Baku, Azerbaijan – It has been three decades since Rasmiya Ahmadova last saw her hometown in Kalbajar, a leafy district in western Azerbaijan, dotted with fruit and walnut trees.
Her adult children had never visited, and with a lifetime spent in temporary accommodation, the family never stopped dreaming that they would one day return.
That wish is now terribly close.
Last year, Azerbaijan recaptured parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding areas – including Kalbajar – as a protracted conflict over the mountainous enclave flared up.
More than 6,000 mostly soldiers died on the two sides in the war – and half of the ethnic Armenian population, or about 75,000, were displaced.
For the more than 600,000 Azerbaijanis displaced since the first Karabakh war in the 1990s, when Armenia ceded parts of the territory recognized as Azerbaijan to its control, the victory was fair.
It was also bittersweet – Ahmadova has lost six family members over the past 30 years due to the fighting, including her eldest son.
“He was a very considerate person. He was not just a boy, but my friend, ”she said as she proudly flipped through a hardcover book with printed pictures of 27-year-old Nijat Atayev in military uniform and looking classy in a sleek charcoal suit.
In Azerbaijani tradition, neighbors gather to remember Nijat a year after he was killed, when his tank hit a landmine on the first day of last year’s war.
Each has their own story of loss: the brother who fell while trying to protect fellow soldiers; the friend who was washed away by a stream of Aras River in the 1990s when they tried to cross over to Iran to escape Armenian troops.
Ahmadova’s third-floor apartment in Gencler Seherciyi, in the Binagadi district on the outskirts of Baku, is surrounded by desert and oil refineries.
It is one of several so-called “Little Karabachs”, ghettos for the long-term displaced – residents were housed here again in 2012 after living in dormitories, schools and tent camps for years.
According to the UN, Nagorno-Karabakh’s Azerbaijanis are one of the world’s largest internally displaced populations per capita, at one point accounting for 7 percent of the country’s population.
But outside the oil-rich nation, their fate passed largely unnoticed.
Armenia and Azerbaijan, both former Soviet republics, have been fighting for six weeks since September last year over Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognized as Azerbaijan but is largely populated by ethnic Armenians.
A peace agreement was signed between the two countries in November, but the dispute has been in a state of frozen conflict for decades.
With roots dating back more than a century, frictions only boiled over in war when the enclave’s parliament voted in the 1980s to join Armenia. It is estimated that between 20,000 and 30,000 people lost their lives in the first war, which ended in 1994 when ethnic Armenians gained control of the region.
Besides the fact that more than half a million Azerbaijanis were internally displaced, the first war also saw at least 300,000 Armenians seek refuge after leaving Azerbaijani territory.
Some then lived in the conquered regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh – but fled again last year when they were recaptured by Azerbaijan.
An entire generation was raised in exile.
Azerbaijan said 70 percent of the displaced want to return to the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
But it could take up to 10 years to fully clear the area of landmines and unexploded ordnance, Deputy Foreign Minister Elnur Mammadov told Al Jazeera.
Major infrastructure projects are underway to connect the newly reclaimed areas with the electricity main framework and transport links. The first returnees, according to Mammadov, will be relocated to a purpose-built smart village in Zangilan district early next year, with more reconstruction projects planned to be completed shortly thereafter.
However, it will probably be a slow process and the wait has proved too much for some.
According to Azerbaijan National Agency for Mining Action, more than 60 people were injured and two died in landmine accidents after evading military restrictions so they could visit their homeland.
The collective trauma of a community where every life was shaped by this protracted conflict is palpable at Gencler Seherciyi.
Mountain people who once lived next to oak forests and let their cattle graze in the green steppes now live in rows of identikit blocks stacked on top of each other.
The inner feeling of loss hangs heavy and it emerges as stubborn nationalism – a belief that full commitment to the cause is not only important, but a duty. The sentiment is only increased in the young people, who grew up with stories of a glorious mountain paradise they have never seen before.
Despite the pain clearly in her eyes, Ahmadova only spoke of pride for the price Nijat paid for the cause.
“There is nothing sweeter than a boy, but there is nothing more valuable than giving a life to your country,” she said. “I have two more sons, but if the country needs them, I’m ready to sacrifice.”
Her family lived together in one room in the dormitory of a sports university for 10 years before moving to Gencler Seherciyi.
Nijat, who was posthumously awarded three medals for his service and who will be honored by a local school that plans to name a classroom after him, was obsessed with Nagorno-Karabakh.
He wore the military uniform he begged his parents for on his first day of school and he enjoyed playing with toy guns and as a child said he was “ready to fight Armenians”.
“My last and last memory of him was when he called home the day before the war started. “He was in the army and he knew it was going to happen,” said Ahmadova.
“He had joy in his voice and laughed. When I asked him why, he said, ‘There’s good news, Mom, but I can not tell you yet.’
She showed a video on her phone of three young men in a car in military fatigue, jovially as they drove to join their unit near Fuzili, where Azerbaijani troops were on September 27 last year.
“This is the last fall of our lives,” Nijat said in the video.
All three died the next day. They did not get as far as Nagorno-Karabakh.
“You can see they are not scared,” Ahmadova said.
After nearly 30 years of absence, the attachment to Nagorno-Karabakh for many goes so deep that two senior residents of Gencler Seherciyi told Al Jazeera they fear they will have a heart attack when they finally see it again.
“It is our duty to return”
To mark a year after the war, some families were granted access to the hill town of Shusha (known as Shushi for Armenians), which overlooks the parts of Nagorno-Karabakh controlled by Armenians.
The strategic settlement has been designated as Azerbaijan’s cultural capital since it was recaptured in the last and most brutal battle of the 2020 war.
A memorial service for fallen fathers is held in Shusha’s flag square.
Their children are planting 100 pine trees that an official from the Yashat Foundation, which was set up to help the families of soldiers killed and injured last year, say will grow four or five feet high.
One girl (17) is carrying an Azerbaijani flag wrapped around her shoulders. When asked what it means to see Karabakh for the first time, she shared the same sentiment with which Al Jazeera spoke: “There are no words.”
“You can not really describe these emotions. There is both a lot of happiness and a lot of sadness, ”said Sahnaz Abbasova, 47, a last-grade student who completed Shusha School before fleeing in 1991. She and her former classmates were allowed to visit the town as part of filming for a state TV documentary.
“My grandmother’s mother’s mother lived in Shusha. Our roots go back so long my grandmother said she would not be forced to leave. “So she stayed and was killed,” said Abbasova.
Despite many of the reclaimed areas devastated by either war or neglect, the promise of return for the long-term displaced goes beyond bricks and mortar: it’s a chance to reconnect with forgotten childhood memories and to ‘ to regain an identity – to no longer be displaced persons in need, but to be proud inhabitants of Karabakh.
For Ahmadova, no matter how many years her family has spent in Baku, it will never feel like home. Once it is announced that Kalbajar is safe and secure, she plans to retire the next day.
“My son and many others died for those areas,” she said. “We have sacrificed so much for this country – it is our duty to return.”