Autumn 1999 (7.3)
Six Years and Counting
A Refugee Mother Asks "How Much Longer?"
by Pari Guliyeva
Pari Guliyeva (1961- ) and her family fled their home in Zangilan near the Iranian border in 1993 after their village was attacked by Armenians. She and her husband Eyvaz Jamalov (1960- ) have lived with their daughter Khumar (age 13) and son Orkhan (age 9) in a refugee camp since October 25, 1993. In a recent interview, Pari described their perilous flight from home and told us what it's been like to eke out an existence, living in a refugee camp since 1993.
I'll never forget the day Armenians came to our village. It was afternoon, and we were working in the field. Suddenly, my daughter ran up, shouting that Uncle was calling us. The Armenians were coming to our village, and he was warning us to leave immediately.
Pari's husband, Eyvaz Jamalov, has suffered from severe shock and amnesia since his village was attacked in 1993.
Soon we saw Armenians approaching the village in tanks with Armenian flags,1 telling us to leave our land and houses. They promised not to harm us, as long as we left immediately. We were surprised but had no chance to ask questions. The soldiers were speaking Azeri. I remember their words so vividly.
But not everyone left. Some of the elderly and handicapped and children chose to stay behind instead of running to God knows where-fleeing to the unknown. We were so desperate. We had no time to gather anything from our home; we just locked the door, hoping against hope that one day we could come back again.
I couldn't find my husband, so I grabbed the children and left with my brother-in-law. We hid in the hills. Suddenly I saw our house go up in flames. I could hardly keep myself from sobbing. My house was built up on a hill alongside the road and therefore had made an easy target.
Pari's daughter Khumar (13) and son Orkhan (9) at home in Sabirabad's largest refugee camp.
Flight to Iran
There were six of us sisters and brothers living in Zangilan. We found each other and fled together. On the way, one of my brothers stepped on a land mine. We thought he was dead. We went back to pick up his body, but it turned out that he was still alive but seriously wounded. We took him with us, but he lost a lot of blood along the way. He didn't make it.
We tried to find a vehicle to help us get out of there. Finally, we came upon someone with an old tractor who was helping people go at least as far as the Araz River,2 which separates Azerbaijan from Iran. It was really dangerous to cross such a swift-flowing river, but everyone from our village had to do it. There was nowhere else to flee. The Armenian soldiers had chased us into the river.
Refugees in the Sabirabad camp looking at the Spring 1997 issue oaf Azerbaijan International which was dedicated to the refugee situation.
Some people drowned in their desperate efforts to get to the other side. God knows how many children were swept away, right in front of their mothers' eyes. My neighbor's son was one of them-poor, unlucky child. He just floated away. He had grown up in front of our eyes. We were so heartbroken for his family. Later his body was found washed up on a bank further down the river.
Finally, we managed to cross the river and reach the Iranian side. I will forever be grateful to the Azerbaijanis on the other side who gave us food and shelter. At the time, the soldiers were so inhuman that they were even shooting at the Iranian border. People don't talk about it today, but it's true.
"Making do" without kitchen facilities, table or running water-six years later. Flour sacks from international relief agencies insulate the mud brick walls.
Life in the Camp
I'm living in a refugee camp with my family now. It's the largest camp in the country-Sabirabad Camp No. 1. Nearly 10,000 refugees live here. We've been here since 1993 when they first started putting up the tents. Now most of us have managed to build rather crude mud brick huts with one or two rooms. The floor is earthen. We've covered it with plastic sheets and a blanket, but in winter, it's still so cold. In summer, it's exhaustingly hot in Sabirabad and our shelters have so little ventilation. It's like living in a desert. Then there's mosquitoes and malaria, which is indigenous to the region.
It's so hard to live without running water and basic household items in the camp, especially since we were used to having our own kitchens and bathrooms. We cling to the hope that one day we will have a chance to breathe our native air again. My biggest dream in life is to bring up my children well, to give them a quality education so that they can be happy in the future, and to die in the native country where I was born.
As I mentioned earlier, we fled our home without finding my husband. After two days of separation, we finally found each other again on the other side of the border in Iran. He had swum across the Araz River. To tell you the truth, I didn't recognize him-he had changed so much. He looked like a 60-year-old man. Somehow, he had suffered a severe shock. He had become mute, we suppose out of fear. He was unable to speak to anyone. We think maybe he had been beaten and tortured, but to this day he still can't tell us.
After we came to the refugee camp, my husband had an operation and was in the hospital for five months. He has recovered a bit, but still he can hardly explain anything. When he gets nervous or excited, he panics and becomes mute again, unable to speak until he calms down.
Here in the camp, we have enormous problems. It's not an exaggeration to say that we are barely surviving. People in the camps are starving. Believe it or not, it's been worse this summer. In the past, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent used to help us. We used to receive 15,000 manats (about $3.50) per person each month. It wasn't even enough money to buy bread. But now the aid has diminished dramatically. It seems much of the international humanitarian aid is being directed to Kosovo these days.3 We used to be given oil and flour, too.
There's a cotton field in Sabirabad where we go and work. Obviously, not all of the people in the camp can work there, even though they all need jobs. To qualify for such hard labor, you need to be young, healthy and lucky enough to find an employer who needs you. For all our hard labor, we barely get any money. Some people haven't even been paid by the local government since last year. But this year they promised to pay us a sack of wheat at the end of summer-that's all.
Of course, some people aren't able to work. They wait for someone to give them at least a loaf of old bread. But of course, they're too proud ever to beg for anything from anyone. Everyone here knows everybody's situation since we live so close together and we all try to do our best for each other.
For the past three years, we haven't eaten any meat. And there's been so few fruits and vegetables. You can't imagine the pain I feel as a parent when my children ask for something to eat, and I don't have anything to give them.
This summer, our diet consists mostly of tomatoes-we eat tomatoes for breakfast, tomatoes for lunch and tomatoes for supper. Unfortunately, the difficulties don't end when you find a way to get the tomatoes. It doesn't take long to develop stomach problems when you're only eating tomatoes for every meal. They're so acidic. But what can we do? Those who don't manage to get tomatoes are starving.
We don't know what tomorrow will bring. Each day gets worse and worse. We have just one hope, and that is that one day we will go back to our native land and begin our lives anew-the happy lives that we were living before all of these troubles started.
1 During the war between Armenians and Azerbaijanis over the Karabakh, tanks from both sides looked alike, as they were both from Soviet arsenals. Some refugees tell stories about how they thought their own side was coming through the village only to discover at the last moment that the tanks belonged to the enemy.
2 The Araz River originates in Turkey, winds its way 1,072 kilometers through Armenia and Azerbaijan, than empties into the Caspian Sea. It is most often associated in the Azerbaijan Republic as the natural boundary separating Northern Azerbaijan (the Republic) from Southern Azerbaijan (in Iran). Many songs have been written about the Araz River. Araz is also a man's name.
3 Since this interview took place, Turkey has experienced the tragic horror of the world's most catastrophic earthquake, further limiting humanitarian aid to Azerbaijan.
Gulnara Akbarova interviewed Pari Guliyeva in her one-room mud-brick home in Sabirabad Camp No. 1 in July 1999.
From Azerbaijan International (7.3) Autumn 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1998. All rights reserved.
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