|By Thomas Goltz
Japarna Miruzeva, 26, lives in the basement of a bombed-out Armenian house with her four children and considers herself lucky to be there. So do the one hundred or so other Azeri Kurdish refugee families who now occupy the ruins of Shariar, a once-quaint town on the lip of the disputed territory of mountainous (Nagorno) Karabakh—the majority—Armenian area that remains legally part of the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan but that seceded in 1992 and is now a self-proclaimed independent state.
Life in Shariar is bleak at best. Well water is brackish and difficult to get; food is in short supply; there are no doctors; and the surrounding fields have been mined twice—once by the Armenians who used to till them, then by the Azerbaijani Army that will have to defend the town if the Armenians come back to reclaim it.
Japarna Miruzeva and the other ethnic Kurdish families in Shariar believe they have nowhere else to go. They still hope to return to the Kelbajar, the neighboring Azerbaijani province from which they were expelled in April 1993, when Armenian and Karabakh forces effectively cleansed the territory of Azeri Turks and Kurds in order to stitch Karabakh to Armenia proper. At present, there is little hope that the day of return will occur any time soon, if ever. Although an uneasy cease-fire was established between the Armenians and Azerbaijanis in May 1994, a negotiated settlement of the war over Karabakh remains elusive due to the intransigence of both sides. Caught in the middle are people like the Miruzeva clan, who are just a few of the almost one million internally displaced people (IDPs) in the squalid tent cities, boxcar towns, and multifamily schoolroom domiciles that dot the Azerbaijani countryside.
In fact, from an international legal perspective, the Kurdish IDPs in Shariar are pawns in a war crime committed by the Azerbaijani authorities, who allowed them to move into the shattered Armenian homes in the contested town. In this instance at least, strict adherence to international law and human reality have parted company.
For a government to allow anyone to move into a zone that has been ethnically cleansed runs counter to the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, which protects civilians in an international armed conflict. “The Occupying power shall not deport or transfer part of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies,” states Article 49. “Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory” are in fact a grave breach, or war crime. Even in an internal conflict, according to Additional Protocol II of 1977, “displacement of the civilian population shall not be ordered for reasons related to the conflict.”
If the security of civilians or “imperative military reasons” such as the movement of a front require it, the population may be temporarily evacuated but they must be returned to their homes when the crisis eases. Protocol II, Article 17, states: “Should such displacements have to be carried out, all possible measures shall be taken in order that the civilian population may be received under satisfactory conditions of shelter, hygiene, safety and nutrition.”
Were one to ask Japarna Miruzeva or any of her fellow IDPs who come from the Azeri provinces in and around the Karabakh conflict zone who the party violating these covenants might be, the response would be very simple: Armenia and the Armenians of the mountainous Karabakh (including current Armenian President Robert Kocharian who, ironically, as a citizen of mountainous Karabakh, is legally a citizen of Azerbaijan) who flushed them from their homes and, as the occupying force, refused to let them return.
Armenia has gone farther than that. In addition to actively settling Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan into the homes of Azeri Turks and Kurds in the areas it occupies, the Armenian diaspora has constructed a multimillion-dollar paved road across the so-called Lachin Corridor, another Azeri Kurdish region that represents the shortest point between Karabakh and Armenia. It was ethnically cleansed of its citizens by Armenian forces in May 1992—and Armenia has been adamant that even if there is a future settlement that might allow the Kelbajar Kurds (including Japarna Miruzeva) to go home, Lachin will never be relinquished.
At the Nuremberg Trials, which preceded the Geneva Conventions, several Nazi government officials were indicted for the crime against humanity of deporting civilians from occupied Germany as slave labor, and transferring German nationals into occupied territory for resettlement. The final judgment against several individual defendants mentioned only deportations, not the resettlement.
The apparent gap in the law today is that in international armed conflict the law does not cover a country transferring its own nationals from refugee or IDP centers in relatively peaceful areas of the country to areas close to front lines. And the problem becomes more acute when the people in question are not being forced to move to such areas but choose to.
As one international aid worker put it, “when a family who have been dwelling in a filthy railway car in either Armenia or Azerbaijan decides that the quickest way to end the awful state of refugeehood is to take one’s fate into one’s own hands and starts repairing the wall of someone else’s house that now finds itself on the ‘friendly’ side of the front lines, who is going to tell them to stop? The legal dilemma is punctured by the human need.”