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Azerbaijani refugees live within view of paradise lost

They live in a patch of scrub, exiled in wretched camps. The lush hillsides of their old homeland rise in the distance like a vision of paradise lost.

"Every morning we stand and look at our mountains," says Ramazan Abdulayev, 62.He and other Azerbaijani refugees live in a camp of mud-brick huts and prefab shelters on the barren flats of Agjabedi, scarcely 20 miles from the homes they abandoned in 1993 during fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia. "It's very, very hard," he says.

Abdulayev is among the millions of victims of the intractable conflicts in the turbulent Caucasus Mountains, where post-Soviet turmoil has been at its worst and ancient blood feuds show no signs of abating.

There are nearly 1 million refugees from the Azerbaijan-Armenian conflict alone, and they typify the quagmire of ethnic, territorial and political disputes that have turned the Caucasus into one of the world's most unstable regions.

Four small republics-within-republics have proclaimed independence in the Caucasus after driving out central government troops and setting up their own administrations: the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, the separatists of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia and the Chechens in southern Russia.

Except for sporadic violence, the fighting has stopped in all four places. But the political disputes remain bitter and unresolved and there is little prospect of tranquillity in such a touchy neighborhood.

The situation is "rich with potential for conflict" that could engulf the region if the international community cannot lend it more stability, says Frederick Starr, head of Johns Hopkins University's Central Asian Institute.

Nagorno-Karabakh illustrates how difficult the confrontations are to settle.

The tale is still tangled nine years after the war began, despite a 1994 cease-fire and a new push by international mediators. More than 20,000 people died in the fighting. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan claim the other was the aggressor; international observers say both sides committed atrocities.

The ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh drove out the Azerbaijanis and established a corridor to Armenia. But they didn't stop there. They seized 20 percent of Azerbaijan in a move that gave them powerful negotiating leverage but left 600,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis homeless.

Ethnic Armenian civilians also suffered - 360,000 fled other parts of Azerbaijan as a result of the conflict.

Under the latest compromise proposed by international mediators - the United States, Russia and France - the Armenians would relinquish much of the occupied land while retaining a new corridor linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia.

Most of the Azerbaijani refugees fill dormitories, schools and other public buildings across the country. They receive only token aid from a government that wants the occupied lands returned.

Tens of thousands live in camps maintained by humanitarian groups or by governments that back the Muslim nation in its standoff with the predominantly Christian Armenians.

Anger has mostly given way to desperation in places like Agjabedi, where the desolate terrain and a water shortage leave the refugees unable to raise crops or animals. Geese wander among the mud huts while women cook bread over fires and the men discuss their problems.

In makeshift schools, teachers stoke the dreams that ultimately also will keep alive the enmity toward Armenians.

Guyachin Adigerzelova reads war stories to her class of fourth-graders, all attentive and well-groomed despite the miserable conditions - the girls wearing white bows in their hair. They seem a bit baffled by talk of nearby battles.

"Sometimes they ask if the heroes we read about, the Azer-bai-ja-ni fighters, really exist," the 48-year-old Adigerzelova says sadly. "They wonder why they're growing up here, living so badly.

"I tell them they may someday return to their homeland."

Her prize pupil, Hikmat Mamedov, 11, displays his drawing of the home he remembers - or envisions - in the town of Shusha. It shows green hills, red flowers, a tank, a soldier with a rifle slung over his shoulder.

"We had a two-story house," he says proudly. "We had flowers, trees."

What is his dream for the future?

"I want to be a hero."

Perhaps it's just as well they don't remember the intense fighting. Their parents cannot erase the images of intense rocket bombardments that prompted their exodus.

Hundreds of families fleeing fighting around the town of Agdam boarded a train to nowhere. Four years later, they still inhabit the corroded red Soviet freight cars, now exiled to sidings in Barda, just 25 miles north of their old homes.

"Either we left or these kids died," says Jalil Safarov, 30. He lives with his wife, mother and two children in one of the windowless cars, where nature pictures cut from magazines are taped to the walls.

Laundry is strung between cars outside, giving the boxcar community the atmosphere of a Middle Eastern souk, or open-air marketplace. The approximately 1,500 residents describe life inside as hellish - equally unbearable during summer heat that can reach 120 degrees and when winter cold freezes water inside.

Azerbaijan's huge Caspian Sea oil reserves should start bringing in money to improve the economy soon. But huge numbers of displaced people will remain homeless, facing another winter of limbo.

On the bleak plains of central Azerbaijan, the unwilling residents of the refugee camps say their makeshift cemeteries are filling fast because of broken hearts.

"There's no way without our homeland," says Hussein Novoruzov, whose home since 1992 has been a cluster of mud-reinforced underground bunkers.

"Whatever it takes, we'll return."