Aliyev raises Azerbaijan flag in landmark visit to Karabakh

Aliyev raises Azerbaijan flag in landmark visit to Karabakh

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev paid a visit to Khankendi on Sunday, weeks after Baku cleared the region from Armenian separatists, according to Azerbaijan in Focus, reporting Daily Sabah. In a symbolic move to cement Azerbaijani rule in Karabakh, Aliyev raised his country’s flag as he traveled across the region.

The president was on a tour of cities and towns that were captured from Azerbaijan, including locations where Armenians had committed atrocities.

It was his first visit to Karabakh since he was elected president in 2003. Dressed in military attire, Aliyev raised the Azerbaijani flag in every place he paid a visit, kissing the flag before it was hoisted in the air.

His first stopover was the scenic Sarsang Reservoir in Karabakh and then, he proceeded to the town of Aghdara.

His next stopover was Khankendi where Azerbaijan’s counterterrorism operation against separatists succeeded in ensuring Baku’s full control in Karabakh, retaken from Armenia after a 2020 war.

Aliyev also traveled to Khojaly where 613 civilians were slaughtered by Armenian occupiers in 1992 and the town of Askeran. His itinerary also included a village of Shusha and a town near Khankendi.

It took Azerbaijan about 24 hours to force separatists to lay down their arms through a counterterrorism operation. The leaders of the separatists either surrendered or were captured by the Azerbaijani forces.

Azerbaijan is now working on the reintegration of ethnic Armenians who lived under separatist rule in Karabakh and on peace talks with Armenia.

Hope of returning home

The resettlement of Azerbaijanis hoping to return to Karabakh after being forced to flee Armenian forces’ invasion years ago ranks high on Baku’s agenda.

As a young man starting out as a dentist, Nazim Valiyev was forced to flee his home. More than three decades later, with his medical career over after a stroke, the 60-year-old hopes he can return now that it is back under Azerbaijani control. It could still be years, however, before he realizes his dream. Valiyev is among the estimated 700,000 Azerbaijanis who fled or were forced out of the region they call Karabakh amid violence that flared beginning in 1988 and then grew into an outright war. That conflict ended in 1994, with the territory under the control of ethnic Armenian forces supported by their neighboring country.

The blinding speed of recent events raised spirits among those who had fled so long ago and longed to return to its mountains and thick forests. “I often saw in my dreams how my neighbors and I, as before, were walking in the forest and picking flowers,” Bahar Aliguleyeva said of her childhood memories in Khankendi.

When she heard that Azerbaijan had regained control of the city she left in 1988 at age 16, she said in an interview with The Associated Press (AP): “I somehow didn’t even believe it. It’s as if I found myself somewhere between the past and reality, but there is a path to happiness.”

Valiyev, the former dentist, said he thinks about returning every day, “but I understand that this will not be a quick process.”

In 2022, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev established a program called “The Great Return to Azerbaijan’s Liberated Territories” to bring back long-displaced people. It envisions improvements in infrastructure, construction of residences and laborious, slow-moving efforts to clear the region of mines. Azerbaijan’s budget for this year allocates about $3.1 billion for reconstruction projects in the region. So far, only about 2,000 people have returned, but the government aims for 10,000 by the end of the year, according to Fuad Huseynov of the State Committee for Affairs of Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons. He told the AP that the government plans to return 150,000 people by 2027.

“Mines are a huge obstacle, a huge problem. The territories that were under Armenian occupation for 30 years were not only virtually completely razed to the ground, but also mined with mines and other unexploded military ammunition,” he said.

Since the 2020 war, at least 65 people have been killed by mines and another 267 injured in the territories once held by Armenians, according to Azerbaijan’s Mine Action Agency.

If Aliguleyeva and Valiyev and other displaced residents are ever able to return, what they may find could be heart-wrenching. Aliguleyeva is uncertain whether her childhood home is still intact. Although she was able to contact a former neighbor through social media, she explained, “When I asked her to send a photo of the house, she only sent a photo of the courtyard wall.”

Valiyev said his family residence was burned down in 1988, although the separate building where he kept his dental equipment survived. He is eager to go back nonetheless. “My 5-year-old granddaughter loves it when I tell her about my childhood in Karabakh, and she says that she also wants to grow up there. The past must never be repeated,” he said.

“We and the Armenians must start a new life, no matter how difficult it may be. Enmity cannot continue forever, it must remain in the past.”

Overcoming that enmity likely is a more difficult process than rebuilding war-ruined buildings. Although both Valiyev and Aliguliyeva spoke warmly of getting along with their Armenian neighbors when they lived in Khankendi, they also told of the terror they felt when ethnic violence drove them away.