed in the form of expensive cars and shops.

Negotiations

The government's aim is for all the IDPs to be able to return home to Nagorno-Karabakh, or the areas around it that are internationally recognised as being part of Azerbaijan but controlled since the war by ethnic Armenians.

Armenia and Azerbaijan signed an agreement on Nagorno-Karabakh last year

One of the heads of the group which is trying to help find an agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed Caucasus territory recently told the BBC he was more hopeful of success than at any time in the past.

US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, said the recent meetings between the Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents had given new momentum to the process.

One of the main issues being discussed is the fate of the IDPs, but none of those I spoke to at the Baku centre had even heard about the talks.

The government has built houses for some IDPs, such as Zulfugar Agayev and his family.

They fled the Azerbaijani district of Agdam, near Nagorno-Karabakh, as Armenian forces advanced in 1993.

"My father, mother, two brothers and a sister moved back to Agdam where the government built new houses for IDPs," Mr Agayev says.

"But this new village is very close to the ceasefire line and you can hear when shooting breaks out. I think it's very dangerous to live there now, but people have no other choice."

Oil revenues

A ceasefire was signed between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 1994. However, sporadic fatal clashes continue to break out around Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding areas.

Critics say the government could have acted quicker and used more of its oil wealth to re-house the IDPs.

But the authorities reject that and say the last of the camps for IDPs were dismantled some time ago.

"The government tries its best to help them. There is not a single refugee or IDP shelter camp today," says foreign ministry spokesman Khazar Ibrahim.

"We have used budget money. We have also used money from our oil fund to build temporary houses for them," he adds.

But IDPs, such as Tazagul, living in collective centres do not believe that their situation will improve significantly until a resolution to the dispute is found and they can return home.

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