Karabakh Squatters Cling On

Baku residents demand homes back but refugees refuse to budge.

By Leyla Leysan in Baku (CRS No. 534, 5-Mar-10)

Thousands of Baku residents are forced to live in difficult conditions because refugees from Nagorny Karabakh have seized their homes and the legal system has failed to help them.

The refugees were among hundreds of thousands of Azeris who fled Karabakh when Armenians seized control of the territory and regions bordering it in the early 1990s. Many refugees live in illegally held accommodation but say they have nowhere else to go.

Now Azerbaijan’s authorities may finally be moving to expel them after years of saying they would not do so until they were able to regain control over Karabakh.

Tarana Kerimova, 38, struggled to put together the money to buy a flat in a block being built as a cooperative in the 1990s but, before her family could move in, a group of refugees from Karabakh took it over.

“The refugees removed the steel doors put there by the owners to try to secure their living space. They have done a lot of damage to the building,” she said.

At first, she tried to reason with the squatters, but was verbally abused, she said. Other dispossessed owners were even attacked. They then went to the courts, but repeated rulings that the refugees should move out have come to nothing.

Kerimova and about half the 70 families that saved up to pay for the building are left renting rooms in crumbling hostels.

“We got to the point when we were asking them to give us just one room, so we’d have somewhere to live but they refused. Some of the owners were lucky; they moved in on time to protect their space, and sit in an empty concrete flat, without waiting for fittings to be installed,” she said.

“Around 30 people are still waiting to get in. Among them are two with cancer, as it happens. I have to rent a flat even though I am bringing up my children on my own.”

Sadaqat Ahmedova is another unlucky Baku resident who failed to move into her new flat in time. She said people whose homes were stolen live in dreadful conditions in hostels, in basements or in rented flats.

“I live in a derelict house on the edge of the city. There is no sewerage system, instead of floorboards there are railway sleepers. The roof leaks all the time, which means everything is so damp that it is unpleasant just to be there, let alone live. My son has asthma and the conditions are harmful for him,” she said.

“My father-in-law helped us buy this place, but he could not afford anything more. When I gathered the money for the cooperative flat, I sold everything I had. I managed to get together 15,000 US dollars, and look, I am stuck in a ruined building. I have tried everything, and asked people to come and look at our inhuman living conditions. But there is no help. We don’t want money, we just want our homes.”

Activists say refugees had little choice but to move into any buildings they could find, and that in the vast majority of cases they did not displace anyone.

“The government in the early 1990s did not have the capacity to house the refugees. People looked for a roof over their heads themselves. They settled in sanatoria, camps, kindergartens and hostels. Some refugees settled in empty flats, whose owners had decided to wait out the hard years abroad,” said Kerim Kerimli, chairman of the Society of Internally Displaced Persons.

“The country’s leadership was fairly lenient about this and announced several times that until the occupied territories are liberated, the forced migrants would not be touched,” he added.

He said a lot of houses were now being built, and the authorities had begun to behave differently. Refugees were being moved into new accommodation in order of need, he said, with those in the worst conditions at the top of the queue.

“After them will be those who had the choice – to be on the street or to take someone else’s empty flat,” he said.

According to a presidential decree of 2004, refugees cannot be removed from plots of land or administrative buildings that they occupied between 1992 and 1998 unless they are provided with living space of an equivalent standard.

That should not apply to the cooperative house of Ahmedova and Kerimova – and a court case from 1998 specifically ordered the refugees to leave their flats – but they remain homeless.

The court decision was reissued in May 2007, but the bailiffs did not enforce it because the refugees appealed. The appeal court then said the refugees could not be expelled until they could go home, and they cannot go home until Azerbaijan reclaims control of Karabakh. This means the residents’ fate is tied to that of territory, which has been ruled by Armenians for 15 years.

Eldar Zeynalov, director of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, said, “There is a court decision that the flats must be vacated. That it has not been fulfilled for several years is a violation of the human rights of the owners. As for a postponement until the liberation of the occupied territories, this is not correct.”

He said thousands of Baku residents have struggled with this problem since the early 1990s.

Eldar Alizade, head of the pressure group Defence of the Rights of Unfortunate and Homeless Baku Residents, said the deprived people had to keep fighting.

“People have several times appealed to me with this same problem, and some of them were even worse off. The refugees did not always take over an empty flat. There were cases when someone would leave in the morning, and in the evening would find different people in his home, who would not only refuse to leave but would attack him,” he said.

“The only advice for these people is to go to court and to take it to the constitutional court, and after that appeal to the European court. There is no doubt that the problem will be resolved at that level, since the right to property is written into the European Convention [on Human Rights].”

The European Court of Human Rights has twice ruled that Baku residents had been illegally deprived of their property. In 2007, Valentina Akimova won repossession of her flat along with 10,000 manats (12,500 dollars) of compensation after an Azerbaijan court had allowed the refugees to remain in her flat until the occupied territories were liberated.

Then, in February this year, Jafar Jafarov won a similar case, and will probably be able to take back his flat in the next few months. However, the homeless people are unlikely to take too much comfort from these isolated cases.

In October 2006, a group of the residents visited Ali Hasanov, head of the state committee for refugees’ affairs.

“Although I understand your problem well, it is not in my power to solve it soon. I promise you that the first people moved into flats built for refugees will be those who are occupying other people’s flats,” he told the group at the time.

Four years have passed, and once again Hasanov has promised their problem will be resolved in the near future.

“At the moment around 6,000 refugees are living in illegally seized flats, half of them in Baku,” he said.

“We have taken six months to fully investigate the problem, and have the addresses of all the houses, which will be vacated very soon. This is around 300-400 buildings.”

Leyla Leysan is a freelance journalist trained by IWPR.