Summer 1998 (6.2)
Come on now! Haven't these poor, unfortunate people lived through enough trouble! They've lost homes-everything they had-their relatives, their jobs, their gardens, their sense of place and even the graves of their parents and grandparents. They are the ones who have paid the greatest price in this war. Despite such tremendous sacrifice and loss, they are the ones being cold-shouldered in their own country.
I hear so many stereotypes about refugees. I have to admit that I was guilty, too, up until the time when I started working with them myself. But so many of these stereotypes simply are not true. The refugees did not flee from their homes because they wanted to, but because they were victims of violence and war and because the Azerbaijani society did not defend them. If more people could only comprehend what the refugees have gone through and see how they have been living for the past six years, they would be ashamed for blaming refugees for being victims.
It's the Azerbaijani society that should be ashamed, not refugees. The issue of this war is not a matter simply confined to one region or another, it affects the entire country. Dealing with such a large displaced population is a serious test for any nation, much less a new, small fledgling nation like Azerbaijan.
Let me also add that contrary to popular belief, crime is much lower in the refugee camps than in our society as a whole-which itself is much lower than in Europe and the United States.
We must keep in mind that refugees are people like everyone else and should be treated as such. They are not political tools, nor are they statistics. They are our brothers and sisters in trouble, who have lived through nightmares we can't even begin to imagine.
Do People Still Live
Coming from a small town, I wanted to see how people who were from a small country lived. I found you on the Internet. Thanks for sending the magazines. I am really learning a lot about Azerbaijan, and I hope my class will learn something, too. I was surprised to learn that Azerbaijanis are still living in refugee camps. I thought that was a thing of the past.
Feeding on Western
It's curious how often the New York Times notes that the reasons Christian Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh seceded from Azer-baijan was because they could not tolerate the hostilities, oppression and discrimination imposed upon them by Muslim Azerbaijanis.
For those of us who have grown up in Azerbaijan, such claims are absurd. Unfortunately, such propaganda feeds upon the fears of those who are suspicious of Islam and of those who don't have a clue about how warm and friendly the relations between our two peoples used to be before Armenians got the idea to resort to arms so they could expand their territory to become a "Greater Armenia." After all, during the Soviet period, thousands of Armenians, especially women, married Azerbaijanis.
To be honest, for us, religion has never been a powerful driving force in our struggle for independence or, for that matter, any other significant cause. Throughout the centuries, Azerbaijan has always primarily been a secular state, and respectful of those belonging to other faiths and ethnicities who lived among us. Perhaps, that's why so many Jews live in Azerbaijan, even today. Nor should it be forgotten that Azerbaijan was under Russian domination, an empire of Christian orthodoxy, for about two hundred years.
The New York Times wrote that "Armenians [living in the Azerbaijan territory of Nagorno-Karabakh] were deprived of Armenian language newspapers, schools and other means of preserving their culture" (See Laura Akgulian, "No Grand Turkish Alliance Looms on Horizon: Armenians Persecuted," March 6, 1990).
But let's examine the other side of the story during the Soviet period when Russian was the prestigious language and Russian culture was imposed on all of us so that we all had to struggle to keep our own languages alive. Just ten years ago the number of Azeris living in Armenia was larger than the number of Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh [the enclave inside Azerbaijan which Armenians want to unite to Armenia] today. Approximately 250,000 Azeris have been forcibly driven out of the Republic of Armenia since then. These same Azeris not only were deprived of the chance to study Azeri in their schools, but they had to learn the Armenian language in order to survive the burden of Armenian nationalism. Isn't it ironic that "democratic" Armenia is one of a few ethnically pure nations in the world! Aren't these two terms contradictory? The other nationalities have long since fled "democratic" Armenia.
Let me add that if Azerbaijanis are so "oppressive and intolerant," how could they possibly have accommodated almost half a million Armenians in their capital city of Baku alone during the Soviet period? In fact, during that time, the population of Armenians inside Azerbaijan nearly doubled.
Moreover, the Armenians not only thrived in Baku, but Azerbaijanis never imposed their language, nor their culture on them.
One can provide numerous arguments that Azerbaijan has never sought any sort of conflict with her neighbors-be it territorial, religious or ethnic. Which leads me to say that I'm happy about the signing of recent oil contracts between the government of Azerbaijan and major U.S. oil and gas companies. Finally, more members of the international community will be able to learn that, in truth, Azerbaijanis are genuine friends.
Ready for Tourism?
Nearly seven years have passed since Azerbaijan gained its independence from the Soviet Union, and much progress has been made. Everywhere you look, construction and renovation is going on. New restaurants, shops, hotels, supermarkets, office buildings and banks seem to appear everyday.
But what fascinated and consoled me most, as a fellow Azerbaijani who has grown up in Iran, is that Azerbai-janis are still the same people I remember-extremely hospitable and kind, with a deep and ancient culture. I was fascinated by the number of universities, institutes, theaters, orchestras and concert halls. All in all, I had a memorable stay.
Understandably, Azerbaijan has many areas that need to be improved, especially if the country is to attract tourists. Let me just mention a few:
1. Upgrade the airport. Though I've heard that vast improvements have been made to the international airport these past few years, much more still needs to be done to meet international standards. Elevators and escalators are needed to assist passengers to the departure check-in on second floor. Also welcomed would be clean Western-style toilets, telephones for international calls and information readily available in English for tourists who seek accommodation and transportation into the city. Presently, visitors depend upon friends or acquaintances to pick them up.
2. Develop the highway infrastructure. Main arteries throughout the country need to be built. Baku's asphalt streets have many potholes that need to be repaired. A scientific traffic plan needs to be implemented, rerouting traffic to alleviate gridlocks now that so many people own cars.
3. Build more hotels and motels. At present, accommodations in Baku are mostly geared to upscale business travelers. The average tourist can't afford such prices. Outside of Baku, few hotels even exist.
4. Preserve the beautiful "Inner City" (Ichari Shahar). So much construction is going on in this historical section of town. But the government should preserve this rare treasure in the world. It could become a significant income generator for both the people and the government.
5. Develop new beaches outside Baku and repair and renovate existing ones, especially now that the sea level seems to have reversed itself and is going down.
6. Simplify street signs. Most of them are still in Cyrillic script, rather than the official Latin-based alphabet. Foreigners want to be able to read street signs.
7. Make city street maps readily available in Azeri Latin and English.
8. Eliminate police harassment of motorists for money or bribes.
I could add to the list, but these seem basic enough. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to my second trip back to Baku soon.