Azeris Wrestle Over Return to Abandoned Towns, Decades After First Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict With Armenia

By  Ann M. Simmons

 | Photographs by Justyna Mielnikiewicz for The Wall Street Journal

Feb. 15, 2021 9:48 am ET

AGDAM, Azerbaijan—Some 30 years on from the war that saw Armenian forces drive hundreds of thousands of Azeris from their homes in and around the conflict-torn enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, many hope they can soon return after Azerbaijan regained much of the surrounding area in a counteroffensive last fall.

But for Sayali Pashayeva, and others like her, that dream is clouded by questions such as where they would live in the rubble-strewn border territories, and whether they could realistically carve out a new livelihood upon their return.

“I thank God for allowing me the possibility of returning to die on my own land,” said Mrs. Pashayeva, 74 years old, on her first visit back to Agdam, once home to her family and 40,000 other people. Her son and daughter unfurled a red rug from the trunk, a gift for the local mosque, the only building left standing here, about 3½ miles from the border with Nagorno-Karabakh, still officially under the control of ethnic-Armenians. The capital there, Stepanakert, is monitored by Russian peacekeepers.

“For 30 years, we have waited for this moment,” Mrs. Pashayeva’s son, Alastun Pashayev, 45, said. Azerbaijan secured control Agdam and several other regions in and around the disputed enclave during a bloody six-week battle before Russia brokered a cease-fire in November.

Actually returning won’t be easy. Mr. Pashayev says he knows his $135-a-month in disability payments and pension paid to displaced people won’t be enough to reclaim the life he lost in Agdam three decades ago, when he was still a child.