Monday, 9 January 2012

Nagorno Karabakh - Black Garden Mountains

Nagorno means Mountainous in Russian whilst Kara means Black in Turkish and Bakh, Garden in Persian. This name describes not only a mountainous landscape with fertile soils but also alludes to how ethnically complex the region is. Despite Nagorno Karabakh being 94% Armenian Stalin assigned it to the the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. In 1988 protests in Karabakh and Armenia were the biggest the Soviet Union had seen and a few years later, as the the Soviet Union disintegrated, war between Armenia and Azerbaijan broke out. Many parallels can be drawn to the wars in the Balkans, including atrocities on both sides, but the major difference was that the West really didn't care. By 1994 Armenia had taken control of not only Karabakh but also seven Azeri regions and over 1 million people became IDPs (Internally Displaced People). A ceasefire was negotiated and both sides dug in on either side of the line of control, occasionally sniping at each other. Azerbaijan and their Turkey allies blockaded Armenia, hemming her in on eastern and western flanks. And this is how it remains today; two armies facing each other, ready to engage in another full blown war. Karabakh would like to be independent but not even Armenia recognises this and for the tourist this manifests itself in the fact that a pseudo visa is required to visit the region.

We got a marshrutka to Stepanakert and stayed in a B&B which smelt of drains and took functional utilitarianism to a whole new level. It also didn't include breakfast. The town itself, however, wasn't as grim as I was expecting and modern apartment blocks were being built. They did not have much archetectual merit but at least they were not as brutal as the previous Soviet attempts. It was bitterly cold but we found a nice cafe which we visited regularly to warm up.

To the east of Stepanakert, towards the line of control, was the formerly Azeri town of Agdam. It used to be home to 100,000 people but now is completely deserted. We were expecting to see a war-torn ghost town including the old mosque but it was actual a lot more razed than we were expecting, and we could not even locate the mosque. Rather than war damage, it seems that the town was gradually being dismantled so that the stone could be reclaimed to build new houses in Stepanakert. As we surveyed the tumbled down walls a truck rumbled passed loaded with masonry and one of the few signs of life in the town was a scrap metal yard. Lev, our taxi driver, was an Armenian born in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. He fought in the war, most probably against his former Azeri neighbours. A quietly spoken man, who didn't mind stopping regularly so we could take photos as it meant that he could have yet another cigarette. Gazing over an Azeri graveyard as we took photos he quietly mentioned that it was where he had been shot. He looked sad and said "there needn't have been war".

Back in Stepanakert we visited the Museum for Missing People and met Vera. Vera curated the museum, which also housed all the documentation on the missing from the war, as well as writing on the situation. Vera herself had lived through the war and her son was missing. She showed us a small shelf which displayed her son's uniform, pistol and wedding photo. It was heart breaking to see the grief that she lived every day but during our time in Nagorno Karabakh she was the person most open to reconciliation . She had worked on programs to find closure for both sides and explained her outlook with simply saying, "we are all mothers".

That evening we met up with Nick and Pam from the Halo Trust, an NGO at the forefront of mine and munitions clearance. We went to a local restaurant where Nick ordered a carafe of mulberry vodka, together with beers. The meal was excellent and Nick, a manager at Halo Trust, and usually the only Brit in Stepanakert, seemed to enjoy having a few other Brits to talk to. Pam was in accounts and over from Head Office to keep everything in order and introduce Nick to spreadsheets. By the time we rolled out of the restaurant it was late and snowing hard. We were all quite pissed and Nick started a snow ball fight which ended in an innocent bystander being hit.

The following morning I felt dreadful. We managed to get to the bus station in time to catch a bus up the road to Shushi. Shushi is located on the hill above Stepanakert and had been an Azeri town. During the war it had been used to bomb Stepanakert until the Armenians had overrun it, which was when most of the damage to the town had been made. Now the population is made up of Armenians, some displaced from Baku, and many houses lie empty, as do the mosques. We headed to a tower block to find a room at a homestay owned by a French/Armenian-Syrian couple. We were invited in for tea and sat around the table, as I tried to befriend a particularly vicious cat but unfortunately there wasn't room for us and they rung around to find us a room.

It was now late afternoon and we still hadn't had any lunch so before heading to the other side of town to find where we were staying we popped into a (the) local restaurant. It was empty apart from the owner who sat around a table with his son and a couple of friends. They were drinking vodka and as soon as we sat down offered us some. This was the last thing I wanted but politely declining didn't work. The ferocious burning of the inocuously clear liquid continued all the way down my throat into my empty stomach and I couldn't conceal a grimace. The men found this hilarious. The food was very welcome afterwards.

After a couple of wrong turns and the several sets of directions, trudging through the snow, we managed to find Saro and his wife's house. A litter of puppies tried to follow us into the house. Tea was quickly brought and we huddled around a gas heater, the only source of heat in the house. Saro was a jovial man, now working for the Interior Ministry He enjoyed practicing his English and was extremely well connected and intelligent. He had been born in Baku, internally displaced, fought in the war and then settled in Sushi. He was interested in our visit to Azerbaijan and he asked, as many other Armenians had, "and how did you find the Azeris?" This question always made me feel incredibly sad. How we, having been in Azerbaijan for all but 5 days, could give people like Saro, who had grown up in Azeribaijan, any great insight into the Azeri people I don't know. We had found that, apart for religion, the Azeris had been incredibly similar to the Armenians, a lot more similar than either is to the Georgians, but this was not the answer most Armenians want to hear. We retired to our room and only escaped hypothermia due the very welcome electric blanket.

Typical street scene in  Stepanakert

Little left of the Azeri town of Agdam

The Azeri cemetery where Lev had been shot.

Lev and James by the tank memorial to the war.

James with Lev and his taxi

Abandoned mosque in Sushi

Saro and James

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