- - Friday, April 6, 2012

BAKU, Azerbaijan — Not far from the sprawling capital of this former Soviet republic lies one of the country’s shantytowns, where survivors of a defining event in Azerbaijan’s modern history — the Khojaly Massacre — live in poverty and despair.

During the 1988-1994 war in the southwestern Nagorno-Karabakh area of Azerbaijan, Armenian and Russian troops slaughtered hundreds of ethnic Azeri men, women and children in the town of Khojaly, about 230 miles west of the capital, Baku.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the tragedy, its exact date in February commemorated with public tributes and marches on one of the few occasions in which the country’s powerful elite stand side-by-side with the beleaguered opposition.

The story of the massacre is taught to schoolchildren the way that tales of the American Revolution are taught to American students, except the details are far more grizzly and eyewitnesses are plentiful.

“I don’t think there has been a day in the last 20 years when I have failed to recall the butchered and tortured corpses left behind in Khojaly,” says 50-year-old Aloysat Gasimov, who was one of the first Azeri officials to arrive in the area after the Armenian and Russian soldiers withdrew.

Dreams of going home

The rugged face of Mr. Gasimov, the head of a cultural center near the site of the 1992 massacre, is familiar to most Azerbaijanis because he appears in many of the first photos documenting the tragedy.

According to reports, Armenian troops gunned down hundreds of civilians over two days as they tried to evacuate Khojaly during the height of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict — accounts that Armenian authorities still dispute.

“For me, it is like a nightmare that has lasted 20 years,” Mr. Gasimov says. “The pain has never completely left me.”

It has never left other survivors, either, and not just because of the horror they witnessed in 1992.

Life for shantytown dwellers is difficult, in part because the government’s modernization plans have skipped over them and in part because they continue to hold onto dreams of returning to Khojaly — now a political no-man’s land claimed by both Azerbaijan and Armenia — and so they do not make efforts to improve the situation where they live.

“This is not my land,” says Figura Rustamova, a 42-year-old school director, gesturing around her small, plywood-framed home where the centerpiece is a large photograph of her older brother Furzoli, who was killed in Khojaly while trying to help older residents escape. “I am not connected to this land. I want to go back to Khojaly. When I die, I want to be buried next to my brother and my parents.”

That sentiment is almost universal in the shantytown, built on the remains of an old Soviet-era workers’ spa where running water and electricity disappear for days at a time and four out of five adults are unemployed, living on a government stipend they say translates to about $15 per month.

“Life here is hard, but it will be worth it if we can return to our land,” says Akbar Hasanov, another resident.

For its part, the government says it is working on the issue, and not without success. But Industry and Energy Minister Natig Aliyev says Azerbaijan’s situation is unique.

“There is one problem, which is to have no money, and there is another — to have too much,” Mr. Aliyev says. “In our case, the question becomes, what is the best way to spend it?

Prosperity belies problems

“The refugee problem is a serious one, but you can’t just give everyone $1,000 and send them on their way. You have to increase opportunities for them, and that is not so easy.”

Thanks to massive oil and natural gas reserves, Azerbaijan is home to one of the fastest growing economies in the world: Its GDP has tripled in the last eight years, and it’s public debt is barely 7 percent of GDP, and a mere eighth of its foreign currency reserves.

In per capita terms, it is the richest country in the region, and its economic might is apparent in Baku, where a small historic center is surrounded by a flurry of architectural activity.

Mr. Aliyev listed government spending on education, health, culture and infrastructure as the “pillars” of the government’s efforts to help the poorest Azerbaijanis.

“The problem is bad,” he says. “But it was much worse just a few years ago.”

In the shantytowns, residents are slow to criticize their government, but they say they have seen little evidence of its investments. The country’s growing international clout and the capital’s ambitious skyline do not interest them.

They just say they want to go home.

“For me, the top priority must be recovering our homeland,” says Rafael Ismailov, a retired truck driver injured during the attack 20 years ago.

Due to shrapnel he took in his ankle during the onslaught and infections that followed, one of Mr. Ismailov’s feet has withered into a twisted stump that requires him to hop on his good leg to get around his small home, an abandoned railway boxcar.

“There was a time for negotiating, but that has not given us the results we want,” he says. “I am against war, but if it takes force to get our land back and they can find a truck I can drive with my ruined foot, then they can strap me in and I will help lead the charge.”

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