Füzuli region, Azerbaijan
It took me quite a while, but here it is: Part 1 of a two-part series on my experiences as a Kiva Fellow conducting microfinance work with internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Azerbaijan. This was meant to go up on the Kiva Stories from the Field blog, but it was turned down because Kiva, having been burned in the past, did not want to touch the Nagorno-Karabakh controversy with a ten-foot pole. Now that my affiliation with Kiva has ended, I’ve received permission to put it up here. Please link, please share, please help to raise awareness.
The manager of Komak Credit Union’s Absheron branch raises one hand off the steering wheel to gesture toward the jagged white peaks to our west. I know what he’s about to say, and it sends a chill down my spine.
“That is the Lesser Caucasus,” he says. “That is Nagorno-Karabakh. Every one of those mountains is occupied by the Armenians.”
A map of Azerbaijan with the occupied region of Nagorno-Karabakh marked (click for full view). Füzuli is the green-bounded region in the southwest that has been riven in two by the frontline; its Armenian-occupied capital, Füzuli (Fizuly), and its acting capital of Horadiz are both visible.
Nagorno-Karabakh is a mountainous, majority Armenian region of the Caucasus that sits within the borders of Azerbaijan. Since 1991, it has been occupied by Armenian forces, the legacy of a destructive ethnic war between the two nations that left the region in ruins. Hostilities ended in 1994, but the Armenian and Azerbaijani armies remain exactly where they were at the time of the ceasefire, transforming the frontline into an insuperable and deadly barrier that divides Nagorno-Karabakh from the rest of Azerbaijan.
Eighteen years later, the conflict remains a suppurating wound. Over 800,000 Azeris, nine percent of the country’s population, were forced to flee their Karabakh homes due to warfare and ethnic strife; Azerbaijan has more internally displaced persons per capita than any country in the world. Those Armenians who remain in Karabakh live amid vast fields of rubble, the unreconstructed remains of a region where both ethnicities once lived in peace. The ceasefire is constantly breached, turning villages near the frontline into ghost towns menaced by snipers. Fourteen percent of Azerbaijan’s territory remains occupied, and Armenia’s economy has been all but crippled since 1993, when its long borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan were closed.
For four months, I worked in Azerbaijan with a Kiva field partner called Komak Credit Union, which devotes itself to providing microcredit to internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the Nagorno-Karabakh War. Its name in Azerbaijani, Kömək, means “help.” It was founded in 1999 by a group of 20 IDPs who had been forced to flee their homes near the Armenian-occupied city of Füzuli; to this day, nearly all of its employees are IDPs. Every person in the car with me right now has had their life ripped apart by war.
And now they have agreed to take me back to their former home region to show me what life is like next to the frontline.
As soon as we cross into Füzuli, we run into minor chaos. The main east-west power line serving the region has toppled over in spots, and workers struggle to neutralize the threat of the downed cables while righting the massive telephone poles. Last night, I am told, a ferocious thunderstorm swept through the area, and the combination of high winds and snowmelt-sodden soil simply plucked a dozen poles right out of the ground.
My mind races, looking for a narrative. Perhaps this is a legacy of Soviet times? Perhaps this is evidence of the unchecked decay of Soviet-era infrastructure, a trend I had observed in countless other places in Tajikistan and Azerbaijan? I quickly dismiss that thought. Unlikely; far more likely that the Soviet-era power line would have been destroyed in 1993 as two ferocious armies swept through; far more likely that this iteration was new, erected with typical solidity by Azerbaijan’s independent government, and that only nature had brought about its demise.
Perhaps the only narrative here is that of Füzuli’s stolid, timeless earth violently upturned: of an orderly row of poles uprooted by awful forces that had spun out of control.
Komak Credit Union’s Füzuli branch, located in Bala-Bəhmənli, a small village that has become a regional focal point now that the main population centers of Füzuli region have been occupied. This tiny storefront handles over 35 percent of Komak’s loan portfolio; 100 percent of the branch’s clients are IDPs.
We stop briefly at Komak’s Füzuli branch office, a minuscule storefront sandwiched between a butcher shop and a purveyor of mobile phones, then hit the road again. Our borrower visit has begun.
Komak was founded here in the Füzuli region, and I am convinced this is still where it does its most important work. Violent fighting swept through Füzuli several times in 1993, reducing its towns to rubble and displacing its inhabitants several times over. By the time the ceasefire came, most of its population had lost everything there was to lose. Many Füzuli IDPs, like Komak CEO Aydın Hüseynov, are former urban dwellers forced to flee their cities and learn subsistence agriculture to survive (see Yelena Shuster’s KF11 blog post in which she shares Aydın’s story). Even today, the IDPs of Füzuli are among the poorest people in all Azerbaijan. There is not a life in the region that has not been shattered by war.
How do you speak to someone who has suffered so much? How can I, a privileged American who has never known tragedy, just drop in on a man whose entire life was destroyed and ask him how often he makes repayments on his loan? I am uncomfortable. I review my questionnaire, coming up with ways to dance around painful topics while still gently drawing forth the information Kiva wants me to collect. Delicacy, delicacy above all.
I am not prepared for a bone-rattling handshake and a kiss on the cheek.
Fariq is a bear of a man who leaps across the muddy patches of his yard with sprightly energy, chattering so enthusiastically that my translator, laughing, has to hold up a hand to make him stop. Yes! he beams, he is an IDP! He and his family had to flee their native village in 1993 when the Armenians swept through; thankfully, they were able to return a few months later, following a successful counteroffensive by the Azerbaijani army. But in the interim, their house had been burned to the ground and everything they owned destroyed. For years afterwards, he and his family lived in squalid temporary housing, too poor to even begin rebuilding their lives – until the early 2000s, when the government of former Azerbaijani president Heydar Aliyev provided him with a house and a new plot of land. He discovered Komak not long after.
Fariq has used this, his fourth Komak loan and his second funded by Kiva lenders, to buy a cow and a calf for his dairy business. (“And then the cow made more cows!” he chortles.) He proudly takes me out back to show off his animals. His stable, which is nothing but lashed-together branches with a corrugated tin roof held down by bricks, has collapsed, a casualty of the same damaging storm that uprooted all those telephone poles along the highway. He brushes it off: “We will rebuild it! We always do!”
Fariq is grateful to Komak for giving him his first loan on nothing but trust – an act especially meaningful to IDPs, many of whom lost all records of their creditworthiness when they had to flee. He is grateful for his astonishing 6% annual interest rate, a Komak hallmark designed to encourage Füzuli borrowers to build businesses in their depressed home region rather than moving to Baku for work. He is grateful for his tailored repayment schedule, which compresses his loan into four large quarterly repayments to help him manage his seasonal agricultural income. He is very, very grateful for every last thing, and he pumps my hand over and over again to tell me so. “Without Komak, I would have been just a subsistence farmer,” he tells me. “But these loans have helped my family so much. Thank you. Thank you.”
The branch manager points the car southwest. We are going to Horadiz. We are going to the end of the road.
The land has become bumpy and green – such a contrast from arid, pancake-flat central Azerbaijan. To the north, a row of foothills press in, driving the road closer to the river. I know that just behind them rise the towering cold peaks of occupied Nagorno-Karabakh. From this perch, I look south across the narrow green floodplain that lines the river Araz, the border between Azerbaijan and Iran, backed by a sawtooth row of snow-covered slopes. Armenian soldiers out one window of the car, Iranian border guards out the other. I have the sudden thought that I am descending into the maw of a great beast, a gleaming row of white-capped teeth on each side.
If that is so, then Horadiz, I reflect, must be square in the gullet. Horadiz was once a major rail junction but is now the end of the line, the farthest west town in Füzuli that remains in Azerbaijani hands. It was designated the temporary capital of the Füzuli region once the former capital became inaccessible. And what a strange place it is, a gleaming showpiece of a city with beautiful government buildings, immaculate houses, luxuriously landscaped parks, and even a state-sponsored center for muğam, Azerbaijan’s rich and dramatic national folk music. All, it is plain, were built in the last ten years, built to replace a city that had been nearly razed during the Armenians’ brief occupation. Horadiz is not a town, but a symbol, a defiant fist raised within sight of its former occupiers. It is protected from sniper fire by nothing but a low row of hills.
I have no pictures. The one time I pulled out my camera, my Kiva Coordinator and the branch manager traded worried glances, then gently suggested that if I was going to take photos, I should confine them to times when no other cars could see us. Swiftly, I put my camera back in my bag. What had I been thinking? This is the frontline of a war. Every suspicious person is a spy. One would have to be a fool to take pictures here.
But perhaps, sometimes, a fool is what I become. How else to understand the effects of war but by traveling to see them firsthand? How else to raise awareness of Azerbaijan’s IDPs but by taking you with me to see this tortured part of the world?
A map hanging in Komak Credit Union’s Füzuli branch marks the lost city of Füzuli as a beautiful butterfly. The frontline itself is not pictured; no Azerbaijani maps will mark it for fear of legitimizing it as a genuine boundary, and thus legitimizing the Nagorno-Karabakh region as something separate from Azerbaijan.
The title of this post is an exaggeration, or maybe it is not. Füzuli is on the frontline of a frozen international war, yet at the moment, life peacefully trundles on. Thanks to microfinance, government support, and their own unfathomable internal strength, many Füzuli IDPs have been able to build semi-normal new lives. Yet only a few kilometers from their homes, soldiers trade potshots, landmines lurk in the soil, and Armenians and Azerbaijanis stare each other down through the sights of their sniper rifles.
The Nagorno-Karabakh War never ended. Its ripples reverberate across the region, its victims still struggle to rebuild their lives, and its echoes haunt me wherever in Azerbaijan I go.
Chris Paci is a roaming Kiva Fellow (KF16 and KF17) who has completed a four-month stint in Azerbaijan. While there, he worked with three diverse field partners: Komak Credit Union, which lends primarily to internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the Nagorno-Karabakh War; Aqroinvest Credit Union, which focuses on both IDPs and Azerbaijan’s rural poor; and VisionFund AzerCredit, Kiva’s newest and largest field partner in Azerbaijan. Join the lending team Supporters of Azerbaijan and make a Kiva loan to an Azerbaijani IDP borrower today.