Azerbaijan: No Glory for Veterans

Institute for War and Peace Reporting
May 12 2004

Azerbaijan: No Glory for Veterans

Former combatants struggle to survive, and veteran status offers
little solace or practical help.

By Mamed Suleimanov in Zakatala and Baku (CRS No. 233, 12-May-04)

Rahim volunteered to go to the front in the war against the Armenians
in 1992, when he was 23. In January 1993, he was wounded and taken
prisoner near the town of Fizuli.

Eleven years on, Rahim is reluctant to talk about his time as a
prisoner-of-war. “I’ve told this story so many times to the state
commission on prisoners, so go and talk to them,” he told IWPR.

But over a cup of tea, he relented and agreed to tell his story.

“I spent more than a year in captivity. For about a month they kept me
behind bars next to another Azeri man called Oktay. Then I ended up in
the family of an Armenian man whose son had also been taken prisoner. I
spent many long months in the countryside around Hadrut, in this
man’s house. His name was Kamo. They treated me much better there.”

After more than a year in captivity, Rahim’s family managed to win
his freedom after paying a ransom. He was exchanged for a body of an
Armenian plus some money. He declined to say how much money changed
hands, but said that it was the intermediary who kept it anyway –
a field commander nicknamed Fantomas, a former tractor driver who
spent the war involved more in the “business” of trading prisoners
than in the actual fighting.

Rahim returned an invalid to the small town of Zakatala in
north-western Azerbaijan where he lives. Even though he cannot move
the fingers on his left hand because of war wounds, he managed to
become a professional hairdresser.

The local authorities gave him a small room in a local hotel, which
he turned into a hairdressing salon. Then his luck turned sour again.
Survivors of a fire in an apartment block were re-housed in the hotel,
so Rahim lost his means of making a livelihood.

Now Rahim is unemployed. He has a family and three children, but
no house and nowhere to turn to for help. The town authorities have
long forgotten about him, and now he is saving up to move to Russia,
where he hopes he can find a job as a market trader.

Another veteran, 38-year-old Azer, had more luck. He too volunteered
for the war, serving as a driver ferrying ammunition to the front. He
was badly wounded by a landmine in Aghdam, and spent over a month in
intensive care. Twelve years later, he still gets bad headaches from
the skull injury he suffered.

After he left hospital, Azer managed to get a fairly lucrative job by
local standards, working at a customs checkpoint on the border with
Georgia. He says that to avoid standing out from his colleagues, he
took bribes and shared them with his superiors, just like the other
customs officers.

After ten years on the job, he managed to save up a decent sum, got
married, bought a house in Baku and started his own business. But a
year ago he was sacked from customs because, he says, “they sold my
workplace to someone else”.

The stories of both Rahim and Azer illustrate how Azerbaijan’s veterans
of the Nagorny Karabakh war have had to fend for themselves in the 10
years since the ceasefire agreement of 1994. Most say they are ignored
by the state they fought for, and that they survive only on their wits.

Recently a local television channel reported that a war invalid from
the town of Imishli has been living with his wife and children in an
old bus for three years, because he lost hope that he would ever be
able to get a proper home.

The primary concern for most veterans is feeding their families. The
pension for invalids from the war is about 27 dollars a month, well
below the bread line.

Veterans used to enjoy some benefits, travelling free on public
transport and receiving gas and electricity supplies for nothing.
However, former Azerbaijani president Heidar Aliev cut those benefits
from the beginning of 2002.

Rei Kerimoglu, a spokesman for the Karabakh Gazileri (Karabakh
Warriors) organisation, one of several veterans’ groups, told IWPR that
benefits for invalids are sometimes misappropriated. For instance,
specially-adapted vehicles should be provided to invalids free of
charge, but officials demand a bribe of 300 to 400 dollars to hand
them over.

Kerimoglu said that in recent years, abject poverty has driven 36
war invalids to kill themselves, and 75 more have been treated by
doctors after attempting suicide.

Mekhti Mekhtiev, chairman of the Public Union of Karabakh War
Invalids, Veterans and Families of Martyrs’ Families, told IWPR, “We
have been facing a difficult situation since our benefits were cut.
When Baku mayor Hajibala Abutalibov had illegally-built structures
demolished, some trading booths belonging to Karabakh veterans also
got destroyed. These people are unable to work due to their health,
and trading is their only source of income. Now many veterans are
simply starving.”

Labour and welfare minister Nagiev denies that veterans are being
neglected. He said the 8,000 Karabakh war invalids on his ministry’s
books get priority treatment from the state. “Compared with others,
they have much higher pensions, they receive free medical treatment
at home, and those who need to have treatment abroad are given a
certain amount of money every year,” he said. The minister said the
state has handed out nearly 800 cars and 350 apartments to veterans
free of charge since 1997.

Altay Mamedov, who heads the Azerbaijani Association for Veterans of
the Great Patriotic War, an organisation originally set up to help
Second World War participants, said part of the problem is that there
are so many different veterans’ groups.

“In other countries there is one centralised body that deals with all
the problems facing veterans. But we have nine state organisations
doing it, and as a result there are differing interpretations of the
criteria for granting veteran status, and varying numbers of veterans
are cited,” said Mamedov. “The state claims there are 74,000 veterans
of the Karabakh war in the country. But our data indicates that the
number of war veterans is exaggerated. Our association is proposing to
unite all organisations that [have the power to] grant veteran status.”

Neither Rahim nor Azer is a member of any of the veterans’

“It’s all politics, and the heads of all those organisations just
want to grab a piece of the pie,” said Rahim. Azer agreed, saying,
“If you hang around waiting for help from the state, you could easily
starve to death.”

Neither man likes reminiscing about the war, and they do not take
part in army reunions. The memories of what they did then are a burden
they carry alone.

Mamed Suleimanov is a reporter for the Baku newspaper Novoe Vremya.