Many Azerbaijanis had started to lose hope that they would ever return back to their homes, now the renewed conflict with Armenia could be about to change that.
When Intigam Farajly was just an infant, his family were forced to flee the region of Lachin in Azerbaijan as Armenian backed forces occupied the Karabakh region.
Now 29, and living in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, Farajly and his family are watching the advances of the Azerbaijani army with a sense of trepidation, perhaps after almost 30 years, they could return to their homes.
“My family had to leave the village two days before the district was completely occupied,” says Farajly speaking to TRT World.
When Farajly’s family fled, they initially stayed with their dad’s friend for eight months in the central Agjabedi region of Azerbaijan. The family then settled in an abandoned pomegranate juice producing factory followed by eventually moving to Baku.
“All these years my family didn't own a house, they just found buildings to survive. They have always dreamed of returning to their life in Lachin,” says Farajly.
In 1989, Lachin’s population counted more than 46,000 Azerbaijanis, 44 Russians, 3 Armenians and a significant Kurdish population.
Now, the region of Lachin, which borders Armenia’s internationally recognised borders has seen much of its original inhabitants forcefully displaced.
As many as 30,000 were killed in the conflict and almost one million Azerbaijanis were displaced as a result of the conflict in Karabakh in the early 1990s.
Now, after more than a month of fighting, Azerbaijan has recaptured more than 15 percent of the Armenian occupied Karabakh region and now stands on the cusp of retaking the Lachin region.
“I've been thinking about the village, the house where I was born, where I opened my eyes to the world. It is very, very interesting for me to see what my village looks like, is it really as beautiful as my parents said?” asks Farajly wishfully.
Despite the challenging start to his life, Farajly is now a leading specialist in Azerbaijan’s Professional Football League.
When asked whether he and his family would ever return, Farajly immediately responds “of course we will return” adding, “despite the fact that everyone has a new life in Baku this does not change the fact that we belong to those lands.”
The strategic position of Lachin
Beyond the importance that Lachin has for its original inhabitants, it is also a strategic linchpin connecting Armenia and the occupied region of Karabakh.
“I think not a single person from Lachin was hopeful of liberation because of its strategic role in the conflict. But seeing the victories of our army, day by day people from Lachin began to believe that Lachin is going to be one of the next regions to be liberated,” says Farajly.
Even after a ceasefire was signed between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1994, Yerevan maintained possession of the strategic region. A resettlement policy began in a bid to create facts on the ground and the region's name was changed to Berdzor.
The territories “regardless of the consideration of diplomats, must be inhabited by Armenians," said the head of the resettlement department in Armenia in the early 2000s.
That sentiment has also made the Azerbaijani wary of any proposed ceasefire attempts over the last month. The suspicion that Armenia intends to keep conquered land by changing the demography of the region is not unfounded.
Capturing Lachin would be a “game-changer,” says Rusif Huseynov, a foreign policy expert and director of Baku-based think tank Topchubashov Center.
“It would mean an important turn in the course of the war,” added Huseynov speaking to TRT World.
“The liberation of Lachin by Azerbaijan would simply cut off any links between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh separatists and leave the latter under virtual siege,” said Huseynov.
Armenia’s beleaguered Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has clung to the hope that international backing from France, Russia and the US - where the Armenian diaspora has political and financial clout - could stop further advances by Azerbaijan.
Despite several attempts at a ceasefire between the two sides, they have all fallen apart within hours.
Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has said that he is willing to negotiate with his Armenian counterpart provided there is a timetable for withdrawal from the occupied territories in Karabakh. Armenia has been reluctant to commit, perhaps holding out for a change in the international climate.
Liberation, pain and loss
As the conflict drags on, the human toll on both sides of the conflict has mounted, with more than 40 Azerbaijani and 30 Armenian civilians killed in the Karabakh region.
Hundreds of civilians on both sides have also been wounded.
Nargiz Azimli, a 27-year-old financial consultant originally from Lachin, laments the loss of human life recollecting the suffering and pain that her family went through when they were forced to leave the region becoming internally displaced people.
“I realize people now living there will have to go through similar things and it is very sad,” says Azimli speaking to TRT World.
“I know how much some of my family members had to struggle and how much they had to go through back in 1992. My aunt and her family had to leave their home with 3 kids and move to Baku overnight,” she added.
Azimli knows only what her father and mother told her about Karabakh. “Both my mom and dad always say it was very beautiful in Lachin. They were happy,” she adds.
Rich in history, the mountain region gets its name from ‘kara’ - meaning black and ‘bak’ meaning garden in Persian. It’s not difficult to see how the region gets its name. It has copious amounts of mahogany trees, mineral deposits of different kinds including cobalt, uranium, mercury, gold, iron and even marble deposits of different hues.
Yet the yearning by the older generation, in particular, is one also rooted in seeing the graves of the relatives that have passed away and imparting on their children a sense of belonging to their ancestral land.
“For the past 20 years, my family has always said how they wanted to go back, how they wanted their kids to see where they grew up, how beautiful it was back there and how they wanted to visit their dad’s (my grandparent’s) and their grandparents’ graves even if it just once,” says Azimli.
For displaced Azerbaijanis from Lachin, such as Farajly, the situation has resulted in family members calling and messaging each other about each advance being made by the military. The hardship and displacement of the last 30 years many hope will come to an end.
“Now everyone is starting to plan what they'll do when it is time to return to Lachin,” says Farajly.