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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Long Road Home Is Comparatively Short

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SHUKURBEILI, Azerbaijan -- Like thousands of farmers up and down the country, Abulfat Hussanov is tending to his small plot of land. He waters his crops, feeds his chickens and checks to see whether the apples in his tiny orchard are ripe.

But there is a difference. For five years, Abulfat, his wife, three daughters and a son lived in a refugee camp with no running water, no school and only a leaky roof made of tarpaulin over their heads. It's only recently that he and his family have been able to return to their village, which was seized by Armenians during the war over Nagorny Karabakh.

The bitter six-year conflict at the collapse of the Soviet Union saw thousands killed on both sides, and hundreds of thousands of Azeris and Armenians living in Nagorny Karabakh were forced to flee their homes. In fact, the village of Shukurbeili was never part of Karabakh -- but along with six former Azeri territories, it was occupied by Armenian soldiers.

"We had to grab what we could and run," Abulfat says, remembering the day Armenian troops stormed the village. "The children were crying, we didn't know what was happening. It was terrifying."

For the next five years, the Hussanovs joined thousands of other refugees in a camp close to the border with Iran. "It was almost impossible to live there," he said. "The ground was dry and full of salt -- nothing would grow."

All the same, the Hussanovs were some of the lucky ones. When the Armenian and Azeri governments signed a cease-fire in 1994, some of the occupied territories, including the small village of Shukurbeili, were liberated.

It took another four years before the Hussanovs could move back and three more before their house, which had been destroyed during the war, was rebuilt.

"All that time, we lived in a shelter beside the shell of our house," Abulfat says. "It was cramped and uncomfortable, but we were lucky. We had come home."

With the help of the International Federation of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent Societies, all but four of Shukurbeili's families have left the refugee camps and come home. The land mines have been cleared, every house rebuilt and the village now boasts a fully equipped school and health center.

For Abulfat Hussanov and the 166 other families who have returned to Shukurbeili, the war is over. But for almost half a million others, who continue to live in railway carriages, mud-brick shelters and glorified tents, each passing month takes them further from the thought that they might one day go home, too.

Chloe Arnold is a freelance journalist based in Baku, Azerbaijan.