Caught in the crossfire: border communities in Azerbaijan
6 March 2017
Life along an international border can be challenging – especially if you are at war with your neighbour. For decades, border communities in Azerbaijan and Armenia have been caught in the middle of a drawn-out conflict – one that fluctuates from isolated incidents to periods of full-scale hostilities. But even during times of relative calm, fear and insecurity cast a long shadow over everyday life.
Things weren’t always this way. On a recent visit to one of the border communities in Azerbaijan, we were told about how during Soviet times, communities on either side of the border used to cross over to trade, work, or even to participate in Muslim rites of passage, such as the ‘Kirve’. In addition, shared resources – such as common pastures, roads, irrigation and water supplies – used to be considered a blessing rather than a curse. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, relations have soured over Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory that has been occupied by Armenian forces since the signing of a ceasefire in 1994 that put an end to six years of full-scale war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Ever since, border communities on both sides of the international border as well as along the disputed territory have found their lives upended by periodic shootings, mine explosions and other threats that hinder their ability to pursue livelihoods or lead peaceful lives. Most recently, an escalation in April 2016 (sometimes called the ‘Four Day-War’ or the ‘April War’) left hundreds dead and caused significant damage to infrastructure and livelihoods – constituting the largest breach of the ceasefire since it was signed.
“The main problem is the shootings,” said Tarvel, a resident of a border village in Tovuz, during earlier research conducted by Bakhtiyar Aslanov and Avaz Hasanov, independent consultants and Saferworld partners. “Often, when people take their animals to the fields for grazing, they can be shot at. Sometimes the cattle cross the border and the villagers aren’t able to get them back. This makes it hard to earn a living.” Others told stories of shootings disrupting daily life at school or home, and restricting movement along roads. One resident of Gushchu Airym told of his experience coming home from his niece’s wedding with his daughter-in-law and grandson. “It was late evening when we passed the village of Farahli and the shooting began,” he said. “We got stuck, unable to go back or move forward. We ended up spending six hours hiding right at the entrance to the village.”
Another major problem for the villagers is the placement of land mines. On our recent visit to Qazakh, Ahad, a local resident, told us of a frightening encounter. “My neighbour was taking his cattle to the fields on a foggy day,” he said. “While riding his horse, he unintentionally crossed the border in a mined area. At first, his horse stepped on a mine and he was thrown to the ground. Then he himself stepped on another mine. He had to crawl back to the village to get help. In the end, he had to have his legs amputated.” Other disturbing cases are seared into the memories of the affected communities. Residents of Alibeyli claim that in 2011, a doll full of explosives washed up on the bank of a nearby river, killing the young girl who found it and badly injuring her mother.
Photo: Ahad Askerov
However, despite all of these dangers to physical security, one of the main concerns on the minds of border communities is how they can continue to make a living under the threat of gunfire, mine explosions and other disruptions. “People have lost interest and the motivation to farm,” said one villager interviewed in 2015. “Nobody farms crops here today for fear that the harvest will be destroyed by the shootings or the mines. Fertile lands are abundant but all of them are near the Armenian positions.” Villagers mentioned that there are few employment opportunities outside of farming. Another major problem is water provision for irrigation, drinking and household use. Pipes can often be damaged or purposefully blocked by opposing sides in the conflict. “There is only one sure way to bring water to the homes – on the back of a mule,” said one woman.
Photo: Zamin Askerov
There have been a number of initiatives by local authorities and the national government, as well as international and non-profit organisations to help ease the burden faced by these border communities. These include the renovation of schools (often to include protective walls), repairs to buildings and infrastructure, construction of water wells and reservoirs, and the provision of subsidies for utilities and other daily products. However, most villagers feel that responses are too often reactive rather than preventive. For example, they usually receive visits from government officials only after the media has reported on hostilities, while their requests go largely unanswered the rest of the year.
As Ahad told us, a political solution between the warring parties is the only way to fully guarantee the safety of the border villages. However, there is still a lot that could be done to minimise risks to communities. The first step is to improve communication between relevant local and international authorities to ensure that the villagers’ concerns are heard and taken on board. These groups should then work together to ensure that in addition to providing for increased physical safety, villagers are able to access utilities and services, such as emergency medical aid or bank loans. The ability to pursue livelihoods is intrinsically linked to security. It should be supported through continued farming subsidies and exemptions from soil taxes on agricultural activity – which can help relieve some of the burden of living along a militarised border – as well as by motivating different national and international investors to create their own small and medium businesses that can increase employment.
Photo: Ahad Askerov
Lastly, more should be done to raise awareness of the challenges faced by border communities, both among stakeholders in the region as well as internationally. Saferworld, together with its Azerbaijani and Armenian partners, will continue to work with affected communities to ensure local voices are heard. Most recently, Saferworld and partners conducted participatory photography workshops with residents of Azerbaijani and Armenian border communities. The trainings have helped villagers to visually capture some of the difficulties of life along a border, with the photos shown as part of an upcoming exhibition that will take place in neighbouring Georgia.
“This situation cannot continue forever,” said a 33-year-old man from Hajialili. “Over the years, both the Azerbaijanis and the Armenians have lived under such conditions, and have had to bear many losses. But there is a way out. The presidents of both countries need to sit down and talk face-to-face and find common ground. That is the only way to stop the shootings for good.”
To hear perspectives from border communities around the Nagorno-Karabakh region, watch a film produced by Saferworld’s partner Humanitarian Research Public Union.
Or click here to learn more about Saferworld’s work in the Caucasus
Bakhtiyar Aslanov is the Head of Peace and Conflict Research at the Humanitarian Research Public Union in Azerbaijan, where he coordinates and organises a number of peacebuilding projects on a range of regional conflicts, including Nagorno-Karabakh.
Ilya Jones is Publications and Communications Officer at Saferworld, based in London.