An Azerbaijani man has recounted how he was forced to leave Azerbaijan's Kalbajar region when he was just 8 years old. He was deprived of a proper childhood at the hands of Armenian forces who occupied the lands nearly three decades ago.
"My childhood stood frozen there," Bazirgan Verdiyev told Anadolu Agency (AA) as he prepared to return home.
The Azerbaijani army entered Kalbajar following 27 years of illegal Armenian occupation, the country's Defense Ministry announced early Wednesday.
According to a Russia-brokered cease-fire agreement signed between Baku and Yerevan on Nov. 10 following a 44-day war, Armenians needed to leave Kalbajar on Nov. 15, however, Yerevan asked for more time. Azerbaijan agreed to provide an additional 10 days, setting the new deadline as Nov. 25.
"Upon returning to my hometown, I will play in the yard where I used to play as a child. I will go to the forest behind our house, will walk by the river, will enjoy the smell of the meadow," he said.
Verdiyev, 36, who is currently pursuing a doctorate in the Turkish metropolis of Istanbul, said his childhood was mired with the "bitter experience" of being an internally displaced person.
"I will show my children where I was born and where I spent part of my childhood. I miss everything in my homeland – its nature, forest, mountain valley, flowers, moss on the rocks. I miss everything," he said.
Longing for homeland
Noting that it was very difficult to "feel the defeat" and the conditions it created, Verdiyev said being away from his homeland, adapting to new conditions and living for years as if he would move at any moment were among the toughest things he and his family experienced after being forced to leave their home due to the occupation.
"It is difficult to live without a homeland. Its absence, its inaccessibility makes you incomplete. You feel like a bird with a broken wing," he said.
Verdiyev said the people of Kalbajar have a wish to "draw their last breath in their homeland," adding it is impossible to put into words how hard it was to live with the feeling of not being able to do so.
"I always thought that perhaps we would have a life long enough to see our homeland. But given the age of my parents, I had a hard time imagining this. All praise be to Allah," he said.
Verdiyev recalled that at first, he had a hard time believing that he could at last return to his homeland following the withdrawal of Armenian forces from occupied lands after nearly three decades.
"Such news came out from time to time in the 27 years, and there was even a war that lasted several days. I thought this was one of those wars, and this news, too, was inaccurate. But after our victorious army seized the heights of Sugovushan and Murovdag, I was convinced that this time, it was different," he said, adding that his happiness has no bounds.
Sugovushan and Murovdag were among the first territories liberated by the Azerbaijani Armed Forces in the most recent conflict that erupted on Sept. 27.
Verdiyev noted that Murovdag has a "special place" in his memory.
"Because when Kalbajar was occupied, we came to the city of Ganja (the second most populated city of Azerbaijan), passing the snowy and stormy days in the heights of the Murovdag (mountain range)," he said.
The Murovdag mountains are the highest mountain range in the Lesser Caucasus. The range is about 70 kilometers (43 miles) long, with its highest peak at 3,724 meters (12,218 feet).
"I know that the other side of Murovdag is our homeland. Murovdag is the smell and the breath of Kalbajar for us, the people of Kalbajar. Before their deaths, many people from Kalbajar asked to be buried near the Murovdag. Several of our poets were also buried at the foothills of this mountain range at their request," Verdiyev said.
Verdiyev emphasized that Azerbaijan owes the victory to the heroism of its soldiers, adding that the national unity of his people and the existence of political will were the main sources of the victory.
"The national unity at such a high level is a source of pride," he said.
Keys of hope
Verdiyev said his family held on tightly to the keys of their house in Kalbajar since leaving their home.
"Those keys are a symbol of hope. After leaving Kalbajar, my parents have lived with the thought that we would go back one day. For this reason, they did not buy land or a house anywhere (in another part of Azerbaijan) with the desire to settle there permanently," he explained.
Verdiyev went on to say that the house his family lived in after leaving Kalbajar was also near the front line in Azerbaijan's northwestern region of Goranboy.
Noting that part of that house was destroyed by the artillery shells of the Armenian forces, he said it has never been restored or repaired for over 20 years with the thought that the family will return to its own home, knowing that it was their temporary shelter until their own lands were liberated.
"After coming from Kalbajar, we had compatriots who somehow managed to secretly go to Kalbajar and even filmed the area. The videotape used to be borrowed and watched every night with nostalgia by families in our neighborhood," he said.
"In one of those videos, we noticed that our house had been completely destroyed. But my parents still kept those keys. These keys are the only thing left of our house. That is why they are very precious to us," Verdiyev said.
Verdiyev said it was very difficult to watch footage on social media showing how Armenians were destroying everything – burning houses, cutting down trees and setting fire to forests in order not to pass them onto Azerbaijani people – ahead of their departure from the occupied lands.
"Armenians, skilled in falsifying history, revealed their essence with these actions. A person can never destroy their own native things in that way," he said.
He highlighted that like his parents, many of his compatriots locked the doors of their homes and took their keys with them, knowing they would return one day.
"They did so because they knew they inherited these lands, those houses from their ancestors," Verdiyev said.
According to video footage from Russian media and social media accounts, Armenians damaged the environment and burnt houses in Kalbajar, located northwest of the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which was occupied by Armenia in 1993.
Around 60,000 Azerbaijanis living in the region when it was occupied were forced to abandon their homes and were scattered to various regions of Azerbaijan.
Yerevan also brought Armenians to Kalbajar – where no Armenians had been living before – and settled them illegally in the region.
Relations between the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia have been tense since 1991 when the Armenian military occupied Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory recognized as part of Azerbaijan, along with seven adjacent regions.
Fresh clashes erupted on Sept. 27, and the Armenian Army continued its attacks on civilians and Azerbaijani forces, even violating three humanitarian cease-fire agreements for over six weeks.
Baku liberated several strategic heights and cities and nearly 300 of its settlements and villages from the Armenian occupation during this time.
Before the second Karabakh war, about 20% of Azerbaijan's territory had been under illegal Armenian occupation for nearly three decades.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev hailed the cease-fire agreement signed on Nov. 10 as a "victory" for his country and a "defeat of Armenia," saying Baku's military success enabled it to gain an upper hand to end the nearly three-decade-long occupation of its territory.
Meanwhile, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian said he had signed an "unspeakably painful" deal that allowed Azerbaijan to claim control over regions it took back in the fighting.
The Turkish leadership also welcomed the truce, terming it a "great victory" for Azerbaijan.