Baku Cemetery Controversy

PLANS TO BUILD A ROAD THROUGH BAKU CEMETERY MAY LEAD TO DESTRUCTION OF THOUSANDS OF OLD GRAVES–INCLUDING ARMENIAN ONES.

BAKU (Institute for War & Peace Reporting)-Plans to build a major road across part of an old Christian cemetery have sparked a bitter controversy in Baku and among former citizens of the capital no longer living in Azerbaijan. The Baku authorities say that they are taking special care to rebury people interred in the Montin cemetery near the center of the capital–so that they can build a much-needed new road–and have made an effort to contact their relatives abroad. Human rights activists say the city authorities are proceeding much too fast and–by threatening Armenian graves–risk poisoning relations further with Armenia.

The reconstruction work has already begun. Early one morning this week–a group of elderly people had gathered by the main gate of the Montin cemetery. The Korobtsov family was waiting for Ali Nasirov–the city official responsible for reburying their relatives.

Like other families-from Baku’s Russian–Armenian and Jewish communities–as well as some Azerbaijani families too-they were told that they could choose whether their late relatives would be transferred to another part of the graveyard or to another cemetery.

"I would like to point out that when it comes to work of state importance–any state has the right to move cemeteries," Ali Nasirov told IWPR. He observed that Baku’s Chemberikend cemetery was relocated in the 1980s. Around a quarter of the 80 hectares at Montin are affected by the new plans covering several thousand graves–dating back to the 1890s.

Announcemen’s were first made in January–with notices placed on the gates of the cemetery and in the newspapers. A new 50-meter-wide road will be built–which will help ease congestion in the Narimanov district of the city–where the graveyard is located. Nasirov said that the city authorities were underwriting all the costs and staff had been instructed to act sensitively–wear rubber gloves and listen to the requiremen’s of relatives.

Galina Nenasheva–a 67-year-old pensioner–was standing at the cemetery gates as workers reburied her late husband and four of his relatives. "I cannot bear to be present," she said. "Thank God–my late husband’s brother came from Russia and he is looking after it." Taking an IWPR correspondent for a fellow mourner–she said she was very happy with the way the process had been handled and that the graveyard workers had even refused her offer of money.

However–if locals and people who have kept their connections with Baku can be located easily to take part in the reburial process–this is not true of other migrs–scattered across the world–including almost all the Armenia’s–who fled Baku during the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. The reburials are supposed to take place before April 1. Eldar Zeinalov–director of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan–has strongly criticized the Baku authorities for rushing into the decision and failing to anticipate the likely reaction in Armenia.

"It would be ideal to postpone this issue until the Karabakh problem is resolved," Zeinalov told IWPR. "But if there is an urgent need–we should use the experience of the Red Cross in reburying the Armenia’s." However–Red Cross spokesman Oktai Mamedov said no one had approached them over the issue and–as far as he was aware–their mandate did not cover the transfer of Armenian graves in Baku. City official Nasirov said that they had received many telegrams from former Bakuvians abroad authorizing them to rebury their relatives. He said that a decision on Armenian graves would be postponed until after April 1.

So far there has been little reaction in Armenia–which has been preoccupied with its presidential election.

However–some former Baku families living in the Armenian capital Yerevan are worried. Mikael Melikov and his family left Baku in 1988. They said that they would like to return to rebury their grandfather–grandmother and other relatives–but that it was almost impossible for them to do so.

Another Baku Armenian living in Yerevan–Amalia Pogosova–said that she had heard that her mother’s tombstone had already been vandalized in the inter-ethnic violence of 1990 and said there was "no point in the whole exercise".

Zeinalov has warned that the issue of the Armenian graves could cause a serious row between the two nations–who were at war until 1994 and regularly accuse each other of mistreatment. "Now–when the Karabakh conflict has gone quiet–any actions which can cause additional tension can harm the peace process," Zeinalov said. "What would happen if tomorrow the mayor of Shushi [a town in Karabakh–which formerly had a Azerbaijani population majority and is now held by the Armenia’s]–decides to build a stadium on top of the old Azerbaijani cemetery and justifies it on the grounds that the relatives have long not visited these graves and have not come to rebury them?"

The mayor of Baku Hajibala Abutalybov has accused Zeinalov of adopting an "anti-Azerbaijani position". "Reburials are a normal practice–which take place all over the world," the mayor said.

"No one is planning to destroy any Armenian graves. I don’t understand why they raised such a fuss. There are other nationalities buried there besides Armenia’s." It is not clear what will happen to the Armenian graves–if–as is almost inevitable–their relatives cannot come to Baku to see their loved ones reburied.

But many observers are now watching closely. Ulvi Akhundli–spokesman for the OSCE office in Baku–told IWPR that his organization is only likely to get involved if there is "any vandalism of the graves". Zarema Velikhanova is a correspondent with Ekho newspaper in Baku.

By Zarema Velikhanova and Leila Amirova. Armenika Kivirian contributed to this report.

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