FROZEN WAR WE FOR­GOT

The Press and Journal (Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire) - - DISPATCHES - GE­ORGE R MITCHELL

Ihave been deeply sad­dened but not sur­prised to watch over the past few weeks the es­ca­lat­ing ten­sion and fight­ing in Nagorno-Karabakh. A small state, deep in the Cau­ca­sus, Nagorno-Karabakh is the most iso­lated “coun­try” I have ever vis­ited. I did so in 2015. Once a re­gion of the Azer­bai­jan Soviet So­cial­ist Re­pub­lic, but with a pop­u­la­tion that was pre­dom­i­nantly Ar­me­nian, it was held to­gether by Moscow for decades, un­til it all started to un­ravel in the late 1980s, then all hell broke loose.

Tens of thou­sands have died in bru­tal wars over this re­gion, which most of the world sees as part of Azer­bai­jan, but since 1994 has been un­der Ar­me­nian-backed con­trol. Un­recog­nised by ev­ery UN mem­ber, NagornoKar­abakh is of­ten classed as a frozen Cold War con­flict zone.

With no in­ter­na­tional peace­keep­ing force be­tween the two sides, sniper fire and at­tacks hap­pen on a reg­u­lar ba­sis. While I was there Nagorno-Karabakh forces shot down an Azer­bai­jani he­li­copter. But cur­rently it’s the clos­est to full-on war we’ve seen since the 1990s.

And this isn’t just hap­pen­ing along dis­puted lines be­tween sol­diers. Towns and cities are be­ing hit, even Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto cap­i­tal Stepanaker­t has been hit by Azer­bai­jani forces. In fact, I’ve seen video clips of peo­ple in the very ho­tel I stayed in, shel­ter­ing in the base­ment due to rocket at­tacks. I should point out that Nagorno-Karabakh forces have also shelled Az­eri vil­lages.

The death toll dur­ing the past few weeks is more than 500, with at least 60 civil­ians killed. I’d guess though, the real fig­ure, is prob­a­bly far higher.

Apart from the ob­vi­ous, that civil­ians are dy­ing, why should the wider world care about a hid­den-away, unim­por­tant small piece of land? Be­cause, out­side look­ing in, there are far big­ger play­ers in the wings, who have the po­ten­tial to step in and light the fuse to this pow­der keg of a re­gion.

Rus­sia has cor­dial re­la­tions with both sides, and right now has helped to me­di­ate the cur­rent, very shaky, cease­fire. But it won’t last, for the sim­ple rea­son that many on both sides don’t want it to.

Rus­sia has a mil­i­tary base in Ar­me­nia, yet it has also sup­plied Azer­bai­jan with bil­lions of dol­lars worth of of­fen­sive mil­i­tary equip­ment. So, Moscow is tread­ing an ex­cep­tion­ally fine line in­deed. If full-scale war broke out, I gen­uinely have no idea which side, if any, Moscow would back.

Turkey sup­ports its lit­tle brother Azer­bai­jan, and Pres­i­dent Er­do­gan has said that he backs it to the end. Turkey, of course, also has ex­tremely poor re­la­tions with Ar­me­nia, mak­ing peace even more dif­fi­cult to achieve.

As for Turkey and Rus­sia? Com­pli­cated. Once close, their re­la­tion­ship has not been great over the past years; Turkey shoot­ing down a Rus­sian fighter jet over the Syr­ian bor­der in 2015 cer­tainly didn’t help.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a place that takes a mon­u­men­tal ef­fort to get to. Hid­den away from the out­side world, it’s prob­a­bly one of the few re­main­ing unique des­ti­na­tions left on the planet. There are no planes, no trains. The only way, a spec­tac­u­lar 10-hour taxi ride, com­mences in the Ar­me­nian cap­i­tal Yerevan.

His­tory is ev­ery­where here; we passed Mount Ararat, stand­ing at 16,946ft. It’s a sym­bol of ev­ery­thing Ar­me­nian, yet now stands on Turk­ish soil. Ac­cord­ing to the Bi­ble, Ararat is where Noah’s Ark came to rest.

As we drove on, the mod­ern world evap­o­rated as we en­tered a seem­ingly un­touched and un­tamed world. Higher and higher into the moun­tains, the tem­per­a­ture dropped. We passed through the odd ham­let,

and I gazed out at a place very few out­siders will ever see. At one point, near an un­marked cross­roads, my driver in­formed me that we were only 70 miles from the Ira­nian bor­der. “Don’t take the wrong turn then,” I replied.

Hours later, af­ter pass­ing through a re­mote moun­tain­side bor­der, I crossed into cut-off-from-the-world, near-never-vis­ited Nagorno-Karabakh. Ini­tially I was scep­ti­cal about finding any­thing re­motely re­sem­bling civil­i­sa­tion deep be­yond these moun­tains, but the cap­i­tal Stepanaker­t – more like a large town, pop­u­la­tion 53,000 – was clean and civilised.

With no west­ern­i­sa­tion or glob­al­i­sa­tion around, I was in a land that time had for­got­ten, or maybe a Brigadoon, where the out­side world had passed by like a dream.

Also, it was here, deep in­side NagornoKar­abakh, un­recog­nised with no em­bassies to help me, while work­ing on ma­te­rial for my book, that I was watched and fol­lowed, re­ported on, then fi­nally hauled off the streets by plain-clothed men. Held for hours, ques­tioned and ac­cused of spy­ing for arch­en­emy Azer­bai­jan.

Very scary in­deed. Not some­thing I ever want to ex­pe­ri­ence again.

To give you some back­ground as to why they are still fight­ing to­day, I’ll ex­plain what his­tor­i­cally hap­pened in two ma­jor towns I vis­ited in Nagorno-Karabakh. Be in no doubt, both eth­nic Azer­bai­ja­nis and Ar­me­ni­ans have suf­fered here for decades.

A short drive from Stepanaker­t is Ag­dam, a town that used to be­long to Azer­bai­jan. Un­til 1993 it had a thriv­ing pop­u­la­tion of 40,000. Af­ter bru­tal fight­ing, Ag­dam was cap­tured from Azer­bai­jan, and those who didn’t die, fled.

Ag­dam is now part of Ar­me­nian-backed Nagorno-Karabakh, but un­like other cap­tured towns that have since been re­pop­u­lated by Ar­me­ni­ans, Ag­dam re­mains a ghost town, empty of all hu­man life. What hap­pened at

Ag­dam is seen as the Cau­casian Hiroshima. It is out of bounds, a mil­i­tary zone, close to the Azer­bai­jan bor­der, and sees fre­quent sniper fire. And yes, I was stupid enough to go there and take pho­tos. This was the fi­nal straw that led to me be­ing ac­cused of spy­ing.

The town of Shusha, again once part of Azer­bai­jan, has, since 1992, also been part of Ar­me­nian-backed Nagorno-Karabakh. For hun­dreds of years there had been a mixed pop­u­la­tion of Az­eris and Ar­me­ni­ans in Shusha, mean­ing that the his­tory there is any­thing but peace­ful.

In 1920 there was a mas­sacre in Shusha, car­ried out by Azer­bai­jan with sup­port from Turkey. The Ar­me­nian half of the city was de­stroyed and al­most 30,000 Ar­me­ni­ans slaugh­tered. Churches, schools and busi­nesses were turned into in­fer­nos and peo­ple were burned alive.

Decades later, in 1992, dur­ing the NagornoKar­abakh War, Ar­me­nian-backed forces lib­er­ated Shusha, or cap­tured it, ac­cord­ing to Azer­bai­jan. Lo­cal Azer­bai­ja­nis fled their half of the city and as of to­day, none lives there any­more.

Un­like Stepanaker­t, I found Shusha de­press­ing. The lo­cals mostly live in clas­sic grey old Soviet-style apart­ment blocks that look like they could fall down at any sec­ond. One could eas­ily lose the will to live here, I thought to my­self at the time. I walked on and soon came across a sight I’ve seen many times over the years in con­flict zones, a re­cently ren­o­vated church. Ar­me­nia is a Chris­tian coun­try, while Azer­bai­jan is Mus­lim. Sadly, that very church I vis­ited, was bombed only last week.

In the old Azer­bai­jan quar­ter of Shusha, the dev­as­ta­tion from 1992 was right be­fore my eyes. Huge apart­ment blocks that looked as if they had been bombed only the day be­fore. Ten­ta­tively I ap­proached, and went in­side.

The dev­as­ta­tion was hor­ren­dous. Com­pletely gut­ted with gap­ing holes in the sides of the build­ing that in­di­cated di­rect hits by mor­tar or rocket fire.

This apart­ment block once housed hun­dreds of fam­i­lies, there­fore the death toll must have been high. This was not sol­diers fight­ing sol­diers on the bat­tle­field, this was the in­dis­crim­i­nate killing of civil­ians.

Feel­ing numb, I headed to the old Azer­bai­jan mosque ly­ing derelict nearby. With bul­let holes ev­ery­where, a sad eerie si­lence hung over it. In­side the once holy grounds, Mother Na­ture was again re­claim­ing her land.

So where are we to­day? Cease­fire one day, bomb­ing the next, and both sides blam­ing each other for break­ing it.

Ar­me­nia wants Nagorno-Karabakh to be recog­nised as an in­de­pen­dent state. It’s not go­ing to hap­pen. Azer­bai­jan wants the re­turn of Nagorno-Karabakh. That’s not go­ing to hap­pen ei­ther, at least not with­out a fullscale war.

Even if this cur­rent frag­ile cease­fire holds, it’s merely a sick­ing plas­ter cov­er­ing a very deep wound.

The likely fu­ture for Nagorno-Karabakh will be that it re­mains a frozen Cold War con­flict zone, with on­go­ing vi­o­lence, fol­lowed by cease­fire, break­ing of cease­fire and back to fight­ing.

Worst-case sce­nario? Could Azer­bai­jan launch and “win” a full-on war by tak­ing Nagorno-Karabakh by force? On pa­per the sta­tis­tics tell us it could. But if this hap­pens thou­sands will die, on both sides.

And just con­tem­plate what could hap­pen if Rus­sia, Turkey or Iran ever got in­volved with fighter jets over­head and boots on the ground.

Cau­casian Syria. That’s what.

I WAS IN A LAND THAT TIME HAD FOR­GOT­TEN, OR MAYBE A BRIGADOON WHERE THE OUT­SIDE WORLD HAD PASSED BY LIKEADREAM

DE­STRUC­TION: A cul­tural cen­tre in Shusha, out­side Stepanaker­t, de­stroyed by shelling dur­ing the cur­rent con­flict.

Pictures from Ge­orge Mitchell’s visit in 2015, clock­wise, from top left: The road lead­ing into NagornoKar­abakh; a bombed-out build­ing; the church in Shusha that was bombed last week; the mosque in Ag­dam; Ge­orge walks through a shelled build­ing; and a ru­ined apart­ment block in Shusha.

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