Stark photos of Azerbaijani internally displaced persons and refugees come to the Belgian Senate

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The moving 'Five Roads Back Home' photographic exhibition, featuring the faces of a cross-section of those affected by the Armenian–Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, has opened in the Belgian Senate. The event was organised by the Benelux office of The European Azerbaijan Society.

Marc Verwilghen, Director, TEAS Benelux and German photographer Philipp Rathmer in the Belgian Senate

These photos show one side of the conflict – the side that had to flee and give up their homes.

Following a landmark decision by the President of the Belgian Senate, the stark photos of Azerbaijani internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees went on display for one week amidst the neoclassical surroundings of the Belgian Senate in Brussels on 16 June in commemoration of UN World Refugee Day.

This emotionally-charged exhibition, organised by the Benelux office of The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS), serves to capture the ongoing plight of some of the 875,000 refugees and IDPs from the Armenian-occupied Azerbaijani territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven surrounding regions. Despite four UN Security Council Resolutions being passed against the Armenian military occupation 22 years ago, these people continue to live in camps across the country.

Marc Verwilghen, Director, TEAS Benelux, commented: “The plight of refugees has been in existence since the dawn of humanity, but it is only since the Second World War that the international community has taken this problem into account. In 2003, the mandate of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) was extended until ‘the refugee problem is totally solved.’

“The purpose of this exhibition is not to highlight those responsible for causing those portrayed in these photos to become refugees and IDPs. By viewing these, we should imagine their situation, sufferings, limited outlook and unhappiness.” He went on to draw parallels with the sufferings of one million Belgians who fled to the Netherlands for safety during the First World War.

The renowned German photographer Philipp Rathmer stated: “This is one of the world’s forgotten conflicts, and for around a century Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought over Nagorno-Karabakh. The conflict between the two former Soviet republics peaked with a war from 1988–94, during which Armenian troops occupied Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven surrounding territories, driving out the Azerbaijani population. Now, 23 years later, this conflict is far from over. The ceasefire secures a fragile peace, and for the victims of war and expulsion, it is far from forgotten, and the IDPs and refugees suffer the consequences to this day.

“In July 2012, I spent one week visiting IDPs and refugees in the Azerbaijani towns of Takhtakorpu and Guzanli, near the Armenian border, and Darnagul and Gizilgum, located north of Baku. Throughout, I aimed to represent the suffering of these people by focusing on their faces in extreme close-up. Each subject was shot in exactly the same way, against a black background, lit in indirect sunlight, emphasis being placed on capturing the faces, sufferings and stories of the people. You can see the problems in their eyes and wrinkles.

“The focus was on the human situation – I noted each subject’s name, age, occupation, name of the camp in which they lived and the town from which they had been displaced. They also spoke of their experiences, some very candidly, some with reticence. These photos show one side of the conflict – the side that had to flee and give up their homes. They therefore represent all those who are displaced in the world’s many wars. One aspiration was common to all – they wanted to take one of the five roads leading back to the occupied regions – one of the Five Roads Back Home.”

To date, 'Five Roads Back Home' has been exhibited to wide acclaim in Berlin, Paris and Istanbul.

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