Woman back in native France after 65 years in Azerbaijan

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A Frenchwoman who had married a Soviet soldier in 1947 and followed him to Azerbaijan returned to her childhood village in the French Alps for the first time Tuesday, at the age of 83.

One of the first things Ivona Shirmamedova, born Yvonne Botto in Monaco, did when she returned to Passy in the southeastern Haute Savoie region was to visit her parents' grave.

"I'm happy to see my mum and my dad," Ivona, wearing a dark blue kerchief on her head, said in her rusty French. "It's very emotional for me to be here but I am sad not to see their faces," she added in Azeri.

"She was 19 when she waved her parents goodbye and now, 65 years later, she meets them again, in a cemetery," said Eliza Pieter of The European Azerbaijan Society that helped organise her trip.

Just days before leaving her decrepit little house set in an impoverished cotton-growing settlement some 260 kilometres (160 miles) from the Azerbaijani capital Baku, Ivona had told AFP how she met her husband after he escaped from Nazi captivity and joined the French Resistance.

Her father died in 1964, her mother in 1978, her brother in 1989. She had never met some of her other relatives and many in Passy weren't entirely sure until Tuesday that she ever existed.

"It was a family myth, I'd only seen a few pictures. We hadn't had any news since 1993 and I'd all but lost hope," said Marcelle Botto, her cousin.

Ivona's passport was confiscated when she entered the former Soviet Union. She had since been unable to provide proof of her French citizenship and her visa applications failed.

"She wrote to president 'Francois Vitterran' in 1991. I don't know why but we never got the visa," her cousin said.

After a nine-day trip, Ivona is due to return to her adoptive land, where her seven children and 30 grandchildren live.

© 2011 AFP

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