“However long it takes, we will return to Agdam. We want to live here, our place is here,” said the 65-year-old metalworker.

Agdam has been a ghost town since June 1993, when Armenian separatist forces seized it from Azerbaijan, driving its 28,000 residents who feared for their lives to flee.

Thirty years have passed and Ali Hasanov is back in his homeland on a bus tour organized by the Azerbaijani government to the “liberated lands” retaken from Armenia in 2020 after six weeks of fighting.

The war claimed more than 6,500 lives, before a Russian-brokered ceasefire.

Under the deal, Armenia ceded territories it had controlled since a first victorious war in the early 1990s, while a Russian peacekeeping force was deployed to the region.

– “My soul was burning” –

Ali Hasanov says he “couldn’t sleep a night” the night before his trip to Agdam. The city now in ruins was the largest city in Nagorny Karabakh before being razed by the Armenians.

“My soul was burning at the thought of coming back. For me, it was the most beautiful city in the world”, is moved the worker, standing in the middle of a wasteland that extends to the distant blue mountains .

The Azerbaijani government began in January to organize regular bus trips to the “liberated lands”.

This is the first step in what Baku calls the “Great Return”, an ambitious government plan to repopulate Karabakh with its former Azerbaijani population.

Escorted by police armed with automatic rifles, buses bound for Agdam and Shusha, the cultural capital of Karabakh, leave Baku twice a week on day trips that leave visitors only two and a half hours for see their old homes again, when they are still standing.

“Our house stood behind this fence,” recalls Ali Hasanov, with tears in his eyes.

“There was an alley lined with huge plane trees, under which we played backgammon or dominoes, and over there a football stadium, the favorite place of the guys in our neighborhood”.

The destruction was such that another refugee from Agdam, Gulbeniz Jafarova, could not even find the ruins of her house.

“It’s as if I had spent 30 years in prison and had just been released,” says the 55-year-old seamstress.

At the cemetery of Agdam, she went to meditate on the grave of her brother, killed at 27 defending the city against the Armenian separatist forces.

“My mother’s last words before she died were: My son. I had promised her that I would visit her grave”.

– “Our place is here” –

The Azerbaijani government has said it will spend billions of petrodollars on rebuilding the region, with $1.3 billion allocated in last year’s budget for infrastructure projects such as new roads, bridges and airports.

Baku is committed to transforming Agdam into one of the largest cities in the country and plans in particular to create an industrial park there.

Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov said in January that “very soon we will witness the return of the first families to their homes” in Nagorny Karabakh.

However, this “great return” remains a distant prospect, given the scale of the devastation and the dangers posed by landmines, widely used in the conflict which has steadily reignited over the decades.

“However long it may take, we will return to Agdam,” insists Ali Hasanov. “We want to live here. My sons say our place is here.”



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