For Armenians who have been uprooted from their homes and for Azerbaijanis who are returning to uninhabitable cities: “It will be very difficult to forgive.”
Carlotta Gall and
Mauricio Lima and
FIZULI, Azerbaijan – Crossing an area that Azerbaijan recently recaptured from Armenia is a journey to a devastated wasteland reminiscent of a World War I battlefield. The road leads past kilometer-long abandoned ditches and bunkers and village by village of ruins, the white stones of the farmsteads scattered, all movable objects – roofs, doors, window frames – neatly picked.
The absence of life is scary.
Destroyed Armenian tanks and armor lay alongside the road and on hilltop positions, evidence of the devastating power of Azerbaijani drones. Abandoned uniforms and equipment signal a panic withdrawal of Armenian soldiers when the Azerbaijani armed forces took control of the district in early November.
Decades after Armenia conquered the surrounding territory, the town of Fizuli, once a prosperous agricultural settlement with around 30,000 inhabitants, has turned into a forest, the destroyed public buildings of which have been smothered by trees and undergrowth. The fate of the larger city of Aghdam further north is even worse: its buildings have been split into the sky on a dry plain, and its main bridge has been destroyed.
“It will be very difficult for me to forgive them,” said Elmaddin Safarov, 47, an army veteran, of the Armenians as he gazed at the wreckage of Aghdam, where 17 of his relatives died.
The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnically Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan, was one of the conflicts the world’s most persistent territorial disputes. A six-year war ended in 1994 when Armenia claimed not only Nagorno-Karabakh, but also large parts of the surrounding territory and exiled more than 800,000 Azerbaijanis.
Azerbaijan regained control of Fizuli and Aghdam, part of the territory that Armenia controlled, after six weeks of a violent military offensive that ended in a Russian-brokered ceasefire. Most of the core of Nagorno-Karabakh is in Armenian hands and monitored by Russian peacekeeping forces.
The violence of war – the most intense conflict in Europe or its periphery in this century – has laid new trauma and tragedy over decades of devastation.
For the Armenians it is uprooted families, a lost homeland, thousands of soldiers killed in defense against a fearsome war machine of the 21st century. For Azerbaijanis, it is the legacy of a quarter of a century of evictions from their Soviet-era homes from the area that is now being recaptured but may become uninhabitable for years.
And while the war may be over, a repository of hatred, compounded by reports of atrocities from Both sides, including videos of executions and beheadings of prisoners, promise to linger for generations.
Just a few days earlier, as Mr Safarov was taking in the devastation of his home, a cool mountain mist crept through the trees and filled every crack in a military camp hidden from a village street across the front line to the north. There, Armenian volunteer soldiers, some in their sixties, in different sneakers and hats, their faces empty and weathered, listened to their commanders in silence and sadness.
The commandant, retired Colonel Artur Aleksanyan, 63, told them it was time to go home.
“Everything is just beginning,” he promised in a low voice. “I am sure we will return to our country.”
Colonel Aleksanyan’s men, when asked about the war, focused on the horrors of Azerbaijan’s “suicide drones” hovering over the battlefield waiting for a target. The ordnance was so precise that Armenian soldiers operating battle tanks would drive onto the battlefield, fire a round and jump out and run for cover, the soldiers said.
“It was hell,” one man kept repeating.
Colonel Aleksanyan checked the positions of his troops at the front, where the heavy weapons had just been withdrawn, and made his way through the thick, sticky mud past unexploded cluster bombs with their telltale red ribbons. The slope was littered with blast craters, some of which were filled with twisted metal, moldy bread, and human excrement. Along the ridge the troops had dug trenches a few feet deep and barely wide enough for a man to sleep in while a comrade manned the machine gun overhead.
Colonel Aleksanyan was still dealing with the stomach injury he sustained in the last war in the 1990s, and the catheter tube that snaked out of his uniform as he trudged up the battlefield was a reminder of the unhealed wounds from that one Conflict. He pointed to the valley where Azerbaijan had sent waves of infantry that fall. His unit held up and the dozen of the dead lay there for weeks. The stench hung in the trenches until the end of the war.
“We have to analyze our mistakes and then we will return,” Colonel Aleksanyan told his troops. “All Armenians around the world are behind us.”
The Armenians believe that the Soviet Union’s early decision to turn Nagorno-Karabakh into Azerbaijan is a historical injustice.
Colonel Aleksanyan was on the victorious side in the 1990s when Armenia conquered not only Nagorno-Karabakh, but also the area inhabited by hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis.
It was necessary for Armenia to occupy so much Azerbaijani territory to keep Nagorno-Karabakh safe. It was an injustice for Azerbaijanis that they were determined to repent.
Now, despite its victory celebration, Azerbaijan has regained a largely desolate and devastated region.
“It looks like hell,” said Umud Mirzayev, head of an Azerbaijani news agency whose own village was among the ruins. “It used to be so green; It is a place that was famous for its agriculture, for grapes, cotton and sheep. “
Two former college classmates, returning to the town of Fizuli for the first time since fleeing the war 27 years ago, struggled to find their way through ruins smothered in brambles and sprouting trees.
“It was impossible to pass the streets because they are full of trees and undergrowth,” said one of them, Atakshi Babayev.
His companion, Nureddin Namazaliyev, discovered the imposing tsarist portico of the regional newspaper building, one of the few monuments still recognizable, and immediately knew his way home. His father had worked as the editor-in-chief of the Araz newspaper for 50 years, and he often went to work with him.
But when he reached her old home, nothing was left.
“I couldn’t even find a small piece of my house, not a piece of glass, not a single nail,” he said. Instead, he took some soil from the farm and brought it back to scatter on his parents’ graves in their ancestral village. “It was a very big deal for me because they couldn’t go back,” he said.
Mr. Namazaliyev recalled that his cousin, who was being held as a prisoner of war by the Armenian armed forces, had been forced to dismantle houses in Aghdam. The stone, famous for its golden color, was sold, he said.
Vagif Hasanov, 61, the mayor of Aghdam, was open about why Armenian troops were destroying the city. The graceful 19th century central mosque is the only building in Aghdam. Stained by Armenian graffiti, it was used as a cowshed.
“They wanted to hurt Turks and Muslims,” said Hasanov. Would he remember Armenians returning to live in the city? He replied with a curt “no”.
It was the deliberate destruction of the city and its heritage that most angered Mr. Namazaliyev. The newspaper and its printing presses were gone, the cinema and cultural center were gone, and the central Allakbar Mosque had been reduced to rubble. The beautiful vineyards had been uprooted and turned to dust.
“They even damaged the Fizuli soil,” said Namazaliyev.
Azerbaijani officials have pledged to offer reconciliation and equality to the Armenians living on their territory, but few can see this work in practice.
The Armenians believe that they are being attacked by Azerbaijanis because the Armenians are Christians, and they fear that Azerbaijan will become more and more allied with Turkey continues to deny the Armenian genocide that began in 1915.
“There is no reason for Armenians to want to live under Azerbaijani rule,” said Gerard Libaridian, former advisor to Armenia’s first president and retired professor of Armenian history at the University of Michigan. “It would be a domination. It wouldn’t be governance. “
Many Armenians say they will continue to fight for Nagorno-Karabakh to be recognized as an independent country, despite an international consensus that the area is part of Azerbaijan.
“How can we talk about justice?” said Garik Melkonyan, the director of the Armenian newspaper Aravot and a member of Colonel Aleksanyan’s Volunteer Soldiers Unit, rejecting the idea of reconciliation with Azerbaijan. “History shows that they can’t give us anything.”
Some Armenians now recognize that the possibilities for lasting peace have been lost over decades of sustained and unproductive peace talks.
The mediators tried to at least allow the Azerbaijanis to return and relocate some remote areas such as Aghdam and Fizuli. But Armenia stuck to them for years and saw them as a basis for negotiating independence or secession for Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan’s leaders considered, but in the end could never agree to let go of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The impasse was made more difficult by Armenian politicians and activists around the world, who increasingly took the position, disputed by Azerbaijani, that all conquered territories were rightly Armenian. And when Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan traveled to Nagorno-Karabakh – known as Artsakh in Armenia – and declared that “Artsakh is Armenia”, he sent the unmistakable message that the maximalist approach had prevailed.
For years, foundations funded by members of the Armenian diaspora have been pushing for Armenian settlement in the occupied regions of Azerbaijan outside the core of Nagorno-Karabakh, arguing that they are also Armenia’s rightful land.
“We have lived in this place for 5,000 years and are only leaving it temporarily,” said the primate of the Armenian Church in Great Britain, Bishop Hovakim Manukian, in a farewell sermon in the church in the village of Hak or in Minkend in Azerbaijan. “We have to come back. We have to come back and take over our land. “
A plaque in the church described centuries of looting and massacres by Turks and Kurds that wiped out the region’s Armenian population. The church renovation was funded by Virginia Davies, a lawyer in New York in memory of her grandmother, a Church survivor Armenian genocide.
“For me and for all Armenians around the world – and we agree – we cannot believe what has just happened to us,” said Ms. Davies in her farewell address in the church last month. “We will not cede our historic land.”
But the ruins around the village and the remains of houses lying for miles along the hillside road were barely mentioned. The desire of the Azerbaijanis to return to their homeland here – even if this meant war – has long been a driving force in the politics of their country.
Now it is these ruins, visible in Nagorno-Karabakh and the areas until recently controlled by Armenia, that can spark a new wave of Azerbaijani anger at their neighbors when the damage and neglect of the past quarter century becomes apparent.