What is Home for IDPs? Research on the Personal and Official Narratives of Displaced Women in Azerbaijan

The information and views expressed in this blog are those of the original article author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Corridors or our project partners. 


Aynura Babyeva was born in South Caucasus, in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, a disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The first Karabakh war of the late 80s and early 90s forced the relocation of around 600,000 people, including Aynura. In order to investigate the way female IDPs experience home and belonging, Aynura interviewed women in Azerbaijan with experiences similar to hers. After analyzing this research, she published an article for a Corridors Proceedings Vol. II, called “The Aftermath of Forced Internal Displa(y)cement: Understanding Home and Belonging Among Internally Displaced Women” (16-33).


In her article, Babyeva explains that the current political narrative in Azerbaijan surrounding internally displaced people (or IDPs) makes several assumptions. The first assumption is that IDPs view the location they were displaced from as their “true home” and are always longing to return and live there. The second assumption is that the state should treat IDPs as a group separate from the rest of the population. This assumption (and any subsequent policies) turns IDPs into outsiders who lack belonging in their own country. Babyeva challenged these assumptions with her research, asking the following questions: Do IDP women want to return to their displaced home territory? What does “home” mean to them? More importantly, what might answers to these questions be able to teach us about IDPs and their relationship with national identity?

Research Theory and Methodology


Babyeva approached this research using both Henri Lefebvre’s (1991) Spatial Triad Theory and guided introspection methodology. She explains that Lefebvre’s Spatial Triad Theory involves three separate aspects of research into how IDPs relate to the concepts of home and belonging: representation of space (conceived space), spatial practices (perceived space), and spaces of representation (lived spaces) (19). Aynura explains how she applied this theoretical approach to her research, citing Watkins (2005), explaining that conceived space is the home and belonging that the Azerbaijani government creates for IDPs to live in while perceived space is how IDPs themselves view this creation, and lived space is the one they actively participate in.


Aynura’s primary research method is guided introspection, which she says prioritizes human experience and allows the researcher to interview people for perspective. Aynura interviewed nine different women displaced from the Nagorno-Karabakh region, most of whom now live in Baku, Azerbaijan. During each interview, she asked in-depth questions about each interviewee’s experience of home and belonging in the aftermath of the start of the conflict in 1988. All nine women were born between 1988 and 1990 and were old enough to remember being displaced from their homes.

Defining Home and Belonging


Before sharing her research findings in her article, Aynura takes a moment to define “home and belonging,” describing common lenses through which one might view these two concepts. Through a modern lens, Babyeva argues, citing Kibreab (1999) that an increased sense of globalization means that home and belonging are situated amongst pressures for borders to matter less, and for a future where many adopt a global, rather than local identity, and further explains that the concepts of home and belonging become increasingly important concepts while living in exile (22).


Aynura categorized her findings into the three sections of Lefebvre’s Spatial Triad Theory: conceived, perceived, and lived concepts of home and belonging (19).

Conceived Home And Belonging


In Azerbaijan, she posits, IDPs’ conceived home and belonging are highly dependent on state politics, as the government decides (without IDP opinion or consent) where IDP settlements are located and under what terms IDPs can exist as Azerbaijani citizens.


This “top-down” form of rule manifests in many ways, including creating difficulty for IDPs when they want to do something simple, like register for a driver’s license in Baku. As Aynura puts it, “Such bureaucratic practices are directed at keeping IDPs in a single place together, as a symbol of national identity, a landmark of the past and a defining component of future, and foster marginalization, unemployment, and exhaustion” (25). Aynura also describes the way IDPs remain in a liminal space, somewhere between they currently live within and the place they’ve left behind, as their government-provided housing is temporary, with possible return in mind. In October 2020, during the second Karabakh War, one interviewee discussed this feeling of uncertainty with regards to household furniture she purchased:                                        


I ordered a bookshelf to install in the apartment where we are re-settled, in Gobu, since 2018, but with the start of this war, I stopped it. It reminded me that this apartment is temporary too.” (25)


The conceived, government narrative of IDPs’ sense of home and belonging in Azerbaijan, then, is that they are a unified group of people with the goal of always returning to the land from which they were displaced to call it home once more.

Perceived and Lived Home and Belonging

In Aynura’s interviews, she found that the Azerbaijani IDP women she spoke to all perceived home and belonging as “memories attached to places and unpleasant experiences during exile” (26). Some of them had distinct memories of the day they were displaced, while others specifically remember the IDP schools and other government-sponsored spaces for IDPs.


As far as their current experience of home and belonging, none of the women view home as one single place. This is probably because none of them have ever stayed in one place for long since their initial displacement, aside from living in Baku. One participant in Aynura’s research recalls this mobility:


“We have lived in so many different places that I struggle to call them home, [but] neither I am sad about them. Those places made me stronger. Today, my own family is my home and I belong with them” (27).


Some of the women hope that returning to their original homes will help them regain a sense of belonging, but two interviewees shared that they are more comfortable staying in Baku rather than attempting to start over again.

Official vs Personal


In the end, Aynura’s interviews revealed that generally, the nine IDP women viewed home and belonging as both transitory and temporary, subject to change at any time, and often not in a positive way.


While Babyeva’s sample size is small, she indicates that the way IDPs live and experience home and belonging are more complex than a bureaucratic policy can conceive or than official narratives portray. She argues that state governments like Azerbaijan’s work to categorize IDPs and hold control over their daily lives, making them a symbol of national grief while denying them certain important senses of agency. The article is relevant beyond Azerbaijan, says Babyeva, as many IPD communities experience marginalization, exclusion, and instrumentalization for national agendas.


But for the women that Aynura interviewed, their identity is “more personal than national” (30). Her analysis shows that they feel out of place, and feel denied the ability to make choices about their own fates. The article argues that their sense of home and belonging is often in the past or the future, never tangible in their present circumstances, and that strengthening IDP voices and agency is crucial to support senses of belonging and feelings of home in the present. For a more detailed look at Aynura’s research and analysis on IDP women in Azerbaijan and their feelings of home and belonging, feel free to read her article in Corridors Proceedings Vol. II here.