September 13, 2023

The Uncertain Road to Nagorno-Karabakh

The mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh is one of the more complicated parts of the world. Straddling Asia and Europe, even its name is disputed with the Armenians calling it Artsakh and Azerbaijan (and most of the rest of the world) calling it Nagorno-Karabakh. 

It has had an unhappy history, being fought over by invading Arabs, Iranians, Russians and, more recently Armenia and Azerbaijan. It had been peaceful, and frankly unknown to most people, when it was incorporated into the Soviet Union, under the administrative control of Baku. 

With the splintering of the Soviet Union, the region made its way back into the newspapers. With a majority of Armenians in its small population of under 150,000 there was a push for independence which resulted in a full-scale war between Azerbaijan and the tiny country, which was heavily backed by Armenian troops from 1988 to 1994.

The war was extremely nasty. of course, most wars are, but this had vicious battles between Afghan mujahadeen and Chechnya fighters on the side of Azerbaijan versus Ukrainian and Russian mercenaries fighting alongside the Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh armies. Atrocities and ethnic cleansing were carried out against the civilian population, particularly in the smaller Muslim-dominated Azerbaijani villages. 

T-72 tank. A memorial to the Armenian Army winning the first Nagorno-Karabakh war in 1994

The eventual ceasefire left Azerbaijan harbouring a major grudge against Armenia and the nominally independent Nagorno-Karabakh, having lost 14%  of their territory and thousands of their fighters it was inevitable that they would try and take it back. 

Skirmishes and deaths on both sides continued until a rebuilt and reequipped Azerbaijani army (thanks to the financial power of being a major oil producer) invaded in 2020 in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh and regained almost 50% of the region before a ceasefire brokered by Russia.

Sadly this is not a part of the world that will know peace for long. Constant fighting erupts on a regular basis on the new border, and the Russian peacekeepers deployed are particularly ineffective, probably because their numbers are reduced and redeployed in Ukraine. A Third Nagorno-Karabakh war was inevitable and occured in September 2023. 

The national emblem of Nagorno-Karabakh on top of the Parliament in Stepanakert

I visited Nagorno-Karabakh in August 2020, weeks before the Second War began. As I was planning on visiting Baku, as well as Belarus, a key ally of Azerbaijan I held back this article as the authorities have an uncompromising attitude toward those they find visiting the breakaway country including  extradition and imprisonment.

Nagorno-Karabakh is not easy to get to. It has an airport, but it has never seen a flight since it was built in 2009 as Azerbaijan has promised to shoot down any plane that uses it with Surface to Air missiles. Public transport is infrequent, crowded and incredibly slow. I discussed the issue with my landlady at the small and very cheap B&B I was staying at in Yerevan, the Armenian capital. 

"Don't get the bus. It will take a day and be the most uncomfortable ride of your life". 

Clearly she had never travelled in rural China. Nothing could compare with the noise, smell and chaos of those slow journeys where the sawdust in the aisle was vital in soaking up the urine of non-nappy wearing children suspended by their mothers over it to relieve themselves.

She had a convenient solution. 

"My brother Davit will drive you".

She had already told me the sad tale of the economic crisis and high unemployment in Armenia and that her brother had been unable to get a job since leaving the army. I had already met him since he was used for the B&B's $10 pickups and drop-offs to Yerevan international airport.

The earth wall along the highway to prevent sniper attacks on cars

I considered a bonus in having a recent member of the Armenian Army as my driver. It could be quite useful in case of any difficulties in entering Nagorno-Karabakh.

The negotiation on price was concluded very quickly. I lowballed a US$100 price for a return journey to Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. It was accepted quickly, a little too quickly for my liking, and we arranged the departure for 8:00 AM the next day.

Some of the best things in Nagorno-Karabakh. Wine, Zhingyalov Hats and the Mountain monument

Davit was tall and lean, with a preference for still wearing his old Army shirt, trousers, and boots. Maybe they were the only clothes he had, as he never was seen in anything else. His dark black hair was just a little longer than army regulation, and he sported a long moustache. 

The reason for the acceptance of the low price became quickly apparent as we stopped at a large supermarket on the edge of Yerevan and loaded up with a huge amount of packaged food, cases of beer, and essentials like nappies, which due to their bulk, quickly filled the car. 

I was hoping that none of this was for us on the six-hour journey. Well, the beer could be useful but the nappies were more concerning.

There were shortages of items in Nagorno-Karabakh due to the difficult roads and lack of regular transport so Davit could make some serious money in bringing some of the most in demand goods to Stepanakert. My contribution was for the petrol.

This was a regular journey for Davit and he enjoyed having the company, telling me tales of easy victories over the Azerbaijan Army, the strength of the Armenian Army, and how Nagorno-Karabakh would never be taken back by the enemy. He was enthusiastic and blindly over optimistic based on the events that happened only a month later.

The Azerbaijan border and military bases behind the protective highway earth wall

We passed massive earth walls just an hour out of Yerevan. Even here we were skirting the border with Azerbaijan and their reinforced military emplacements were clearly visible on the hilltops a few kilometres away. 

The earth walls were there to prevent sniping attacks on cars on the road to Stepanakert. I was beginning to question my decision to visit this remote country.

As we started to wind our way up and down the mountains the road clearly started to deteriorate. It struck me as unwise to have the main supply route into the Armenian supported and disputed Nagorno-Karabakh in such a poor condition but this was also a reflection on the economic malaise that Armenia had fallen into.

Abandoned buildings in Nagorno-Karabakh

Buildings along the roadside in both Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh were often abandoned, missing windows and doors with their roof collapsed. The value in the disputed territory was clearly not economic but territorial.

The country was beautiful though, we passed mountains and lakes reminiscent of the Scottish highlands which could, if ever peace was to come to this land, be a magnet for tourism.

We arrived at a military checkpoint. Davit laughed and joked with the heavily armed Nagorno-Karabakh soldiers who did not bother to check the car as they were supposed to. 

A case of beer exchanged hands. My details were taken and my passport photographed and I was told to get a visa at the government office in Stepanakert within 24 hours, else I would have trouble leaving.

The unhappy wedding party at Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shusha

Travelling along the Lachin Corridor, a  small road on the edge of the border, we passed villages which had been abandoned and where all the houses had been burnt out, presumably these were majority Azerbaijani inhabited and had been destroyed in the waves of ethnic cleansing during the first war. 

The city of Shusha was the first settlement that had any signs of life. It had been the main Azerbaijani enclave in Nagorno-Karabakh but had been repopulated by mainly rural Armenians after the war. 

Many buildings had been destroyed as it was on the frontline and with its height above the capital Stepanakert, visible in the valley below, it was perfectly positioned fpr the Azerbaijani artillery to fire many shells into it which did not differentiate between civilians or the military.

The Ghazanchetsots Cathedral was badly damaged as Armenia had discovered it was where Azerbaijan had stored al its missiles and shells, believing the Christian Armenians would never attack a cathedral. 

A wedding was taking place in the newly renovated church and I tried to take a few photos, the wedding party was very colourful, but this was brought to an abrupt halt as two of the party rushed up to me waving their arms in front of my camera and seemed quite angry. I beat a hasty retreat. This was not a friendly place.

The famed city ancient city walls still had huge gaps where they had been by missiles, rubble lay everywhere, and they were impossible to climb and walk any distance.

The damaged Mosque and minaret in Shusha

Much of the city had not been rebuilt, noticeably the main mosque, whose minaret had apparently been used for target practise by Armenian forces after the war finished. 

The graves inside had been smashed up. At least it was not turned into a pig farm which was the fate of several smaller mosques, in a rather nasty insult to their religion.

I discovered the Great Patriotic War (WW II) memorial quite close to the centre. I have seen many of these memorials across the old Soviet Union and although the flames of remembrance may not always be burning forever as planned, the sites and monuments were always well looked after. 

Not here. Totally overgrown, broken, and pockmarked with bullet holes. I have no idea which side was responsible but clearly no one cared enough now to repair it or even clean it up. 

The bullet holed and abandoned Great Patriotic War Memorial in Shusha

We descended on the road to Stepanakert passing a T-72 tank which had led the capture of Shusha despite its driver and gun operator being killed. It was one of the few memorials to the recent war and was adorned not with flowers of remembrance but a Christian cross painted on the side.

The capital, predominantly populated by Armenians, was different to Shusha in that had been totally rebuilt and there were no obvious signs of the conflict. It looked like any other modern Armenian city and my brand new hotel was quiet and comfortable. 

Downtown Stepanakert. Note that little English is spoken anywhere in Nagorno-Karabakh.

I went off in search of a cold beer, there seemed to be a distinct shortage of anything but Kilikia, a pretty bland and gassy lager, while Davit went off to unload his cargo for a nice profit.

The next day I walked into the Government offices and, perhaps not surprisingly, was the only one in the queue for an Artsakh visa. At a cost of US$3 it was stuck into my passport, which could prove problematic in some countries, luckily I have more than one passport.

The first place to visit was the Military  Museum of Artsakh. A squat building surrounded by government offices. Captured weaponry was on display outside, while inside it was a sombre affair, with one wall dedicated to photographs of some of the many thousand local troops killed in the conflict. Individual displays told of acts of heroism and valour, but the whole thing was rather depressing.

Hardly in the spirit of reconciliation. An Azerbaijan flag to wipe your feet on.

One rather strange interactive exhibit was a torn and dirty Azerbaijan flag on the floor which you were encouraged to wipe your feet on. Not much chance of reconciliation being promoted here.

Nearby was the main cemetery where grave after grave was marked with granite carved images of those that had lost their lives in the conflict. A grim reminder of the terrible human cost of war, more confronting than just plain gravestone markers. Clean, tidy and well looked after in contrast to the Soviet War Memorial in Shusha.

The real faces of war. The cemetery in Stepanakert

I met up with Davit and we planned to drive to Aghdam, an abandoned Azeri village close to the current border which was renowned for its beauty, particularly its mosque. We stopped off at the 'We are Mountains' monument, a huge brick sculpture depicting a local Man and Woman and seen as the symbol of the country, appearing on flags, currency and even the local red wine. 

I had already tried a glass of local shiraz in a bar, it was passable being very young, and of course cheap at about US0.20C a glass. Worth tasting, not worth bringing back with me.

'We are Mountains' monument near Stepanakert

I was the only visitor and an old man carving wooden versions of the monument was very happy to have a prospective buyer walking around. He followed me around, waving the wooden monument copy at me at every opportunity, before seeking a quieter time I bought one. It clearly made his day.

We drove on through parched fields and few signs of life before encountering a roadblock on the outskirts of Aghdam. There was no way we were going to be allowed to proceed further, no matter how good Davit's relations with soldiers were. 

There had been sniping attacks from over the border on troops walking near the town and it was considered very unsafe.

Stepanakert International Airport. No problems parking here.

We returned to Stepanakert via the international airport. Built in 2011 by the Armenian authorities it had remained unused as Azerbaijan had threatened to shoot down and plane that tried to use it.

The main door was open and it was a strange experience walking past dusty embarkation gates, untouched luggage trollies and onto a runway that was still well maintained with the grass on either side neatly cut. 

You will be in for a long wait at this airport. Years not minutes.

The main city market was our lunch stop before returning on the long road back to Yerevan. The stalls were full of Chinese plastic tat, as well as huge amounts of vodka in plastic soft drink bottles. These were for Iranian truck drivers. 

The Iranian border and main checkpoint was close by, and the drivers would often detour here on their return journey to pick up illicit alcohol. You would have thought Iranian customs would have been more suspicious of clear liquid in a Pepsi bottle, but apparently not.

Soft drink bottles filled with local vodka. Irresistible to Iranian truck drivers

The famed local Zhingyalov Hats, a flat bread filled with spinach, fried onions and green vegetables was being cooked on almost every food stall. Traditional peasant food, as with Italian pizza, simple, cheap and easy to make. And also delicious resembling a stuffed naan bread. 

I talked with the lady behind the grill with Davit translating. She was happy to see a lone tourist visiting but was very depressed at the situation in the region, despairing of the future but with nowhere else to go.

"Artsakh is my home, I have nowhere else to go. There is nothing for me in Armenia, so whatever happens I am staying. I have no choice, but I would hate to live through another war after the last one. But I fear it will happen again sometime".

It was hard to feel upbeat leaving Nagorno Karabakh. It has a beautiful setting, high up in the mountains, but the intractable problems of differing religions and nationalism are not something that will be forgotten, or resolved within a few generations.

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