'They wake up and cry': Fleeing Azerbaijanis haunted by shelling

Otuzikiler (Azerbaijan) (AFP) –


The thunder of exploding shells rolled in from the Nagorno-Karabakh mountains as Gultekin Rakhimova washed three tiny shirts in a rusty bucket near a well.

The rugged-faced refugee's three small children have not slept properly since everyone ran from the rockets that rained down on their houses on the Azerbaijani side of the frontline two weeks ago.

"They wake up and cry. They have nightmares because the dead come back in their dreams," the 42-year-old said while one of her boys tossed pebbles at a rooster on the grounds of their new home in an village grammar school.

"Psychologically, they are not in a very good state."

Azerbaijan's government has set up a web of refugee shelters around its frontier with the blood-soaked region it has been disputing with ethnic Armenians for generations.

The one Rakhimova fled to in the village of Otuzikiler when heavy fighting resumed on September 27 now houses 299 people and is full.

They travelled the 20 kilometres (12 miles) by foot and by car in a steady stream while the fighting rumbled in the mountains overhead.

Some shells smashed into the surrounding apple orchards while others fell on their dusty road.

Not everyone made it out alive.

"The people on the road were dying," Fatma Suleymanova said while hanging freshly washed laundry on ropes tied to the goalposts of the school's playground.

"Two of our neighbours were killed by a shell," the pensioner said.

- 'Difficult'-

Everything from the Otuzikiler school's field house to hallways and utility rooms have been transformed into living quarters crammed with simple cots.

Each one has a threadbare blanket but no pillow. One room the size of a small kitchen had four cots for a family of six.

"We left all our belongings, everything that we need. Of course it's difficult," Gultekin Rakhimova's cousin Natavan Rakhimova said.

"It's a heavy burden."

The shelling echoing around them went quiet when the warring sides signed up to a humanitarian ceasefire in Moscow on Saturday.

But it was only a brief lull that allowed some of the refugees to rush back to their homes and pick up what they could of their belongings before running back out again.

The truce appeared forgotten by the time a missile killed 10 civilians in Azerbaijan's second city of Ganja on Sunday.

The thumps heard around Otuzikiler on Monday began in the morning and had become incessant by the afternoon.

More than 500 people have been killed since the fighting broke out including more than 60 civilians on both sides.

- Defiant -

The mood inside the school ranged from weariness to defiance.

"Of course we want to return," said Siyafir Bagirova while sitting on her cot under a framed portrait of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.

"We are living in a children's grammar school. How could we possibly want to stay here?"

The refugees said their meals consist of rice and buckwheat. Some also buy vegetables from roadside stalls.

But no one AFP spoke to regretted the fighting because they believed Azerbaijan's forces were on the ascent.

Sakhir Huseinov said he took his family out of the frontline village of Terter because "the kids were frightened by the sounds of shelling".

But the young father said he tells his children the suffering was temporary and worth the price of winning back what Azerbaijanis view as their ancestral lands.

"I tell my children: There is a war, the Armenians are shelling us. That is why our brothers are fighting and our hearts are with them."