Life, turned inside out: three generations of women
Once a student hall of Baku’s College for the Humanities, this building is now a hostel for refugees. In a room which barely holds two beds, three women live. The eldest has been paralyzed for many years. With her live her daughter, who looks after her, and her 18-year-old granddaughter.
The mother and grandmother fled Abdal-Gulably village in the Agdam Region in 1993, during the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia for Nagorny Karabakh. Agdam saw some heavy fighting. The granddaughter was born in Baku.
A mother of eight, at 87 Jakhan Gasymova can no longer walk or talk. Her husband and two of her children had become ill and died while the family was still in Agdam. Her son and nephew were killed in the fighting for Agdam: both had been 23. Later, Jakhan suffered a stroke, which left her paralyzed.
Displaced 25 years ago, Jakhan has been bedridden for 17 years. Her only surviving son suffers from diabetes. He lives in a village in the Agdam Region with his family.
Three of Jakhan’s daughters moved to Russia long ago. Gulnara is the only one who stayed to look after her mother.
Gulnara Gasymova lived in Abdal-Gulably village in the Agdam Region for 25 years. She remembers those times as a distant dream.
‘When I was 19, I started work as a nurse in our village health centre. In order to do this, I had taken a six-month nursing course in Khankendi –that was what Stepanakert used to be called. I worked in the health centre for six years. I was so happy there. Those were wonderful times.’
The happy times came to an end when Gulnara’s father became ill. She looked after him until he died – and after his death, came the war. Gulnara and her mother were forced to flee. In Baku, they ended up in this hostel for refugees.
At 31, Gulnara got married in that very hostel. She had neither dowry, nor white dress.
‘My husband had also been forced to flee. He’d come from the Fizuli Region. He had no home, either. We lived together in this room for seven years. So, no home, and a mother who was not well. Our daughter was growing fast, too… In the end, there simply wasn’t enough room for us all. Our relationship ended in the most civilised way possible. Only too aware of our situation, I could see how hard it all was for him.
My ex-husband comes to see our daughter, he helps us.
Sometimes I think that, had we not become refugees, my life would have been completely different. And our marriage would not have fallen apart.’
Takhmina Zeinalova is 18. She has two dreams, which are linked together: she wants to live in a big house, and to get an education.
‘For the second year in a row, I am trying to get into college. There are fees for the course: I didn’t get a high enough score to go on the free one. We have no money though. I can’t get a higher score because of our room. At night, I sit down to study, but my grandmother gestures to me to switch the light off. She can’t sleep with it on. In the day, I help mother look after grandma. If we had two rooms, I could study as much as I need.’
Takhmina succeeded in getting a place at the Faculty of Auditing and Accounting. She says she has no preference for any particular profession: she is simply determined to study, hoping that education will provide a way out of the financial dead end.
Takhmina’s mother is determined that her daughter’s life will be different to her own.
‘She has her whole life ahead of her. She needs to study and get married. I want them to give us a flat for my mother’s sake, as well as for my daughter’s. The mother of a soldier who was killed in the war deserves to be mourned in her own home when she dies.’
‘The war destroyed our lives. If it hadn’t been for the war, neither we, nor thousands of other families would have had to flee. We would still be living in a clean, spacious house. Honestly, in Abdal-Gulably we had such a big courtyard that you could get lost in it! We had a tall two-storey house. Now, we live in a room the size of someone’s toilet.
Even that would be bearable, though, but the worst thing is that the war took the lives of my brother and my cousin. If it hadn’t been for the war, hundreds of other young men would still be alive, too.
My brother would have had a wonderful family. Who knows? He would have had children. But what can you do? Such is the reality: the war has turned our lives inside out.’
Gulnara Gasymova, her mother and daughter survive on one pension and benefits.
The family’s budget is 455 Manat ($266). This includes state benefits: the money Jakhan receives as the mother of a man who was killed, her pension, the ‘bread money’ of all three women. Gulnara says that her mother likes to eat meat, so she is obliged to buy this expensive food three times a month. At least ten percent of the family budget is spent on medical products for the bedridden woman.
The family has three possible paths to escape poverty. They could return home – something they still hope for. Takhmina getting an education would allow her to get a job and support her family. Finally, there is the state programme for rehousing refugees.
Press Secretary of the State Committee for Refugees and IDPs Elchin Gadimov says rehousing is a gradual process.
‘The hostel has a high number of people living in a compact space. It would be impossible to move just one family. Rehousing the residents of hostels is something we are aiming to do. But we cannot give a specific timeframe at present. Residents from buildings in a severe state of disrepair will be rehoused first.’
- According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at least 750 thousand Azerbaijani citizens became refugees or IDPs as a result of the conflict in Nagorny Karabakh.
- 2004 saw the launch of the State Programme for the Improvement of Living Conditions and Employment Opportunities for Refugees and IDPs. A year later, construction of the first houses for refugees began.
- According to official figures from the State Committee for Refugees and IDPs, 50 thousand families (250 thousand people) currently live on purpose-built estates.
- 340 thousand people have not yet received accommodation.