Bakhtiyar Hidayat, a poet, was only 16 when his family had to flee Upper Askipara, an Azerbaijani exclave inside Armenia. The war that erupted between the two countries in the early 1990s over Nagorno-Karabakh impacted the people of Askipara and other exclaves as well; they fled to their country of origin.

Upper Askipara is one of what is known among Azerbaijanis as the “seven villages” of Gazakh, a northwestern Azerbaijani district. What they have in common is that they are under Armenian control, and three are oddities of Soviet border-drawing, they are exclaves surrounded by Armenian land.

Though he was just a teenager, Bakhtiyar vividly recalls the period in the village prior to the unfolding of the conflict. He said that while fights would occur between Armenian and Azerbaijani teens, there were no signs of conflict between the adults.

“We had more contact with Armenians than Azerbaijanis from neighboring villages. Every Azerbaijani had at least one Armenian friend. Our family had one too. He was a forester in a nearby Armenian village. Our cows would graze in his forest for months, and in return, he would ask for only a bag of rose hip or Mespilus. Today such agreements are impossible, even among Azerbaijanis. If your cow runs into someone’s garden, you’re in big trouble.”

Bakhtiyar believes that these long-rooted friendships ensured the non-violent expulsion of Azerbaijanis from their villages inside Armenia when the war broke out in the early 1990s. “I’m still amazed that we could go through Armenian land to Azerbaijan, without them opening fire, in the heat of war going on between these nations. Friendships played a role, for sure. I also recall that at the time conflict began, some Armenian cars used to mistakenly drive to our village, and our villagers would provide them directions and let them travel on peacefully. I think Armenians remembered that, too, when expulsion began,” he said.

But friendships and respect weren’t the only part of this history. In another Gazakh village, Baghanis Ayrim, seven residents were killed after Armenians took control of the village, according to Azerbaijani sources.

“I don’t know what the difference was. Maybe our neighboring Armenians were too nice? Or Baghanis’ Armenians were too bad? We’ll never know. But the truth is the truth,” Bakhtiyar said.

After the expulsion, hundreds of Azerbaijanis from Upper Askipara and other villages resettled in different parts of mainland Azerbaijan, Gazakh, Baku, and other cities. Bakhtiyar’s family relocated between several places due to poor conditions until they settled in a settlement close to the center of Gazakh. The home is a three-room house with a wide yard, and many renovations were completed over time.

Now, looking back at life in Askipara and comparing it to the present, Bakhtiyar continues to speak fondly of life in those days, especially when it comes to nature.

“Nature in Upper Askipara provided us with all the means to make a living. You could raise 30 cows without worrying about their food because forests were so abundant. Life was so easy there. We kept bees outside without worrying about how to manage them, and not only dide we make enough honey for ourselves, we even sold some. There were nearly 200 natural springs and eight pioneer camps in our village. I’m not saying it just because it was my village, but I have been to many places in Azerbaijan, and I haven’t seen anything like that.”

Bakhtiyar’s hopes for returning to his home village shrank as the years passed. When the Azerbaijani government decided to transfer management of the border with Armenia from the National Army to the State Border Service, Bakhtiyar saw it as a signal that Azerbaijan would no longer be interested in taking back these villages. And when the war broke out in and around Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, Gazakh’s side of the border with Armenia was quiet.

For Bakhtiyar, another factor that complicates the return of villages, is that the Yerevan-Tbilisi highway crosses Baghanis Ayrim. “Control of the villages would be of strategic importance for Azerbaijan, but the Yerevan-Tbilisi highway is also important for Armenia, so the countries will be stalled over this issue for a long time.”

The press service of Azerbaijan’s State Committee for Affairs with Refugees and Displaced People told us that as long as the territories in question are under Armenian control, Azerbaijanis from those areas will remain in displaced status.

While the initially leaked text from the ceasefire statement that ended the war in 2020 mentioned the return of the “seven villages,” this mention was removed in the official document. Later, different officials of Azerbaijan stressed that the villages would be returned to Azerbaijani control without delving into specifics. Even the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, confidently mentioned the would-be return of the villages, in a speech addressed to parliament in November 2020.

In 2020, Avtandil Mustafayev, another former Upper Askipara resident, heard a rumor within his community that those displaced from the “seven villages” — like him — would soon be able to return to their former homes thanks to the International Red Cross; but it did not happen.

Avtandil recognizes that he is not a politician, and that ordinary people like him have no effect on how politics plays out, but when asked if he still believes that the return to Upper Askipara would be possible, he quotes his favorite saying, “ Hope dies only in the end.”