There´s only one place on the entire planet where it is possible to secure the visa necessary to enter Karabakh. And that´s at the country´s permanent mission in the Armenian capital, Yerevan. The delegation from Karabakh occupies a rather handsome building, very close to the Iranian embassy. Nonetheless, the visa procedures for Nagorno Karabagh are pretty much smoother and less restrictive than Armenia´s southern neighbour: fill the application form, bring a couple of pictures, pay the corresponding fee, and you can get the visa stamped on your passport the very same day.
Everything’s perfectly normal, except for one odd thing: once stamped on your passport, Azerbaijan becomes forever off-limits. Small wonder, as Azeri government in Baku regards Nagorno Karabakh as being most definitely Azeri territory.
Oblivious of geopolitical odds, public taxis bound for Stepanakert, NK´s capital city, run daily from Yerevan´s Kilikia Central Bus Station. Once the Yerevan´s tufa-pink outskirts have faded out, the highway then runs southeast parallel to the Arax river towards semi-arid central Armenia. Across the other side of the Arax valley, Turkish territory, the twin peaks of a snowy Mount Ararat reach for the sky. The view of Ararat dissapears once the road reaches the Zangezur region, a longish corridor flanked on both sides by Azeri territory; the Nakhichevan exclave to our right and Azeri mainland on our left side. Iranian petrol tankers aplenty cross this road southwards on their way home. Their moustached drivers sound the horns of their rusty trucks, at the request of the kids who gather alongside the road without much else to do.
The marshrutka makes a necessary logistic stop atop the southern village of Goris before heading for the Lachin corridor. This “umbilical cord” connects Armenia´s mainland with the enclave proper and is, by far, the best road in the whole Caucasus. Unsurprisingly, it has been funded by the Hayastan Fund, the Armenia Diaspora spread all over the world.
A billboard welcomes us to “Free Artsakh”, which is the name Armenians give the enclave. A little further, an immigration officer makes sure documents and passports are in order at the Berdzor checkpoint. Very unlike those other de facto borders between Georgia and its rebel republics, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, military presence here is scarce, as this is just a spot between two different areas, yet inhabited by the same people. Among Armenians, Karabakh folk have a reputation for being stubborn highlanders; defenders of Christianity´s easternmost edge, but they weren´t the only mountain people in the region. Berdzor is the new name for Lachin, the capital village of an area once called €œRed Kurdistan€. Unfortunately, the original name isn’t the only thing that´s vanished, for nothing remains of the Kurdish people that lived here before the war. Kurdish book-printing and cultural flourishment reached an end when the Karabakh war started. The local Kurds happened to live in the finger-shaped area between Armenia and Karabagh, which would turn into a place of strategic key importance. The risk for Karabakh Armenians of getting firmly locked in Azerbaijani land was too big, and had to be avoided by any means. All the Kurdish settlements and districts were occupied by Armenian forces with the military support of Russia. Moslem Kurds were victims of an ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Armenian forces during shameful episodes like that one of Kelbajar, where twelve Kurdish villages were razed from the face of the Earth. Most of the Moslem Kurds and the Azeris living there removed themselves to parts of Azerbaijan well distant from the front line, and the few who remained paid for their stubbornness with their lives.
The descent into Stepanakert is an easy run down through stunning scenery. The marshrutka lurches into the bus station where a handful of taxi drivers look in anticipation at the new arrivals. But the Karabakh capital is a small city, a place for walking, so there´s no need to pay any overpriced ride in a Lada.
Non-Armenians are required to register upon arrival at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where they are warned against visiting villages in the front line such as Aghdam.
There´s nothing to see there but destruction€, says the official in charge.
Besides, the place is still heavily mined; you are risking your legs or even your life.€
I´m also warned of the risk of getting arrested and deported in case I take the trip, which makes me wonder whether I´d be expelled from Karabakh or Armenia proper.
Developed during Soviet times, there´s not much this three-traffic-light capital has to offer. The old quarter of the city is almost in ruins, except for a handful of sorry buildings that remain in a dire condition. Nonetheless, the lack of historic sights is counter-balanced with a screechy Ferris wheel and a legion of babushki selling pop-corn and sunflower seeds in paper cones, some of them recycled pages from old annuals recalling another year of Soviet success. If you are lucky, you might even get sunflower seeds in a picture of Lenin.
Another must are the colourful local carpets, embellished by graphic military scenes like that one of a Soviet chopper overflying Karabakh´s national symbol; a tacky sculpture of an archetypal pair of Karabakh´s grandparents just outside Stepanakert. War reminders in Stepanakert are also visible in the abandoned buildings or the bullet holed faÃ§ades, sometimes conveniently hidden by the laundry, hanging Napolitan style.
If you feel curious about the origin of all this war and rubble, you may pay the visit to the National History Musem. An enthusiastic English speaking guide will brief you for an hour on Armenian Epos; from the massive Urartian Kingdom to the first Armenian woman to drive a tank. When you enter the room dedicated to the Great Patriotic War you feel you are in some kind of chapel. Small wonder here as the red velvet curtains and the low light reflected on Armenian heroes´ marble faces confer the place an atmosphere of sacred mistery.
Back in the sleepy streets outside, a flight of stairs leads to the ruined stadium nearby Stepan Shaumian´s park, named after the communist leader to whom the capital city of Karabagh owes its name. This Tbilisi born Armenian Soviet hero was, paradoxically enough, the leader of the Baku commune during the Russian Civil war years. The Baku Armenians, a vibrant community for centuries of the Caspian city, were entirely expelled during the population exchanges between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the late eighties and early nineties. The pogrom suffered by Armenians in the Azeri town of Sumgait led to mass deportations of Azeris from Armenia, and the subsequent retaliatory deportation of Armenians from Azerbaijan. The transnational population exchanges then turned into a village-scale exercise, so mainly Armenian Stepanakert and neighbouring Shushi, which was predominantly Azeri, exchanged their populations. Absurdity reached its climax in the tiny village of Tug in southern Karabakh. Its ethnic composition was fifty-fifty so a line was drawn in the middle of the town´s square splitting both communities, mixed couples and their children included.
Shushi, Shusha in Azeri, overhangs Stepanakert from the top of its 1,400 meters at the very heart of the enclave. Today it´s rather difficult to believe that this was once one of the largest cities in Transcaucasia, and that it also also hosted one of the largest Armenian churches in the world. Shoushi Hotel claims to be the best in Nagorno Karabakh: “Hotel rooms overlooking the city with great panorama view of Ghazanchetsots Cathedral”.
Reconstructed in white limestone, the church stands like a crystal palace amid the debris that Armenian refugees from Baku or Ganja now call home. Azeries were the major group in Shushi before the war but all of them left when Armenian troops took this town, which had turned into a perfect garrison to shell Stepanakert. From this city in the heights, GRAD rockets were fired downwards towards the Armenians´capital, only 10 kms away. Well protected by a Persian fortress, Shushi looked unconquerable and easily defendable by a small number of soldiers. Nevertheless, every guess proved wrong, for Armenians captured the town in just one day. Shamil Basayev was one of the last warriors to leave. He complained afterwards during an interview for Azeri TV about the lack of organization and discipline the Azeris showed during the assault. “Shusha was just abandoned”, concluded the Chechen warlord.
Shushi is also known as the “Jerusalem of Karabakh” for its huge historical importance for both communities: Azeris claim Shusha as the cradle of Azerbaijan´s poetry and music, whilst Armenians argue that the political and scientific-cultural Armenian elite of the Transcaucasus were found in this, once one of the major religious spots in the whole Caucasus. Unfortunately, nothing here recalls the religious crossroads still visible in the Middle East holy town. Shushi´s former three mosques lie in ruins and only a couple of minarets stand up bearing witness to the town´s former Moslem community. In case visitors are not discouraged by the ubiquitous rubble, the rotten carcass of a cow has been left inside one of them to prevent any praying towards Mecca.
The only sign of life in this semi-ghost town can be seen around the cathedral. Kids too young to have known the war exercise in the football ground nearby, or try to ride downhill on overloaded bikes in groups of three. They´re probably tired of playing hide-and-seek amidst the debris of Shushi.
Last Stop: Hiroshima
A tourist agency from Stepanakert hands the few foreign travellers an English brochure with maps of both Shushi, and Stepanakert and a list of the main tourist sights in the enclave. There´s obviously no space for all the 4000 churches perched in the mountains, but it does list every village in the area. Surprisingly, though, there´s also a brief note on Aghdam ghost village: “An abandoned town with a Persian mosque from the XIX century. Liberated in 1993”.
Armenians say that Karabakhi Armenians are historically highlanders, the original inhabitants of this Mountanous Karabakh, and that Azeris belong to the plains. Aghdam, once a large Azeri town in the plains of 150,000 souls, lies only twenty five kilometres from Stepanakert but still within artillery range. The city was therefore reduced to ashes in an “action of self defence”, according to Armenian officials.
Aghdam is a shameful episode Armenians don´t want the world to know about; a taboo word which brings dark memories of the past. But there are more: Khojali, Fizuli, Kelbajar…
Visitors to Karabakh eager to pay the visit must keep a low profile about their intentions, especially when it comes to writing your planned route on the visa application form.
Actually, Aghdam doesn´t lie within Karabakh bounds but in the buffer zone between both sides. Armenians are aware that Azerbaijan will claim the territory as theirs sooner or later, so they´ve made no efforts to settle in this town in no-man´s land.
No marshrutka goes to Aghdam, as nobody lives there today, so one of those Lada taxis is the only choice. Most of the drivers are reluctant to drive me there as nobody wishes to risk running into the militia. Luckily enough, the youngest of them is willing, and ready, to take me to Aghdam and wait around for me for half an hour, always depending on the military presence, of course.
Try and picture the most depressing and forlorn spot you have ever seen; Aghdam is much worse. An abandoned Moslem cemetery on our right hand side marks the entrance to a post-nuclear scenario. There are no people, no cars, no sounds, not even the singing of birds can be heard. Houses, cinemas, governmental buildings€¦everything has been levelled to the ground. Even the remnants of a sculpture, probably one of those Soviet heroes, have been sawn to pieces, as if any reminder of the human race had to be methodically razed from the face of Aghdam; just old Kolkhos workers are still visible in what remains of a big mosaic on a faÃ§ade. A small bus stop, where Aghdamis would wait for the bus to Stepanakert, is slowly being engulfed by weeds growing on its concrete carcass. Road surfaces are cracking and almost every building is in a state of crumbling dereliction. Aghdam came in handy when it came to finding building materials for renovating Shushi and Stepanakert, so doors, wiring, window frames, plumbing and anything else worth taking, has long since been looted and plundered.
The Persian mosque, though battered, is the only building that stands up in Aghdam, although not since the Armenians took over, has the muezzin climbed the spiral steps. The two minarets soar upwards towards heaven, in vain, for life´s burning stream has long dried up in Aghdam.