Ceasefire violations are a regular occurrence on both sides of the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the village of Kokhanabi, 300 metres from the front, is no exception. While life is made almost impossible by a constant hail of gunfire from across the border, the government has left villagers to fend for themselves.
The village of Kokhanabi, in Azerbaijan’s north west Tovuz District, is the closest village in Azerbaijan to the border with Armenia. Only 300 metres separate Kokhanabi from an Armenian military outpost. Ten years ago, 125 families lived in the village, now only 35–40 remain. Those who do not want to leave their homes wake up almost every morning to the sound of gunfire.
One resident of the village, 48-year-old Mahammad Mahammadov, says that they are unable to plant crops in their own backyards to provide for themselves.
‘Our village is very far from the district capital, so we have nowhere to go to work. What else can villagers do?! We should either keep cattle or plant crops. The land is irrigated; potatoes grow well here. Now is the time for sowing seeds — but we can’t. People in more inconspicuous houses on the sidelines of the village manage to plant some crops. But we have to work in the dark of night. If someone picks up a shovel to plant they shoot from the other side. Many residents have been injured, some permanently disabled, during planting time’, Mahammadov told OC Media.
Mahammadov complains that the government does not help out by subsidising their utility costs.
‘We have no income. I sometime work wherever I can as a worker, nine people must live on my mother and my father’s pension. In winter gas and electricity costs are much higher than in summer. Last winter it came to ₼80 ($47). Their pensions come to ₼120 ($70), how can we keep our family?’, Mahammadov said.
Houses condemned to darkness
Only Tagiyev’s family keeps cattle in Kokhanabi. So far seven cows have been killed by gunfire from across the border. Their house can be seen very clearly from the Armenian outpost. Surayya Tagiyeva says that they cannot turn on the lights in their homes, because when the soldiers see light they shoot.
‘Every year we have to repair the roof and the windows, and every year our cattle die. But the government doesn’t give us compensation for any of them. They should value us, because we protect our village like soldiers, as border guards here. If we leave the village, it will be empty. There are already only a few people left in the village’ Tagiyeva said.
There are many abandoned houses in Kokhanabi. Roofs collapsed from machine gun bullets, broken windows, and bullet-ridden brick houses clearly illustrate why panic has struck the village.
Another resident of Kokhanabi, Saltanat Abbasova, lives alone in a two story house. She says that after her husband’s death, none of her five children stayed in the village,
because they didn’t want to endure such difficult conditions. Some of them went to foreign countries to do business, some moved to the district capital and other villages. Despite being 80-years-old, she has not left her house, which she came to as a newlywed bride. She tries to get by on her ₼68 ($40) pension. She also complains that she can’t pay her energy bills. She says she was waiting for her next pension payment, living alone in darkness.
‘We have no opportunities, we cannot work. They come wanting money for electricity. If we don’t give it to them, they cut our power. They say that we do well at what we do, and that if we can’t live here we should leave. The main thing is that you must pay the money. Every evening there is gunfire’ Abbasova said.
Empty classrooms — no future without education
Another resident, Gulruk Aliyeva, says that the future of young people has been destroyed in the village. She says that schoolchildren go to school behind the bushes — hiding. There are families who don’t send their children to school because they are afraid.
‘I have three children. I send my children to school once or twice per week. Anyway there are no benefits, it is impossible to complete school. One day the shooting was so intense that nobody sent children to school. We barely manage to raise our children with what little bread we can afford, how can we send our children in front of the bullets?!’, Aliyeva said.
Aliyeva says that when girls grow up a bit and are married to men from neighbouring villages or further afield, their lives may be saved. There are 15–17 years old brides from this village who play with dolls together with their children.
According to the authorities of Tovuz District, in the last 2 years, 14 civilians have been injured as a result of gunfire from across the border in the border villages of Tovuz.
The Executive Officer of Kokhanabi, Sadiq Abilov, responded to questions about compensation that though the village has to endure gunfire, the social situation there is not so bad. According to Abilov, damages caused by gunfire have been registered by the Emergency Commission and sent to the National Council, but there has so far been no response.
The Tovuz District Gas Exploitation Department and Sale of Department of Energy say that there can be no concessions. They insist that residents using meters must pay regardless of their personal conditions or where they live.
In 2014, the National Assembly discussed concessions for people living in border villages. At the time, Deputy Elman Mammadov said in an interview with Azerbaijani media outlet modern.az, that people living in these areas must be exempted from utility costs. But despite the passage of so much time, no discount has been applied.
Economist Zohrab Ismail says that concessions are necessary in remote villages and areas that are at war. According to him, Azerbaijan’s budget is sufficient to exempt such people of utility costs.
Head of the Berlin-based Caspian Defence Studies Institute, Jasur Sumarinli, says that the government has no clear policy on the border regions.
‘The clashes between the countries endanger the lives of people living on the border. At the same time they suffer damage to their property. Unfortunately, nothing is done to curtail these dangers or to compensate them for property damage. Those in power have no clear policy on the settlement of the conflict, and the government is not interested in the situation of people living on the frontlines’, Sumarinli said.
Sumarinli believes that a programme should be established to enhance the safety of people living on the frontlines, including political, military, and economic support.
More than 5,000 people face constant danger and appalling conditions in the border villages of Tovuz District.