A number of Afghans came to Azerbaijan in the early 1990s. Twenty-three years on, many have stayed, making a new life for themselves, in a foreign country.
[Read in Azerbaijani — Azərbaycan dilində oxuyun]
Fifty-one-year-old Seyid Magsud Hashimi lives in the village of Khindiristan, in Azerbaijan’s, Aghdam District, but he was born in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul. He was 13 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and despite having earned good grades in middle school, he couldn’t complete his education because of the war.
In 1993 he fought in battles in Aghdam and Fuzuli, Azerbaijan, sustaining a wound to his leg.
‘Soviet troops attacked my country, after which the Russians fought alongside Armenians against Azerbaijani Muslims. My goal was to help the Muslims and to fight the Russians’, Hashimi says.
The arrival of Afghans to Azerbaijan
In 1979, the Soviet Union’s intervention in Afghanistan — in the name of restoring stability in the country — redrew the world's political map, affecting the lives of thousands of young Afghans. During the 9-year-long conflict, many Afghans fled to neighbouring Pakistan and Iran. Some of them returned while others settled abroad. Some Afghans tied their fate to Azerbaijan.
Avaz Hasanov, chairman of Azerbaijani NGO the Humanitarian Research Public Union and an expert on conflicts, says most of the Afghans in Azerbaijan came in 1992–1996. One reason for their arrival was the chaos raging in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the war, the second — the Nagorno-Karabakh War.
‘After the collapse of Najibulla’s government in Afghanistan in 1992, the “Mujahideens”, the ruling coalition, could not maintain control. As a result, the military conflict led the country to a civil war. There was a military confrontation between the radical Islamic Taliban movement and a group of Mujahideens who broke away, under the leadership of privileged desert commanders who opposed the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan’, Hasanov told OC Media.
Not all of the Afghans who came to Azerbaijan were warriors, he added, noting that experts in a number of fields came.
‘At the same time, the people who served in the military were also allowed to come to Baku. Among them were volunteer fighters in the Nagorno-Karabakh War, as well as those marrying Azerbaijanis and coming to live here.’
A mixed family
Seyid has lived in Azerbaijan ever since, never having returned to Afghanistan.
He provides for his family financially by farming and offering traditional Islamic medicine.
‘I help those who go to the doctor but find no healing; I treat stomach pain,’ he tells OC Media.
Seyid claims to have healed many women who could not conceive a child. ‘God is our helper, we are just mediators’, he says.
In 2002, Seyid married his wife Gultekin, who is from Khindiristan.
Gultekin says her relatives refused to give her away when her future spouse first came. ‘Of course I was afraid of Afghans, so I refused too. But then, I don’t know how it happened, I eloped with him’, she says.
According to her, communication is the biggest problem her spouse faces. Even though Seyid speaks Azerbaijani, he cannot express himself fluently. He has not forgotten his native tongue, which he speaks with relatives in Afghanistan.
Seyid says he has adapted to traditions in Azerbaijan, and despite being religious, he embraces things like New Year’s Eve, Santa Claus, Snow Maiden, and even decorates a fir tree at home. Although he likes the feasts of Novruz, he is not happy with the bonfires, seeing it as a symbol of fire worship.
‘Once we had a bonfire, he came and kicked it. Sometimes he gets very annoyed,’ says Gultekin.
Although he supports Shariah, Seyid did not deprive the couple’s three daughters of an education, as is common in Afghanistan. Yet he defends the practice in his country.
‘Here, too, when there is a war, no one sends their child to school due to security. Even if there is no war in my country, the situation is worse. However the girls must be educated’, Seyid says.
The girls also attend music school; the eldest, Fatima performs Azerbaijani folk music (mughams) on tar (a stringed instrument), Zeynab performs national dances to the accordion, and Zahra performs classical works by Azerbaijani composers Uzeyir Hajibeyov and Gara Garayev on the piano.
A family divided
Fatima, in the 8th grade, wishes is to see the country her father was born in. According to Zeynab, 13, Afghanistan is a great place, ‘there are flowers everywhere’, she says.
Gultekin and the children all speak with Seyid’s relatives through social media, but Gultekin is afraid to go to Afghanistan.
‘I want my mother-in-law, sister-in-law, all of Seyid’s relatives to come here, but I don’t want to go there,’ she says.
Seyid also does not want to go, because of the situation in Afghanistan, and he cannot afford to bring his relatives to Aghdam.
Despite being separated from his country and his family, Seyid has no regrets.
Because of her marriage, Gultekin’s sister and brother have shunned her, but she also has no regrets.
‘I am in my homeland, I have three children, why would I regret anything?!’
‘I also want to see Afghanistan, but.…’
Jafar Mohammad Tagi was born in 1970 in Afghanistan's Daykundi Province. Unlike his compatriot, Seyid, he has not been educated at all. ‘The Soviet Army did not allow us to study, and I do not even have a secondary education.’
He sustained wounds to the head and shoulder during the fighting in Fuzuli, Azerbaijan, in 1993.
‘We heard in the news that our Azerbaijani Muslim brothers and sisters were being oppressed, and we did not want our peers to experience the calamities that we had faced. Thus I came to Azerbaijan voluntarily’, Tagi tells OC Media.
Tagi, who now resides in the village if Husulu in Aghjabadi District, did not return to Afghanistan, where he had lived with his four brothers and mother, either.
His mother and one brother have since passed away, but Tagi talks with the rest of his relatives through social media.
He owned a shop in Aghjabadi for a while, then began a job installing gas meters.
Tagi married in 1995. ‘I worked in Aghjabadi’s Hindarkh village. Shamsiya khanum came with her family to a wedding in the village and I liked her.’
They have three children. His wife is now retired, but used to be an agronomist on a collective-farm.
Though Tagi does not want to go to Afghanistan, his wife, Shamsiya khanum, wants him to visit his homeland, and for his relatives to come to Azerbaijan.
‘I also want to see Afghanistan, but I want to visit, not to live there’, adds Shamsiya.
Afghans in Azerbaijan today
‘The next civil war in Afghanistan, which lasted until 2001, made it impossible for some Afghans to return to the country because the Taliban regime was in opposition to them’, Hasanov says.
By August 2017, More than 500 Afghan citizens were granted refugee status by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Azerbaijan, Elsevar Aghayev, chief advisor to the Baku office of UNHCR, told Sputnik Azerbaijan.
‘These people are refugees from the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. 564 Afghans were registered in August. In addition, 132 Afghans applied for asylum in Azerbaijan, and their cases are under consideration now’.
According to Aghayev, Afghans make up 50% of the total number of refugees in Azerbaijan.
‘We do not have figures about Afghans’ who came to Azerbaijan earlier than the 1990s,’ Aghayev told OC Media.
This article was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Regional Office in the South Caucasus. All opinions expressed, and terminology used are the words of the author alone, and may not necessarily reflect the views of FES or the OC Media editorial board.