War's phantom survivors

Azerbaijan: After the fighting stopped between this newly independent state and its neighbor, countless refugees melted into a scattered life abroad.

April 01, 2001|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SAATLI, Azerbaijan - They are ghostly figures, long forgotten by the world, more than 570,000 refugees living in railroad boxcars, snake-infested holes in the ground, mud huts and abandoned buildings.

Once, the world cared deeply for them. That was nearly 10 years ago when the Soviet Union was freshly dissolved and embers from a war between the newly independent states of Azerbaijan and Armenia threatened to raise uncontrollable flames from the ashes of the Cold War.

But the fight for a mountainous sliver of land called Nagorno-Karabakh ended with an Armenian victory and a cease-fire in 1994. Armenia took Nagorno-Karabakh and occupied 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territory, preventing the displaced from returning home. Once the guns had stopped firing, the wounded, homeless people were quickly forgotten.

Mekhradj Veysalov, a middle-aged father, has become part of the phantom legion that war left behind. Here in rural Azerbaijan, he walks listlessly along the railroad tracks and boxcars that shelter him, a spectral presence, hoping the world will see him and remember.

"The only real help we can get from America," he says, "is an effort to try and solve the problem of Karabakh. How can you let a blameless people suffer? It can't be accepted anywhere."

The presidents of the two countries met for the first time in 1999, and the United States, Russia and France have been overseeing subsequent negotiations, without success. Now, in one of his first attempts to influence the course of world events as U.S. secretary of state, Colin L. Powell has invited the two presidents to meet in the United States on Tuesday.

"When you're dealing with peace talks, it's always difficult to predict possible success," said Carey Cavanaugh, the U.S. special negotiator for Nagorno-Karabakh. "We've seen how hard it is in the Mideast and Northern Ireland and Cyprus. What we hope to do here is give it its best chance for success."

Progress in the talks might very well give Mekhradj Veysalov and his countrymen hope of returning to their homes.

"I can remember the day very well," Veysalov says, describing the moment life as he knew it ended. "It was Oct. 23, 1993. The weather was very cold. I had to swim in the water with my mother."

Fleeing in panic

Veysalov, his wife, mother and six children were fleeing their home in the terror and panic of an Armenian advance on the Jabrail region, wedged between Nagorno-Karabakh and the Arax River on the border with Iran. Many drowned in the crossing. Ever since, the Veysalov family has lived in a hulking railroad boxcar. In winter, the metal car is like a drafty refrigerator. In summer, it is like an oven, and the families sleep on the tracks, underneath the car.

"They came to the train station here, saw the boxcars and went inside," says Israil Iskenderov, director of UMID, a fledgling Azerbaijani non-governmental aid agency. "They heard the Armenians were coming. The alarm went out, and they ran. They left without clothes, without animals."

Now they are part of a settlement of nearly 500 people who have lived in these boxcars for more than seven years. About 80 cars are lined up in two long rows on tracks that run past the Saatli train station. Passenger trains speed by at 1:30 in the morning and 6:30 in the evening.

Veysalov's kitchen looks medieval. His 16-year-old daughter, Basti, crouches over a pail of gray water, washing the lunch dishes. A hen is tied by one leg to the leg of a table. Nine chicks hop and cheep in merry disorder.

Behind a partition, the family has fashioned a living room with empty but colorful candy boxes decorating the walls like priceless paintings.

Lives are measured out in small humiliations. The men sit, chafing at their lack of work, playing dominoes. The women haul water from a half-inch pipe that flows for two or three hours every other day. Nearly 500 people rely on a dozen outhouses.

Idled women perch on the tracks, as if on a front porch, and talk of their lost homes. The children play around them in the gravel roadbed. Laundry waves from the sides of the boxcars. Turkeys strut about, their gobble stern, their feathers magnificent. A rooster crows.

These people have settled into a mood of weary acceptance, modulated neither by great joy nor deep sadness. "Usually it depends on the water supply," Veysalov says, "or whether we have electricity."

A warring past

The people of the Caucasus - Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Georgians, Chechens and others - were born into a land of legendary significance, where East meets West. Empires rose and clashed here like tectonic plates. Alexander the Great, Tamerlane, Genghis Khan, czars and shahs, all fought for these mountains and plains.

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