FROZEN WAR WE FORGOT
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.