As Armenians leave the recently liberated Nagorno-Karabakh territories, it has gradually become evident that the only thing left behind is uninhabitable ruins, with no proper infrastructure. Still, longing for this homecoming for decades, displaced Azerbaijanis look forward to returning to their land, eager to launch a new start.
Residents of Aghdam, which was occupied by Armenia for 27 years, said Saturday it had been turned into a ruined city with almost every building damaged since the Armenian Army withdrew on Nov. 20.
About 143,000 Azerbaijanis once lived in the city, but it now consists of poorly maintained roads and demolished buildings.
The double-minaret mosque, which was built in the 19th century, is the only building in Aghdam whose main structure remains intact. But it is in a very poor and neglected condition.
The destruction by Armenians in Aghdam during the occupation was described in the foreign press as the "Hiroshima of the Caucasus."
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, and seven adjacent regions.
New clashes erupted on Sept. 27, and the Armenian Army continued attacks on civilians and Azerbaijani forces, even violating humanitarian cease-fire agreements for 44 days.
Baku liberated several cities and nearly 300 settlements and villages from the Armenian occupation during this time.
On Nov. 10, the two countries signed a Russia-brokered agreement to end fighting and work toward a comprehensive resolution.
The truce is seen as a victory for Azerbaijan and a defeat for Armenia.
An estimated 600,000 Azerbaijanis were displaced in the 1990s war that left the Nagorno-Karabakh region occupied by Armenia.
Adil Sharifov, 62, who left his hometown in 1992 during the first war and lives in Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, knows he will find similar devastation if he returns to the city of Jabrayil, which he longs to do.
Jabrayil is one of the outlying areas regained by Azerbaijani troops before the recent fighting ended. Soon after it was taken, one of Sharifov's cousins went there and told him the city was destroyed, including the large house with an orchard where Sharifov's family once lived.
Nonetheless, “The day when I return there will be the greatest happiness for me,” he said to The Associated Press (AP).
For years, he said, his family had followed reports about Jabrayil on the internet. They knew the destruction was terrible, but Sharifov's late mother retained a desperate hope that their house had been spared and held onto the keys.
"I will build an even better house,” he vowed.
Ulviya Jumayeva, 50, can go back to better, though not ideal, circumstances in her native Shusha, a city that Azerbaijani forces took in the key offensive of the six-week war.
Her younger brother, Nasimi, took part in the battle and phoned to tell her the apartment their family fled in 1992 was intact, though mostly stripped of the family's possessions.
“According to him, it is clear that Armenians lived there after us, and then they took everything away. But our large mirror in the hallway, which we loved to look at as children, remains,” Jumayeva said, adding: “Maybe my grandchildren will look in this mirror.”
“We all have houses in Baku, but everyone considered them not to be permanent because all these years we lived in the hope that we would return to Shusha," she said. "Our hearts, our thoughts have always been in our hometown.”
But she acknowledged that her feelings toward Armenians have become more bitter.
“My school friends were mostly Armenian. I never treated ordinary Armenians badly, believing that their criminal leaders who unleashed the war were to blame for the massacre, war and grief that they brought to their people as well," Jumayeva said.
”But after the current events, after the shelling of peaceful cities ... after the Armenians who are now leaving our territories, which are even outside of Karabakh, burn down the houses of Azerbaijanis in which they lived illegally ... something fractured in me. I changed my attitude toward them," she said. “I understood that we, Azerbaijanis, will not be able to live peacefully next to the Armenians.”
While Sharifov has less to go back to, he has a more moderate view, saying the two ethnic groups with different religious traditions still have the potential to live together amicably.
“If the Armenians observe the laws of Azerbaijan and do not behave like bearded men who came to kill, then we will live in peace," he said. “The time to shoot is over. Enough casualties. We want peace; we do not want war.”