Spring 1997 (5.1)
Pages 12-17, 88
Among Baku's Refugees - A Pocket Full of Hope
by Caleb Daniloff
Photos by Farid Khayrulin
Baku - in the courtyard of what used to be a health sanitarium, a small boy dashed after older kids kicking around a flattened beer can. February winds blew off the Caspian, but the child wore no shoes-only socks. Bored women in shawls leaned over balconies, watching. They were from among the 500 refugees settled into the center five years earlier since fleeing their villages in war-torn Nagorno-Karabakh. In the face of Armenian advances, hundreds of thousands had scrambled to other cities such as Baku to find refuge in makeshift quarters in abandoned factory compounds, health and vacation resorts, schools and dormitories.
Scrawny chickens pecked around the shrubs as bits of paper swirled across the pavement. Suddenly, from the next courtyard, the strains of a joyous horn and the rhythmic thumping of a drum were heard. "They've come to claim the bride," someone said. We all rushed over.
As an American journalist, I was excited about the chance to witness an unexpected wedding ceremony. I had not seen many youth, particularly males, hanging around the dorms. Being young myself, I wondered how love could blossom among the broken glass and cracked asphalt.
I had been meeting with refugees in the Binagadinski region of the city for the past week, trying to understand how those who had experienced the horrors of war managed to hang onto their culture and keep their dreams intact. The stories, so far, had been desperate and tragic. But now, suddenly, the music injected some hope.
Begging used to be extremely rare in Azerbaijan. Unemployent ranks high in Baku, especially among refugees. Photos 1997.
Parked near the entrance steps was a spotless white Lada. Two strings of red baubles were stretched across the hood and windshield. Inside, the stairwell of the building was swollen with people, dancing and singing. Naked light bulbs and electrical wires dangled from the ceiling. Men clapped and stomped their feet. Women swayed to the music, arms raised, accenting the oriental melody through the expressive movements of their hands and fingers. Children watched, leaning over the concrete stair railing. Relatives with video cameras trained their lenses on the groom inching his way through the crowded apartment hallway toward his beloved. The 18-year-old bride waited in a cramped room nearby. As is the tradition, she fixed her gaze to the floor, occasionally dabbing her eyes to imitate tears. Her white dress sparkled with gold trim.
Then came the symbolic gestures. A red sash was wrapped around the bride's waist to signify happiness and fertility. The bride's father escorted his daughter around an oil lamp several times. The fire represented the warmth she would bring to the groom's home. A mirror, held by her closest girlfriend, symbolized the bride's purity.
Despite the crowd of refugees, the room suddenly breathed promise of new life as the wedding ritual unfolded with the age-old customs, musical traditions and ancient symbolic gestures providing both impetus and direction for life to carry on.
The pair somehow managed to squeeze into the car and head off to Sumgayit some 30 kilometers away where the wedding would take place. A line of cars followed the couple, honking the good news, a scene reminiscent of so many other parts of the world. The procession disappeared. The sea tugged at the barren beaches. A few refugees were trying their luck with fishing lines. In the distance, hundreds of rickety oil derricks stood idle.
Later, in another hallway, the mood was not so festive. A crowd of anxious refugees gathered around me. At first, I avoided their eyes, for theirs seemed hardened with unbearable struggles, while mine were soft with foreign privilege. I learned that they were survivors of the ghastly attack that had occurred in the village of Khojali five years earlier. They had escaped the worst massacre Azerbaijanis have known during the 8-year conflict with Armenia.
On the night of February 25, 1992, Armenians backed by Russian troops stormed the little town of 7,000 people. By morning, nearly 500 lay dead or dying, many in nearby fields as they had tried to escape. Scores of children were among the dead. Hundreds of others had suddenly been orphaned. But their parents and relatives and playmates weren't just shot down. I was shown tattered paperbacks with photos of victims with their fingernails ripped off, eyeballs gouged out and throats slit. An old woman said that after the attack, she had washed 15 bodies by herself, preparing them for burial. All had had their arms hacked off.
"We used to live very well, better than people here in Baku. We lived in large houses," one woman said. "We had everything, all the comforts. And now, nothing. Look at us, we have nothing at all."
In the cold hallway, I watched these displaced people shuffling around, shaking their heads and tightening sweaters against the wind that whistled through the cracks. Children peered curiously from behind the legs of their parents. I kept shifting, conspicuous in my comfortable wool pants, hiking boots and leather jacket.
"The tragedy of even a single resident in Khojali is too great," said Irada Reza-zade, the regional Red Crescent director who had arranged my visit.
Irada has serious eyes and a smile that, in her line of work, flashes as often as it fades. She, too, is a refugee. Born and raised in Armenia, Irada used to teach Russian literature in Yerevan. But she and her family fled to Azerbaijan in 1988 as the hostilities became unbearable. She remembers her fear brought on by shouts at midnight: "Karabakh is ours!" and "Armenia is for Armenians!" She remembers the sinister black Volgas cruising the streets of Azeri neighborhoods. Irada, too, knows the pain of the exiled heart.
To be honest, until I came to Azerbaijan a few months ago, I had no inkling of what it meant to be a refugee. I faintly remember photos from childhood of rickety boats crammed with the gaunt faces of Vietnamese of the 1970s. Then there was Africa, always Africa-endless streams of adults, thin as sticks, trudging along with their children whose hungry stomachs were swollen like basketballs. They poured across the borders of countries I had never heard of, persecuted by tribal factions whose names were hard to remember and easily confused. And disease, it seemed, always brought up the rear.
The refugee became more clearly defined for many Westerners when the faces became white and European in the images of Bosnians from the former Yugoslavia. But still, somehow, the reality was diminished, disappearing in the blink of a television clip or stilled in the grainy black and white of newspaper photographs. Few refugees, let alone those in the distant and little-known Azerbaijan, were presented as individuals with unique personalities, with hopes and habits, opinions and dreams. How often had I, myself, reached for the remote control to switch channels on the TV in an effort to ward off feelings of helplessness and guilt in the face of their tragedy. Refugees were always viewed as a problem or a crisis-not as people. But now, seeing them around me in the courtyards and apartment dormitories in Baku was somewhat surreal. These people seemed as if they could have been my next-door neighbors.
Mubareza, a former economist, was the first refugee I met. She spoke at the service marking the 5-year commemoration of the downing of a transport helicopter on January 28, 1992. This incident took place over the town of Shusha, south of Khojali in Nagorno-Karabakh. It had been the 15th such attack since the outbreak of hostilities with the Armenian population living there. At the memorial service, Mubareza placed a steaming plate of grape leaves stuffed with rice and minced lamb on our table and then took to the stage. With tears streaming down her cheeks, she stood under her daughter's portrait and cradled the microphone. Mubareza told how her Sara, a linguistically talented youth who had known seven languages and had even studied in Germany, was blown out of the skies along with 47 others.
Later that year, Mubareza was forced from her home for the second time. She fled as far east as possible-to Baku-along with hundreds of thousands of other refugees. For the two years that followed, Mubareza refused to leave her cramped room, too overcome with grief. She stayed inside, unable to contain her sorrow.
"I can't understand," she told me, adjusting a thick cardigan around her shoulders. "How is it that for 70 years . . . for 70 years we lived together. All of my neighbors were Armenians. We ate together, we walked together, we celebrated together. I always thought we would be together. But then they started telling us, 'You are Turks. Karabakh is our land, not yours.'"
Mubareza eventually overcame her trauma. Through the memory of her daughter, she has re-entered life. She now volunteers at Irada's Red Crescent office which is responsible for the welfare of 50,000 refugees, the largest contingent in the city. Mubareza clearly understands that by helping others, she is healing herself.
In particular, she credits Irada with leading her out of the paralyzing grief. Two years ago, Irada brought Mubareza together with other fellow survivors from Shusha to share their communal sorrow. Irada organized the recent memorial service, prodding the children forward to sing and recite poems, making sure enough food was served, calling up the survivors and giving testimony to her own story. She knew that even in the most dire circumstances, one must always strive to find a human connection and a sense of beauty.
"She finally raised her hands," Irada said, describing the transformation that came over Mubareza.
I asked what she meant.
Irada and Mubareza have since grown very close. They sometimes hold hands and laugh like school girls.
A few weeks after the memorial service, Irada and Mubareza brought me to another settlement, this time a converted Soviet-style vacation dormitory on the Caspian Sea.
On the third floor, which was cold and damp that winter day, we met Svetlana who had been Mubareza's neighbor in Shusha. She spread a white cloth across the table. At her feet, steam rose from a misshapen pot perched on an electric ring. Water dripped from the faucet over the cracked sink. Our hostess set out glasses of tea on the table and opened a box of chocolates, pushing them toward me.
I hesitated. How could she afford these chocolates? They had probably been a gift. But I knew that entertaining guests was such an important ritual in Azerbaijan-the chance to offer a stranger or a friend some food and drink. Our being there not only broke up the monotonous isolation of the day, but allowed her to feel normal, if only for a little while. I took two pieces and sipped my tea.
"I'm sorry you have to drink from a glass," she said, wiping her hands on her thin and faded housecoat. "I don't have any cups."
After five years, Svetlana still didn't have much of anything. The room consisted of two beds placed end-to-end, stretching from one wall to the other, a table and two chairs. That's all. Svetlana stood near the balcony. Formerly she had taught Russian. Today, she receives a pension of 16,000 manats ($4) a month.
"We used to have everything," Svetlana reminisced. "Now, we don't have enough for food. There's no work. We sit at home all day."
"What keeps you going?" I asked. "President Aliyev. We believe in Aliyev," Svetlana said. "We believe Aliyev will return our land to us."
It was not the first time I had heard that answer.
As we left, Svetlana smiled at me. "You know, just your coming here this afternoon has eased our minds," she whispered. "Please come again. We can drink tea together again."
Down the hall, a wool blanket was stretched across a doorway. I glanced inside and found the room just wide enough for two beds and a small table. I couldn't believe seven people lived here. Even more amazing was how immaculate the place was. Carpets hung on the wall. Cardboard boxes and net bags were stacked neatly on the balcony. An old man watched over his three granddaughters. Their mother had managed to find work that day. It turned out that the local bakery had needed a substitute hand. Usually, she wasn't so lucky. In the hallway, children's socks dried against the wall.
We headed upstairs. On a bench at the end of the corridor, clothes were soaking in a bucket of steaming water. Inside the next room, tacked to the walls were glossy posters of parks and waterfalls, and, oddly enough, a buxom model posing in front of a Mercedes. Seated below that poster sat an old blind woman, tears gathering in her eyes. She slapped her knees and shook her hands at the heavens. She and her daughter Almaz had fled their home in the city of Aghdam in 1993.
"Mama is always crying," Almaz explained. "All she talks about is Aghdam. We only live on hope. Mama just wants to go home, step out on her balcony and die."
Presently, there is no psychological support to battle the nightmares that won't vanish from these survivors. There simply isn't the money. Irada says the memorial services help bring people together. That's a good start, but so much more is needed. "These people are dying inside. Their souls won't hold out much longer," she observed.
In another room lived an elderly woman with her widowed daughter-in-law and two children. Portraits hung on the carpeted wall. Newspaper clippings and photographs were propped up on the table. This family, too, had come from Khojali. The photos were of relatives who had all been shot that tragic night-in a matter of hours. The remaining family members, now in Baku, lived on the old woman's pension of $18 a month. The woman desperately wants to visit her son's grave, but can't because the territory where he is buried is under military occupation by the Armenians. It seems she spends most of her days in front of a makeshift shrine, crying and praying.
Mubareza, with tears in her eyes, asked that I take a photograph. "That, alone, will give these people a little peace today," she said. I was thankful to still have film in my camera. Perhaps knowing that other eyes might see their pain would ease the isolation a little bit. But there just aren't enough witnesses for all the victims and guilt-ridden survivors.
Later, I met with Kamran and Rafiga Babayev. They, too, had escaped from Aghdam. They now care for their five orphaned grandchildren-three girls and two boys. They each receive a monthly pension of 47,000 manats ($12).
"I'd even go sweep the streets if I could just make a little money," Rafiga said. "When I see someone selling apples, and I can't buy a single one for these children, that's what hurts me the most."
I asked what hope they held for the future. Rafiga smiled and told me that when they fled their home, they had locked the front door.
"We still have the key. And someday, they will go back and open the door to our place," she said, nodding toward her eldest granddaughter.
I figured Rafiga knew her home had probably been ransacked long ago. She didn't mention it. Simply, she kept her hope in her pocket, a good luck charm of sorts, the key to a life which once seemed so full of promise . . .
Caleb Daniloff is a freelance journalist living in Baku. He grew up in Moscow in the 1980s, the son of American journalists.
From Azerbaijan International (5.1) Spring 1997.
© Azerbaijan International 1997. All rights reserved.