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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Azeri Riches Not for All




Children and geese compete for space in the pool of greenish drainage water while mothers scrub laundry or make thin porridge for lunch. The visiting foreigner declines the traditional offer of communal tea, deciding it's best to stay thirsty while prowling in and out of the hundreds of decaying boxcars that make up a veritable small city on train tracks, "home'' for thousands of Azeri internal refugees.


"Look at the way we live!'' cries Shariah Hashimova, waving her withered hand toward the drainage ditch adjacent to her boxcar home. "This is worse than a jail! The children get sick and there is no medicine. The locals call us cowards for having fled our homes in the first place, and refuse to help us. The government keeps on saying that we will be going home soon, but they've said that for the past four years.''


Hashimova is one of 1 million forgotten people in Azerbaijan, the post-Soviet republic on the shores of the Caspian Sea that Western oil men now refer to as a "new Kuwait,'' the linchpin country in the so-called Great Caspian Sea Sweepstakes.


But while the capital city, Baku, is enjoying an unprecedented economic boom and attracting billions of dollars in foreign investment, much of the rest of the country continues to trudge along in squalor, and that is nowhere as apparent as in the string of refugee camps in the western part of the country abutting the disputed territory of mountainous Karabakh. More than 30,000 were killed over the course of eight years of ethnic strife before the conflict sputtered to a no war/no peace cease-fire in May 1994, which left about 20 percent of Azerbaijan under Armenian occupation. Since then, international negotiations aimed at bringing a final settlement to the Karabakh conflict repeatedly have stumbled on the question of whether the region should remain part of Azerbaijan or be allowed to secede in accordance with the express wishes of the Armenian population there.


For its part, Azerbaijan has promised the Karabakh Armenians "the highest degree of autonomy'' but insists that the territory remain legally a part of Azerbaijan. "It is an affront to our sovereignty, but for the sake of peace and development, we are ready to compromise,'' says Azerbaijan's President Heydar Aliyev. Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan also has pleaded for understanding to allow him to cut a deal with the Azeris, lest his country remain permanently isolated.


Meanwhile, the 800,000 Azerbaijani IDPs -- "internally displaced people,'' in UN jargon -- remain the unwanted detritus of a war lost mainly due to internal political bickering and appalling greed among the Baku-based elite, and who serve as a reminder of a recent bitter past that most would prefer forgotten. The majority have become wards of a wide variety of relief-oriented nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, coordinated in a helter-skelter fashion by the oft-maligned United Nations High Commission for Refugees, or UNHCR.


The showcase resettlement project is in the Fizuli region, south and east of Karabakh, where a World Bank project is shoveling tens of millions of dollars to reconstruct homes in the one area "liberated'' from Armenian occupation by the Azeri forces in spring 1994. But that project has come under criticism because many of the reconstructed homes are larger and fancier than those destroyed. This has led not only to charges of preference among refugee groups for political reasons, but also to wholesale corruption among the Azerbaijani officials associated with the reconstruction project. True or not, the World Bank's financing of "fancier'' dwellings in the region appears to have set an unfair standard for other NGOs involved in relief work, which are criticized for building substandard units (or skimming off the difference between the cost of "good'' and "adequate'' housing for themselves).


There is also another showcase settlement of a different kind, a nameless tent city in the Barda region that was set up by the Turkish Red Crescent society in the summer of 1993. The Turks abandoned its maintenance after two years, leaving it to other international relief groups to pick up the task of looking after an estimated 10,000 people. Although UNHCR and several relief-oriented NGOs have visited it, no group has come forward to claim the camp as its direct responsibility, and conditions have deteriorated. Open sewers from outhouses run parallel to a line of spigots used for drinking water; the local "school'' consists of five canvas tents set up at the far end of the encampment in a swamp. Disease is rife among the children.


Sadder than the filthy state of the camp, however, is the notion that the government in Baku has identified it as one of the worst temporary settlements, and now uses it as a showcase of misery for visiting foreign dignitaries as a means of securing more foreign aid, even while the government continues to sign billions of dollars in oil contracts.


To his credit, former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, after being shown around the site earlier this year, refused to eat the caviar and sturgeon steak offered to him by his Azeri hosts at a luncheon following the tour, and told his hosts to give it to the refugees instead.


"The Azeris are starting to learn from the Armenians how to suffer publicly to gain international sympathy,'' said a longtime observer of the refugee scene. "They have not got it perfected yet, but they are rapidly moving to create a national identity based on misery, sorrow and perceived persecution -- and it is a very sad thing to see. The IDPs have become a pawn in the political game of getting outside forces to resolve the Karabakh conflict.''


Thomas Goltz is the author of "Azerbaijan Diary,'' to be published in February. He contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.