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KARABAKH VILLAGERS WARY OF RETURNING TO SHOWCASE VILLAGE ON FRONTLINE

The Azeri Times

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Elmira Sahakyan’s son was seven days old when war broke out in her village. Artillery shells fell on her house and her family, along with the roughly 200 other families in Talish, was forced to flee.

That was in 2016, in the heaviest fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in more than 20 years. More than 200 people were killed in the fighting, which has become known as the “April War,” and Azerbaijani forces took a height above Talish that allows them to continue to shell the town as well as the road leading to it.

Undaunted, Armenians are now rebuilding Talish. They have constructed new houses, a school and kindergarten, a cultural center and events hall, and even decorative sidewalks – all funded by an Armenian-American benefactor.

But two years later, Sahakyan’s son is a toddler and her family still hasn’t returned home. They live in an internally displaced persons camp about 30 kilometers away, supported by aid supplied by the Red Cross. Her husband is a soldier serving in Talish, and he has told her that the Azerbaijani positions make it too dangerous to bring the family back. The government has repeatedly assured residents that it is safe to go back, but she doesn’t believe them.

“They are deceiving us, always deceiving us,” she says.

Eurasianet.org
Eurasianet.org.

Talish lies right on the line between the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, the territory which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but has been controlled by ethnic Armenian forces since 1994, and Azerbaijan proper. It was briefly taken by Azerbaijan during the 2016 fighting, before Armenian forces managed to take it back days later. The village was totally destroyed, and saw some of the most notorious atrocities of the conflict: according to Armenian press reports, Azerbaijani soldiers allegedly killed three elderly civilians who were unable to flee and mutilated their bodies, cutting off their ears.

Since then, the reconstruction of Talish has become a heavily publicized cause célèbre among Armenians, representing a symbolic rebirth after dispiriting losses in 2016. The territory’s de facto president, Bako Sahakyan, visits regularly, and in May the village saw its first post-war wedding, widely covered in Armenian media (though the newlyweds don’t actually live in Talish).

But the need for a morale boost, and to fortify a key outpost of the Armenian world, is clashing with the basic needs of the people who are supposed to live in Talish.

“So what if there’s a new school if your life is in danger?” asked Zhora Oganyan, a father of two who also was displaced from Talish. “Now they’re above the village and they’re attacking, with machine guns, mortars, they’re shooting at the village. How can we go back?” he asked. “It’s dangerous. […] If I go back, it will be without my children.”

Officials downplay the danger of living in Talish. Vitaly Balasanyan, the secretary of the national security council, who is overseeing the reconstruction of Talish, said that Stepanakert – the de facto capital of Nagorno-Karabakh – is more dangerous because Azerbaijan has targeted it with missiles, while it targets Talish only with artillery. In an interview with Eurasianet, Balasanyan said that “if it’s necessary” he will himself move to Talish with his family and commute to work every week to Stepanakert.

In any case, he adds, “during a war no place in Karabakh is safe.”

Levon Apresyan, the government’s special representative for Talish, gave Eurasianet a brief tour of the village in his jeep. At the highest point of the village, on a rutted road lined by abandoned houses, he pointed across an empty field. “You can see them looking at us now, before they weren’t there,” he said. “Of course it’s a threat, but we don’t pay attention. We’re building, we’re going to live here, this is our land, our home.”

Levon Apresyan
Levon Apresyan. Photographer:: Joshua Kucera

Apresyan denied that people were afraid to move back. “People were afraid before, bombs were falling like hail,” he said. “But they aren’t afraid anymore.”

For now, about 30 people – mainly soldiers and construction workers – live in Talish, but Apresyan said he expects about 250 to move back. The authorities have set September 1, the first day of the next school year, as the date by which they expect most of the displaced residents to come back.

A civilian population was necessary to keep Talish safe, Apresyan said. “If there aren’t civilians here, if [Azerbaijan’s] soldiers look here and see that no one is living here, it’s going to encourage them even more,” he said. “That’s why we can’t leave our territory without people – people keep the land.”

The new buildings in Talish all have plaques, in Armenian and English, noting that they were sponsored by Antranig Baghdassarian, a California dairy magnate who donated $5 million for the reconstruction.

Plaque noting Antranig Baghdassarian's donation
Plaque noting Antranig Baghdassarian’s donation. Photographer:: Joshua Kucera

Baghdassarian, who declined to be interviewed for this article, made his donation via the Hayastan All-Armenia Fund, an umbrella organization coordinating the aid offered by diaspora groups around the world for development projects in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. The fund has called the reconstruction effort the “Talish Revival Project.”

“It’s a symbol of striking back, not with weapons but with positive rebuilding, seeing new families form on that land,” said Vardan Partamyan, the fund’s Head of Projects and External Relations.

Talish also holds historical importance for Armenians: It was one of the “Five Melikdoms,” feudal principalities that were part of the Persian Safavid Empire but which were ruled locally by Armenians with a high degree of autonomy until the 19th century. “To understand the importance of Talish, historically, these parts of the Armenian world were the last ones to have their own statehood,” said Ruben Melikyan, the Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto state human rights ombudsman. “It’s important from the historical point of view, the cultural point of view. That’s why that village has so much importance for us.”

Another village that was destroyed in the war, Mataghis, was not receiving the same attention because it lacked the same resonance as Talish, Melikyan said: “It doesn’t have the same sort of historical and cultural importance and that’s why you don’t see as much publicity,” he said. “People are very interested in Talish.”

Partamyan acknowledges a tension between the reconstruction symbolism and its practical aspects. “There is so much you can ask people to do patriotically, and say, ‘This is the Armenian border and it’s important that people live on the border.’ But people are people and they want to have safe and normal lives,” he said.

Still, he argued, the security situation is improving. “One positive thing I’ve been hearing from the community is that in the last two to three months there has been relative calm. The caliber and intensity of weapons used in 2016, and some periods in 2017, was rising significantly. So you have not just small arms fire but you have rocket launchers, grenade launchers, large-caliber machine guns indiscriminately. But [lately] there has been relative calm.”

A small shop in Alashan, site of an IDP camp for civilians who were forced to flee Talish in 2016's 'April War.'
A small shop in Alashan, site of an IDP camp for civilians who were forced to flee Talish in 2016’s ‘April War.’. Photographer:: Joshua Kucera

Those assurances are received warily in Alashan, the site of the camp for displaced residents from Talish, including Sahakyan and Oganyan. About 175 former Talish residents now live in Alashan with some in a disused military hospital and others living in temporary prefabricated housing erected nearby. The Red Cross provided them with cows, pigs, and bees, as well as seeds to start gardens.

“The Red Cross are the only ones helping us, the government isn’t doing anything,” said one resident, Gurgen Ghukasyan.

Of those that Eurasianet surveyed in Alashan, none were ready to go back to Talish. “We will live here for now – we have water, a garden,” said Sahakyan.

“We don’t know yet,” said another young mother, who asked not to be named. “As long as the Azerbaijani positions are there, it’s dangerous.”

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Azerbaijan

Laza, the land of waterfalls – Photo Gallery

The Azeri Times

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Originally published by Caucasian Knot

The Azerbaijani village of Laza, about 200 km from the capital, Baku, is situated on a high-altitude plateau, Shah Yaylag. At the end of March when the snow starts to melt, tourists flock to Laza to see the waterfalls for which the area is famous. The locals, who are mostly ethnic Lezgins, earn a living by renting out cottages to tourists and offering visitors transportation in all-terrain vehicles in the winter.

Azeri Times presents this photo essay from Laza by Aziz Karimov, republished from Caucasian Knot.

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Azerbaijan

Opposition activist sentenced to 6 years in Azerbaijan

The Azeri Times

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On 18 September, the Baku Court for Serious Crimes sentenced a member of the youth committee of the opposition Popular Front of Azerbaijan Party (PFAP), Orkhan Bakhishli, to six years in prison.

Bakhishli was detained by men in plain clothes in downtown Baku on the evening of 7 May. On 10 May, the Yasamal District Court in Baku charged the youth activist with drug possession and ordered his detention for four months.

The PFAP has claimed that the charges against Bakhishli are trumped up and politically motivated. Several days before his arrest, on 3 May at a World Press Freedom Day event at the grave of journalist Elmar Huseynov, who was shot and killed in 2005, Bakhishli accused the Azerbaijani government of Huseynov’s murder.

Human rights activists consider Bakhishli a political prisoner. Previously, he served 30 days of administrative detention after being arrested ahead of a 31 March opposition rally.

In recent years, activists Ahsan Nuruzadeh, Murad Adilov, Bayram Mammadov, Giyas Ibrahimov, Elgiz Gahramanov, blogger Rashad Ramazanov and others have also been jailed on charges of drug possession.

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Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan a year after the LGBT raids: has anything changed in Europe’s most homophobic country?

The Azeri Times

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Azerbaijani society has never been tolerant toward sexual minorities, but no one expected the cruel and large-scale violence that occurred last year. At least a hundred people were humiliated, beaten and raped. People who were suspected of being gay were blackmailed and warned not to walk in the central streets of Baku. Meydan TV investigated the possible reasons for the police violence immediately after it happened last year and we now return to this topic to find out what has changed in Azerbaijan over the past year.

I felt like I had done something terrible

“I was absolutely desperate. I was leading a repulsive life: I drank a lot, I used drugs,” Ali recalls September 2017 (all names have been changed). He says that the “repulsive” life he led seemed to help him forget what he had experienced for a while: like many other gay Azeris, Ali was detained in a surprise raid in downtown Baku. He spent several days at a police station. It still is not easy for him to talk about what he experienced – in response to every questions he says that many people, for example, transgender people, had an even harder time than he did. “Not only did they call them the filthiest words and beat them, they also shaved their heads, which was the most humiliating thing for them,” Ali says.

Ali had never advertised his sexuality but it became obvious for people around him after police detained him. “I felt like I had done something terrible and that I was persecuted for it. My landlord kicked me out of the apartment I was renting, and my friends and loved ones turned away from me,” Ali recalls.

Ali gradually did manage to return to normal life – there were kind people who helped him while he was looking for a job. Unlike Ali, another gay man who was detained, Murad, had a certain amount of money which helped him flee the country. Murad left immediately after he was released from the police station and now lives in Turkey: “I wanted to move to Norway, but I was denied a visa.”

Murad has not been successful in finding a job and it seems he will have to go back home soon. “Of course I’m afraid, of course I don’t want to go back. I’d stay here if I could. At least there’s an LGBT community in Turkey, and they help each other,” Murad says.

 

Four brave lawyers

According to official statistics, police detained 83 people during the LGBT raids in Baku in September 2017.

“Thirty-three people filed lawsuits for illegal arrest and cruel treatment after they were released,” said Gulnara Mehdiyeva, a representative of the human rights organization Minority Azerbaijan and a member of the local LGBT alliance Nefes (Breath). Gulnara says that apart from physical and moral damages, those detained also incurred material damages:

“They were jailed for different terms, some for 10 or 15 days and some for 20 or 30 days. Many lost their jobs because their employers refused to take them back after their long absence,” Gulnara Mehdiyeva says.

Four lawyers agreed to defend the rights of the LGBT people affected. One of them, Samad Rahimli, says that judges rejected all the complaints. The same 33 people sent complaints to prosecution agencies, but prosecution agencies did not find any criminal wrongdoing.

Azerbaijani rights activist Kamala Aghazadeh believes that lawsuits will not produce results while the country has no law defending LGBT people from discrimination. “Society absolutely needs a law that would guarantee the protection of LGBT rights,” she said. Perhaps, the adoption of such a law would remove Azerbaijan from the list of the most homophobic European countries which Azerbaijan has led for four consecutive years now.

A month after the raids, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks sent a letter to Azerbaijan’s Interior Minister in which he called for “thorough investigations into serious allegations of human rights violations of LGBT persons recently arrested and detained in Baku”.
No reaction followed from the Azerbaijani government.

 

Four suicides and five murders

Samad Ismayilov, the director of Minority Azerbaijan magazine, said that four LGBT people committed suicide in Azerbaijan in 2017. Ismayilov said that specialized organizations recorded five murders which presumably were anti-LGBT hate crimes over the year. He said those were average annual figures.

“However, these are only cases that we have managed to learn about. In reality, there are many more crimes of this kind,” he said. According to Ismayilov, activists were not able to find out even an approximate number of members of the LGBT community in Azerbaijan because most people hid their sexual orientation.

Samad said no raids or large-scale assaults on gays had been recorded in Azerbaijan in 2018, but several trans people were at the police station the other day. “They were summoned to the police, asked several questions and released. However, we do not understand the reason for this interest, nor did we understand it last year,” Samad said.


Produced with the support of the Russian Language News Exchange

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