Azerbaijan International

Winter 1994 (2:1)
Pages 4-5, 35-36

Winter of Disbelief
Editorial by Betty Blair

This past November, California witnessed one of the worst disasters in its history as ferocious wind-swept fires scaled dry brush canyon slopes, consuming everything in their paths. Uncontrollable flames threatened the entire area for several days. Then, in December, too, Europe witnessed Nature's cruel fate as unrelenting rains unleashed their torrents and inundated rivers spilled over onto the plains. Both were tragic losses of unprecedented scope to those individuals involved. Tens of thousands of people were displaced, thousands of homes lost, and billions of dollars worth of damages were incurred-not to mention the incredible personal losses that can never be replaced.

But as grievous as these calamities have been, nonetheless, they do not compare with the catastrophe that is taking place in Azerbaijan today where a man-made conflict has transformed one million civilians into refugees. Fleeing the onslaught of unrelenting, Armenian forces that now claim and occupy 15 percent of Azerbaijan's territory, an unbelievable 15 percent of the entire population (1 in every 7 people) has been made homeless, stripped of their possessions, and left to wander in search for refuge in their own native land.

Fortunately, for Californians and Europeans, a substantial infrastructure exists to assist these victims in rebuilding their lives. But, in Azerbaijan, the supportive services of the government have been desperately weakened by five years of war, a spiraling economy, and precarious political leadership that has changed five times since the country gained its independence in late 1991. The consequence is that the majority of refugees have had, more or less, to fend for themselves.

In October, our staff went to Azerbaijan to survey the situation. What we saw in those central valleys on those balmy days was unbelievable. Tens of thousands of displaced families were living under the open sky, separated from the potentially fatal elements of nature by only a thin canvas tent and some didn't even have that.

Since then, the situation has worsened as the harsh winds of the Caucasus have swept down upon the plains. Forecasters predict this winter may be the cruelest in Azerbaijan's past hundred years. Already, snows have blanketed some regions much earlier than usual.

This issue is dedicated to these refugees. In the pages that follow, we've deliberately tried to avoid presenting stereotypical images of distraught faces peering into the camera of foreign journalists. In the West, particularly the United States, we have become too hardened at the sight of our homeless, closing our hearts as we rationalize that they are the ones to blame for their hapless situation. It is for this reason that we have sought a fresh approach-to give refugees a name, a face, a place-letting them tell much of their own story.

Our Self-Portraits section includes photos refugees took themselves with disposable cameras our staff provided. We suggested they spend a few days taking pictures of everyday life that they would like to share with the world. The results include thought-provoking portrayals of their lives, full of dignity, vitality, ingenuity and humanity. The photos beckon the viewer to take pause before dismissing these refugees as undesirable, pitiful, unkempt vagabonds. They cry out for recognition that they are human beings-just like the rest of us-with the one exception that their lives just happen to have been turned upside down by tragic circumstances-which is exactly the point.

We've included a wide range of articles about refugees. Our feature columnist, Susan Cornnell writes about the emotional impact of visiting refugee camps ("Baku Diary"). Galib Mammadov ("When Words Fail") describes his struggles in translating some cultural subtleties inherent in the concept of Azerbaijani refugee. Rafael Husseinov's poem, "Fleeing," illustrated by a poignant photo by Oleg Litvin, depicts the total abandonment refugees feel.

Our front cover-a candid photo of the sunlit interior of a refugee tent shows the meagerness of possessions with which most refugees must try to stay alive. At the same time, it symbolizes the order that many have succeeded in imposing upon their chaotic lives.

The back cover by Baku painter, Gaiyur Yunus, is a prayer not to abandon Hope (the light) during this Flight into Darkness. The plight of Azerbaijani refugees, however, cannot be understood outside the larger context of the medical and economic situation in the country. Margaret Fox ("Empty Shelves, Barren Closets, Compassionate Doctors") writes of desperate shortages in hospitals in Baku.

Svetlana Turyalev ("The Economic Scene") complains that she has forgotten the taste of ordinary milk. Tadeusz Swietochowski ("The Spirit of Baku") provides insight into the current political climate. My own interview with Lala Shovkat Hajiyeva, Azerbaijan's new Secretary of State, shows the determination of some of national leaders to resolve these problems.

Apart from the everyday struggles for survival, the most gnawing problem for refugees is the vast unknown and uncertainty about the future-the seemingly eternal state of limbo out of which they don't seem able to break. The greatest yearning of refugees is to return to normalcy. As one young girl wrote, "I don't know when we'll breath freely. I am just 16, but I can't say whether I am destined to experience such a moment or not."

As caretakers, they're constantly plagued by worries about what will happen to them and their families-their elderly parents, their infant children; whether they will survive the winter's frigid cold, its exhaustion, malnutrition, and disease; whether they'll ever be able to return to their lands to rebuild homes that they assume have been looted and, in all probability, have been burned to the ground.

Essentially, the only real solution to the refugee problem will be an end to the war. That will come when the aggressor is identified and castigated, and aggression denounced by the international community (See Levin, Newsweek, 47). Already, many Western countries including France, Germany, England, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Russia, China and United States have spoken out in defense of Azerbaijan's territorial integrity, refusing to recognize Armenia's claim on Nagorno-Karabakh.

In the meantime, Azerbaijan desperately needs assistance on a monumental scale. Various international agencies such as United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Red Crescent, and Red Cross are helping. Non-governmental organizations like Oxfam, Medicin sans Frontieres, Relief International, AmeriCare, Adventist Development and various other groups are also active. Numerous governments have been directly or indirectly involved. Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey have contributed tremendously by building camps and providing daily necessities for tens of thousands of refugees.

What is conspicuously missing in this rehabilitation effort is assistance from the United States government. The so-called "Freedom Support Act" passed by US congress singles out Azerbaijan of all the 15 former Soviet Republics and denies all assistance, even humanitarian and medical aid, to the Azerbaijani government.

Unfortunately, passage of this law in late 1992 sadly reflects the ignorance and bias of American lobbyists and constituents, many voted to pass this bill which from its inception was based on distorted or, worse yet, deliberately deceiving, information:

(1) The law (Freedom Support Act, Title 9, Section 907) depicts Azerbaijan as aggressor against Armenians although this entire conflict has been fought on Azerbaijan's territory.

(2) It condemns Azerbaijan for isolating land-locked Armenia, which is an impossibility as Armenia also borders four other countries-Russia, Georgia, Turkey, and Iran.

(3) It ignores the equally devastating blockade that Armenia imposed earlier and which still exists against Nakhichevan (Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan). See Ramiz Abutalibov, "The Nakhichevan Connection," page 36.

(4) It does not grant the reality that Armenia was using Azerbaijan's transportation link to receive supplies to wage undeclared war against Azerbaijan.

(5) In regard to the blockade against Karabakh (territory which Armenians now occupy), Armenians have now captured Lachin and created what is known as the "Lachin Corridor" through which supplies, including arms and fuel, from Armenia reach Karabakh, and so essentially, Karabakh is no longer isolated from outside resources and as it is under control of Armenia is not receiving supplies from Azerbaijan.

Only now, when the ocean of refugees has swelled to nearly one million people, are there murmurings in Congress about how the US legislature is somehow, perhaps, unfair and unwise. (DeConcini 46). But such murmurings count for nothing unless Congress has the integrity to lift blockade and offer substantial assistance to Azerbaijan as they do to Armenia.

In the meantime, the US Government under the auspices of USAID (US Agency for International Development) and USDA (US Department of Agriculture) tries to legally skirt such legislation by identifying NGOs (non-governmental agencies) to which they can entrust humanitarian supplies instead of Azerbaijani government". What this means is that the US embassy in Baku goes scrambling in search of an NGO and when it can't find a single entity capable of handling the task, as happened this past summer, the contents of the cargo or shipment get shoved into a warehouse for months on end, medicines expiring, while the refugees desperately need assistance.

But Azerbaijan's infrastructure is identical to the other former Republics. Everything was, and essentially still is, organized by the government. Though the West might wish otherwise, the reality remains. There are no private agencies in Azerbaijan adequately staffed to distribute large quantities of foodstuffs and medicines to the refugees. The government is the only entity that exists apart from international agencies.

Meanwhile, more than $198 million of assistance via US Agency for International Development (USAID) and US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been given or credited to Armenia these past two years, 1992-1993, much of it paid for by US taxpayers and, obviously, much of it filtering through to military operations at the warfront which means that, essentially, US legislation is fueling the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

For Azerbaijan, the "Freedom Support Act" has from its inception, been a "Freedom Denial Act"-denying freedom of fundamental human rights-food, shelter, clothing, medicine and safety-to the refugees.

US and Western foreign policy towards the former Soviet Union places high priority on dismantling nuclear warheads. This is all well and good. In the meantime, millions of dollars have been funneled into Russia but comparatively little is designated for the other Republics with the exception of Armenia in their equally, and, perhaps, even more difficult, economic transition.

Confrontations in the region still seem to be viewed as "internal affairs"-as if there's an unspoken "hands-off" policy in regard to Russian relations with any of the former Republics. But the 14 remaining Republics are no longer under the colonial authority of Moscow bureaucrats. They are legitimate entities with their own territorial integrity, trying to find their rightful places in the international community.

The Western laissez-faire approach to Azerbaijan will not serve to lessen or resolve tensions. The US, in particular, should be wary of "tying its own hands" at a time when it needs to be involved in shaping policy that will foster, strengthen and guarantee the democratization of the region.

The result of the recent Parliamentary elections in Russia provide ample warning that the process of democratization does not occur overnight. The US and the West must re-examine its attitudes for bias in the Azerbaijan / Armenian conflict and diligently work to bring this war to an end. Only then can both countries use their resources to recover and rebuild their respective nations. Peace is the only sure path to democratization and security in this potentially volatile region.

From Azerbaijan International (2.2) Summer 1994.
© Azerbaijan International 1994. All rights reserved.

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