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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Azeri Refugees: Optimistic Victims of Poverty

AGHJABEDI, Azerbaijan -- For the past eight years, through relentless seasons, Ali Orudjev and his family have lived in a hole in the ground. He and his wife, Samsiya, have watched helplessly as two of their infants died because they could not afford medicine and they fear desperately for their surviving children, a tiny 5-year-old girl and a 1-year-old boy who rarely smiles.

"I feel ashamed because I can do nothing for my family and make no money," said Orudjev, a trained veterinarian who was among hundreds of thousands of his countrymen who fled the invasion by neighboring Armenia into Azerbaijan's mountainous enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in 1992. "I'm afraid for the future of my kids. I don't want them to grow up in a dugout."

Several hundred refugees live in the treeless, desolate land of south-central Azerbaijan. Their homes are, essentially, pits carved by hand from the parched earth, covered with mud-caked thatch and outfitted with a solitary wooden platform for sleeping and small windows for ventilation. They are neither cool in summer nor warm in winter. Meant to be temporary, the holes have become permanent.

The Orudjevs are among the poorest of the poor, banished to the bottom of a population of 1 million refugees scattered throughout 40 or more camps in Azerbaijan, where promised oil riches have yet to materialize and income per capita is less than $2,000 a year.

Long after the fighting stopped, the refugees remain victims of a little-noticed war, insufficiently cared for by their government and on the verge of abandonment by international aid organizations. They live without running water, electricity or medical care in railroad cars, tents, temporary prefabricated houses and holes in the ground, surviving on a few dollars a month, on handouts and heartache.

Sipping strong tea at a roadside cafe after touring refugee camps, Gesche Karrenbrock, an official from the Geneva headquarters of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, explained with professional detachment that the situation in Azerbaijan is complicated by several factors. People's lives have been disrupted for so long that many have lost the power to help themselves, she said. Job training for young people has provided a glimmer of hope, so the United Nations and other aid groups are shifting emphasis from food and shelter to programs that encourage self-sufficiency. One result, Karrenbrock said, is that the meager food for refugees will be cut.

"There will always be people left over after our efforts," she said. "Here, 200,000 may be beyond our reach."

Her agency's budget for the country is being reduced from $12 million last year to $4.7 million. Many private organizations have also cut back or pulled out after eight years of little progress.

The Azeri government, which has reached a cease-fire with Armenia but no peace agreement that would allow at least some refugees to return home, has not taken up the slack. Some Western diplomats and humanitarian workers said the camps are political pawns in the government's effort to negotiate the return of the 20 percent of the country now occupied by ethnic Armenians. They also said some aid is siphoned off through corruption. But even the best-intentioned government would find an enormous burden when one out of every eight of its citizens lives in refugee camps f among the highest ratios anywhere in the world.

Although the government raised financial assistance to the refugees to about $5 a month each from $1.50, even the Azeri President Heydar Aliyev, acknowledged that their plight remains abysmal. "It is a horrible thing that hurts my heart," Aliyev said in an interview.

The people were displaced in 1992 and 1993 when the war that had erupted in 1988 between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh f a predominantly Armenian-populated enclave in Azerbaijan f turned decisively in Armenia's favor. After four years of indecisive conflict and pogroms that drove ethnic Armenians from Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, Armenian troops swept into the mountainous, 4,420-square-kilometer region, emptying villages and collective farms and driving out Azeris.

A shaky cease-fire was established in 1994, but sporadic negotiations have failed to end one of the most intractable conflicts that emerged as the Soviet Union collapsed.

These refugees insist that they will never abandon hope of returning home.

Salatin Novruzova, 39, boiled potatoes over a fire of dried cow manure for her family of seven. The snakes and lizards that crawl into her dugout, the kilometer walk for drinking water, the absence of irrigation water, she described it all without emotion.

Only when asked why the family stays did she raise her head from the pot. "I pray to Allah to just lift us and move us back to the other place," she said. "We have nowhere else to go."