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, commemorated each year in February with public tributes and marches in 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 grisly 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.
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 where they live.
“This is not my land,” says Figura Rustamova, a 42-year-old school director, gesturing in 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 aren’t available for days at a time and four out of five adults are unemployed, living on a government stipend of 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?
“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,” Mr. Aliyev says.