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Azerbaijan is a small country about the size of Maine, or 86,600 square kilometers. It is located in the Southern Caucasus, bordered by Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Iran and the Caspian Sea. With about 7.8 million people, 90% are ethnic Azeris and culturally Muslim. Predominantly an oil and gas exporter, they also have a large cotton and textile industry. Yet, nearly 50% of the country works in agriculture for local trade. Tea is grown locally and there is a strong tradition of tea drinking among the locals. Historically, Persia has had a strong cultural influence.

Recent history has been tumultuous for Azerbaijan. When the Soviet Union collapsed, this region was one that did not transition peacefully. In the early 1990's, there was a tremendous struggle over the Nagorno-Karabakh region which was part of Azerbaijan, but had a majority of ethnic Armenians. There was bloodshed and finally, Armenia usurped not only the disputed territory, but also a large portion of the surrounding regions that were clearly part of Azerbaijan. The last President of Azerbaijan was willing to let go of these regions to maintain the peace. Because of Azerbaijan's access to the Caspian Sea, the peace that exists today between Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan is quite fragile and most of the people I encountered were fearful of a re-ignited political and military conflict.

Back in 2002, our trip outside of Ganja into the mountains was marked by many military posts, and rebels from both Armenia and Azerbaijan were known to live in the mountains which separate the two countries. There is a strong belief that Russia and the US have given preferential support to the Armenians. Fortunately, the new president, Ilham Aliyev, transitioned into power in October 2003 more or less peacefully.

I worked with local IDP's, indigenous displaced people, living in and around Ganja, a small city 5 hours northwest of the capital of Baku. One must travel along a lonely two-lane potholed highway through the desert and plains. Many were brought together in numerous CERG's, or Economic Recovery Groups, pulling their resources and sharing the minimum capital investment that was given them by USAID. Mostly trading in wool, chicken, wheat, canned produce, and dairy, these IDP's have been given an opportunity to become self-sufficient and economically viable cooperatives. Their struggles and hardships are real, but their enthusiasm and hope is genuinely remarkable.

I spent the new year in a small town in Ganja in 2001 and took nearly 400 slides while I was there. Please take a moment to visit the gallery on the right and learn more about the people and places of Azerbaijan.

Statistics, map and flag come from the CIA world fact book.

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