Nearly two decades after they were displaced by the war over Nagorny Karabakh, Azerbaijani refugees living in the country’s second city Ganja face housing difficulties and an uncertain future.
The conflict ended in 1994 with Armenian forces in control of Karabakh and surrounding areas but no formal peace deal. The Azerbaijanis who lived there fled, and with no agreement on Karabakh’s future in sight, they have had to adjust to years in a kind of exile in their own country.
Refugee officials say Ganja is home to 16,000 people displaced by the war, 11,000 of them from Kelbajar, one of several areas outside Karabakh that the Armenians captured and simply held on to.
Many are still living in communal hostels, while the lucky ones have had housing built for them by the authorities.
“The main problem is overcrowding in the hostels. There are four or five people to a room, sometimes even seven or eight,” Nushab Mammadov, head of the Tomris human rights organisation in Ganja, said. “This isn’t an isolated problem facing individual families – it affects the majority of refugees living in Ganja.”
Facing housing shortages, some refugees squatted in unoccupied homes, while others put up buildings of their own, illegally.
In a judgement on one such illegal “self-build” case last week, the city court in Ganja ruled that a building that had been home to refugee families since they arrived in 1993 should be torn down. It all happened so quickly that the families did not get a chance to remove their belongings.
The case was brought by local resident Siyaset Mammadov, who owns the land. During the conflict, he agreed to let the refugee families put up a house for themselves, but now he wants the land back.
“At that time, I gave verbal agreement for these refugees to build temporary accommodation. But then they refused to leave, so I have enforced my rights through the court,” he said.
Durdana Guliyeva, 34, had lived in the house since fleeing from Kelbajar with her family in 1993.
“Last year some official demanded that we vacate our house. But we didn’t have anywhere to go,” Guliyeva said.
Now she and her family have moved into a hostel, where they are sharing a single room with no facilities, and they see no prospect of moving somewhere better.
Court clerk Eldaniz Hajiyev insists he sent the house occupants repeated notices of eviction, which they ignored.
Local lawyer Zabil Gahramanov said the families should be entitled to compensation for the destruction of property inside the building when it was demolished. They could also seek damages through the courts, as the authorities should have let them remove their things.
Gahramanov also pointed to a presidential decree from 2004 which states that refugees can only be required to move out of housing if they have been offered alternative accommodation.
Suleyman Abbasov, the local representative of the State Committee for Refugees, said the government was building houses for all displaced persons, but that it was taking time.
On the specific case of the evicted families, Abbasov said, “If [they] haven’t been given a room in a hostel, then they are going to have to wait for a new refugee settlement to be built. Another settlement is planned for next year.”
Mammadov of the Tomris human rights group said the waiting list for accommodation was very long, and coupled with overcrowding in the hostels, this led refugees to build houses without permission, or squat in empty flats.
“The authorities have recently become more active in fighting these trends,” he said. “Of course they have to curb illegal house-building, but they also need to provide decent living conditions for refugees. The government is responsible for ensuring this, if it cannot secure their return to their [original] homes.”
Ulvi Telmansoy is a journalist with the ANS broadcasting company.