During Key West Talks
For the Resolution of the Karabakh Conflict

Published Thursday, April 5, 2001

Boston Globe

LACHIN, Azerbaijan - The land is good in Lachin, so good that the eye can almost ignore the roofless, gutted skeletons of houses that sprawl among the white-blossomed apricot trees in the steep valley overlooked by Sergo Zalebekian's carefully manicured yard.

Zalebekian is one of about 2,000 Christian Armenians who have settled among the war-wrecked ruins of houses that once belonged to Muslim Azerbaijanis in Lachin, which guards the western entrance to the disputed enclave of
Nagorno-Karabakh. Zalebekian lost his home and many of his friends as the Armenian fighters he commanded won control of Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan in a 1991-94 war that left over 30,000 people dead.

The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan are meeting in Key West, Fla. - with the United States, Russia and Europe mediating their talks - in search of a peaceful end to the longest-running conflict in the former Soviet Union. They will have to consider the thousands of people like Zalebekian, who would rather fight again than leave his new home in Lachin.

The land is very bad on the windswept plain just a two-hour drive to the east - if anyone dared drive across a tensely guarded, heavily fortified front line - where Rashid Dunuamaliyev and his family have been living for nine years in a
mud-and-thatch-covered hole in the hard ground.

The Dunuamaliyevs once had a house in Lachin, but like some 800,000 Azerbaijanis from
Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding area, they were forced to flee. From the hardpan prairie in central Azerbaijan where they and 1,700 other refugees have settled, they can see the mountains of their homeland.

Armenians are living in the ruins, Azerbaijanis in the ground, and neither side is ready to relinquish its claim to the land that they once shared. The situation in and around Nagorno-Karabakh suggests that it will take much more than diplomatic accords to end the virulent hatred between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.

A draft accord would have Armenia give up the territories its troops have occupied around Nagorno-Karabakh, withdraw the troops, and agree to return the enclave to Azerbaijan's control, albeit with broad autonomy. Azerbaijan and its ally, Turkey, would lift their longstanding blockades against Armenia. The displaced Azerbaijanis could start to go home.

But the accord cannot put back together what has been lost during the 13-year dispute: the way Armenians and Azerbaijanis once shared the land both nations claim as their spiritual homeland. Both sides have accused the other of numerous war crimes after the ethnic Armenians who dominated Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence in 1988. Neither side seems ready to put aside differences now.

``I saw genocide with my own eyes,'' Zalebekian said. ``It's hard to have your homeland, your garden taken away. This is our land now. This is Armenian land.''

From his dugout near the central Azerbaijan town of Aghjabedi, Dunuamaliyev smiled grimly when he was told that Armenians are rebuilding their lives among the ruins of his homeland. Here in the Azerbaijan plains, there is no life. There is no work. The nearest water is two miles away. Snakes and frogs regularly plague the underground residents.

``How long can this go on?'' Dunuamaliyev said, gesturing at his gloomy, subterranean home. ``If the Armenians do not agree to give our land back, there will be war.''

Some of the Armenians have populated deserted towns abandoned by fleeing Azerbaijanis, such as Lachin. But most of the Azerbaijani refugees had no place to go. Now, they are scattered across Azerbaijan, in tent camps, train wagons, temporary housing and mud dugouts, waiting to go home. Although foreign interest in the country's Caspian Sea oil reserves has boosted Azerbaijan's economy, little has been spent on the refugees.

But although the defeated Azerbaijan has tasted the first fruit of foreign wealth, Armenia's victory has left it isolated. Azerbaijan and Turkey have blocked off trade routes and energy pipelines, and Armenia's political instability and proximity to a war zone have scared off investors.

Armenia's president, Robert Kocharian, a hero of Nagorno-Karabakh's separatist drive until his election in 1998, has shown signs that he is ready to compromise with Azerbaijan over the status of the enclave. One Western diplomat in Yerevan said the meeting in Key West, the 16th between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents, is ``the closest we've seen in terms of getting some sort of agreement.''


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