Updated: Mar 31, 2019
An Enigma Wrapped in a Mystery Nagorno-Karabakh roughly translates as ‘mountainous black garden’ in the Azeri language, though the predominantly Armenian population refer to it as the ancient name Artsach. It is a barely-known enigma wrapped up in the politics of the Caucasus, half-forgotten, obscure and mysterious: a place which briefly flickered into the public consciousness at the beginning of the 1990’s, as the Soviet Union descended into chaos and Azerbaijan and Armenia waged a brief but bloody war on each other, resulting in the deaths of around 30,000 people, many of them civilians, bombed or shot in their own homes as a process of ethnic cleansing took place – crimes committed on both sides. An enclave of Armenia within Azerbaijan, it is inaccessible to Azeris, and it also separates Azerbaijan from an exclave of its own – Nakchivan - necessitating dwellers of that region to fly to their mother country or take an extremely circuitous coach journey via Iran. It’s a region that, since the beginning of my trip to the Caucasus, had fascinated and beguiled me. The Azeris had been fanatical about the region to the point where even mentioning Armenia, never mind stating your intention of visiting the place, resulted in social pariah status; to say that it is a thorny issue in both Azeri and Armenian politics is to massively understate the case. It’s a beautiful, timeless region, but these things mask a bloody and violent history – not unlike many other areas of the Caucasus. For most of its history, it had an ethnically mixed population, with Armenians and Azeris living side by side, although at no point in history was there ever more than a 75-25 mix in favour of the Armenians. The Soviets in 1923, with Stalin as the main mastermind, cunningly weakened the region by handing it over to Azerbaijan from Armenian control, in an attempt to woo the Turks into friendship, and, he hoped, help to trigger what he expected to be the inevitable European Socialist revolution – a failed attempt which to this day profoundly affects the politics of the region. It is a curse of all the Caucasian countries that they have been wedged between the expansionist nations of Russia, Turkey and Persia throughout history, and Nagorno Karabakh is a microcosm of the region – beautiful, mountainous, and fatally divided.
Military Presence My first impression of Nagorno Karabakh was, predictably, militarily-influenced. My Marshrutka, which I caught from Goris in eastern Armenia, was carrying a batch of soldiers over the border and probably to the cease-fire line, which still experiences minor skirmishes – this year alone, up to ten soldiers on either side are said to have been shot or killed. I was crammed in, on a fold-down seat, between a bus full of khaki-clad, nervous looking young guys, the oldest of which was probably at least ten years my junior. They were eyeing me suspiciously, unsure of what to make of a foreigner coming to these parts no doubt. I kept my eyes fixed on the horizon, which was becoming more and more mountainous and wild; the road was twisty and bumpy, and after about an hour I was wishing the journey was over. I’d become a bit travel-weary by this stage, having been on the road for several weeks, and no matter how many journeys you do in a Caucasian marshrutka, they never become pleasant. We passed through an area of no-man’s land called the Lachin Corridor – a thin strip of land maybe 10km wide and 50km long which used to belong to Azerbaijan but was taken by the Armenians in the war. A few deserted villages, bombed-out houses, nobody to be seen, utterly desolate. At some point a few minutes later we passed over another imaginary border and we were into Karabakh. A sign in Armenian and English read “Free Artsach welcomes you”; next to it, a flag, the unrecognized insignia of Karabakh – identical to Armenia’s except for a few white pixels separating the far right corner; symbolic of the country’s division from what it considers itself to be part of. Technically, I needed a visa to be entering, but there was nobody around to check me, and anyway, a bus full of soldiers does not usually get checked by border guards. I did feel that if there happened to be some stray Azeri snipers hiding somewhere in the hills that they would have had a prime target, as we wound our way along a road surrounded by high cliffs on both sides. We stopped for ten minute cigarette break, and I was shyly approached with one of the soldiers, who proffered me a cigarette and some chewing gum. I gratefully accepted, and thanked him in Armenian: “shnorhakelutyan” – easier to write than say. After that, the ice was broken, and I got into conversation with the soldiers in halting Russian on my side and stuttering English on theirs. They were indeed on the way to the cease-fire line, doing their 6 week stint before heading back to Yerevan. This is their Palestine, their Northern Ireland, and most looked extremely nervous. Of course, the chances of anything happening to them were slim, but they were heading to a war zone nonetheless.
A Provincial Capital
Three hours after leaving Goris, in the east of Armenia, about 120km away, we were in Stepanakert, the capital ‘city’ of the autonomous region. When Kapuscinski visited in the early 90’s he had this to say about the place: “…the plane was surrounded on all sides by mountains. All around – Switzerland. Here, herds of grazing sheep; there, rushing streams; over there green forests and clearings. It was a hidden paradise. Yet all around me was war. War, death and danger.” Stepanakert these days is, thankfully, a bit more sedate, unlike when Kapuscinski ventured there in the early 90’s. Yet there is still the vague feeling of threat hanging around, probably because of the high military presence. In truth, there isn’t a great deal to the town, and understandably there is very little investment in it – no major restaurant chains or shops, not many hotels, not, indeed, a great deal of anything. And yet, it is surrounded by the most startling nature – the town of 55,000 stands above the Karkar River, in the middle of a typical landscape of forest, pasture and fields backed by craggy mountains. The town itself has a whiff of the Soviet era, and is rather drab, with a few straggly streets meeting at one central roundabout and park, where people seem to congregate and the evening and promenade for a few hours, after the unbearable heat of the daytime sun has passed. I found a passable though pretty dull and lacklustre guesthouse, called the Ella & Hamlet. Out of town and down a dusty sidestreet. For most of my trip, I’d had great luck and stayed in some incredible homestays which were cheap, comfortable, welcoming and importantly gave me an insight into how people lived. In Karabakh, the situation is a bit different as they have very little tourist industry to speak of – even the most adventurous Diaspora Armenians think twice about coming here. Still, I met a couple of travellers in the kitchen whilst foraging for some coffee – Josh from Luxembourg and Kinga from Poland. Both had come the same arduous overland way as I had and were travelling alone, so we soon got into conversation. Josh was a young lad of about 25, Kinga nearer 30, and they were to be the only foreigners I met in Stepanakert as it turned out. Josh and I went out in search of a restaurant for dinner, and found one – possibly the only one to speak of – in the rather plush and newly built Hotel Armenia. Reasonably priced and with quality food, this was to become our restaurant of choice for the duration of the stay. Following an excellent soup and ‘khashlama’ – an Azeri recipe of lamb stew cooked in beer – we went off to explore the nightlife options in town. These were extremely limited however, and we ended up gravitating to the central park area and having a couple of beers in one of the many outside cafes, before retiring to an internet café. Stapanakert is not the place to come for a party, it’s safe to say.
The next day, I was obliged to obtain a Karabakh Visa, by law, according to my Lonely Planet. Being that the country is not recognized by any governments officially outside Armenia, this was all a bit farcical and a touch Kafka-esque, but nevertheless the surreal nature of our fool’s errand somehow made it worthwhile. The process was very simple and quick once I’d found the relevant government office – fill out a form, declare your intentions for visiting, state the places you want to go and pay $10. In and out in 15 minutes, no other tourists around. A formality, and a kind of Penny Black for visa collectors – along with the breakaway Trans Dniester Republic in Moldova, one of those very rare visas for a country that doesn’t actually exist. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Stepanakert is not the most exciting place to work, one imagines. The serious side of all this is that, like an Isreali stamp in the Middle East, this visa can cause problems; once in your passport, it precludes you from visiting Azerbaijan, such is their level of bitterness at the loss of the region. One place that I did want to go, but was informed was not possible, was a city called Agdam. Sitting on what was the front line, and is now just behind the cease-fire line, Agdam was once a thriving market town of 100,000 populated mainly by Azeris, lying in what was, before the war, part of south-western Azerbaijan. During the conflict, they were driven out, and after heavy fighting the town was captured by the Armenian army. The entire population of the town fled eastward, and the Armenian forces decided to destroy much of what remained to prevent its recapture by the Azeris. More damage occurred after the war as looting took place, people stripping buildings for every usable item from pipes to floor tiles. Agdam was left as a ghostly reminder of what the country used to be – a place where ethnic Azeris and Armenians lived together. Now, the buildings lay mostly in rubble, a ruined, uninhabited and uninhabitable ghost town, patrolled by Armenian soldiers. Even journalists find entry difficult, and taking pictures can result in severe punishments.
Few Tourist Sights
I went to visit the Museum of Fallen Soldiers, one of the few tourist sights in town. The walls of the place were lined with photos of the dead, very reminiscent of similar displays I had seen in Baku. Most of the weapons looked extremely primitive, and some of the guns looked home-made. The overall impression was of a war fought with cheap Russian 19th century technology, a war of attrition no doubt, which must have had a profound impact on the people of a country which had had hard impossibly hard lives during most of the Soviet period, only to emerge from that nightmare to a four-year conflict which was never properly resolved. The old lady who showed us around in Russian probably saw very few tourists, but was clearly proud to have somebody to show. A young girl gave us an excellent tour in English around the Artsach state museum, which also included some of the homemade weapons and primitive explosive devices used during the early days of the war. She told me that the people of Karabach simply wanted the world to recognize them, be it as an independent state, or as part of Armenia – the current no-status position of the country is a great source of anxiety for the people, she said, and the threat of Azerbaijan and Turkey uniting to launch another attack imminently is keenly felt. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that in my experience of having lived in Azerbaijan, such a prospect would go down very well with the vast majority of the populace there. A local art gallery included quite a lot of pastoral images of the country, in amongst some Armenian anti-Turk/Azeri propaganda. One image, of a Trojan horse adorned with a Turkish flag on the borders of Karabakh, summed up the attitude of the artists well. The threat from Turkey (and Azerbaijan) is real for many. The effects of the 1914-18 on Turkish-Armenian relations appears to be fatal - the two nations aren't even on speaking terms. So far, Nagorno Karabach had intrigued me, and I was keen to learn more. It's a country in which the people have more survived hardship and difficulty than most, where history and geography have been their enemy and the past haunts them. I wanted to see more to complete my picture of the Caucasus.
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This blog is part of a series. To see the previous/next parts, go here:
These pictures were taken by a freelance photo-journalist I met in Shushi, Nagorno-Karrabakh. They document the desperate conditions in the country, but also the hope, which is essential to the spirit of Karabakh. Password: 'Magazine'.