Armenians and Azeris fight for control of a disputed region
Europe’s forgotten war
Armenians and Azeris fight for control of a disputed region
With a quick sweep of his hand, an Armenian border guard wearing a tattered blue Soviet police uniform, waves the minibus through the last checkpoint. Not far to the east, the white smoke of a grass fire, ignited by an exploding artillery shell, drifts lazily across the jagged mountaintops. In the valley to the west, the shallow Zaboukh river snakes through the bombed-out remains of a tiny village. The village, like so many in western Azerbaijan, is entirely abandoned, except for the stirrings of a handful of sheep grazing beside one of the two dozen charred, roofless houses. Welcome to the “Lachin corridor.” Welcome to Europe’s forgotten war in Nagomo-Karabakh.
Hundreds of Armenian and Azeri soldiers died last year in fighting over this 20-km-long rocky land corridor connecting the former Soviet republic of Armenia and the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh inside neighboring Azerbaijan. For Christian Armenia, the battles were fought to open a humanitarian lifeline to their co-religionists in predominantly Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh, a 1,760square-mile region of 200,000 people fighting for independence from Muslim Azerbaijan. For Azerbaijan, the other former Soviet republic tangled in the five-year conflict, the fighting was to stop Armenian “ethnic cleansing” of Azeri land. Since the last fullscale battle in December, Armenian forces have established control over the corridor, a mountainous terrain littered with the bombed-out homes and farms of Azeri refugees. And what was once a slim passageway is now a huge swath of land, 100 km wide, effectively joining Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia.
The war over Nagorno-Karabakh has been the bloodiest of the many ethnic conflicts in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. As many as 15,000 civilians and soldiers have died, another 100,000 have been injured or wounded and 600,000 refugees have been displaced because of the fighting. A civil war in Georgia to the north and fighting to the west between Turkey and separatist Kurds underscores the instability in the southern Caucasus region. But this particular ethnic feud, with roots dating back a thousand years, has no regional equal in brutality.
Josef Stalin gave the long-disputed Nagorno-Karabakh area to the new Soviet Azeri republic in 1923. The Soviet dictator
was intent on insuring instability between the Christian Armenians and the Muslim Azeris—and the strategy worked. At the time, almost all the inhabitants of NagornoKarabakh were ethnic Armenian. After the annexation, Azeris started moving into the region, setting up towns and villages of their own. For decades, the two peoples managed to co-exist in the pristine mountains and fertile valleys. But tensions and suspicions perpetually simmered beneath the surface, with ethnic Armenians feeling neglected by the Azerbaijan government. In 1988, when cracks began to show in the foundations of the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians finally rose up—and ethnic tensions boiled over into open warfare.
A few kilometres across the Azeri-Armenian border and up the twisting, pockmarked single-lane road to Nagorno-Karabakh, the formerly Azeri town of Lachin, after which the corridor is named, sits nestled among the steep inclines. As the town comes into closer view, it is clear that the destruction is absolute. No building, no home, no school, not a bus shelter has been left unscarred. In the doorway of one house, behind its overgrown front garden, a pair of shoes signals the former occupant’s rush to flee an oncoming army.
Close to 28,000 people, mostly Azeris, used to live in Lachin. But last week, one regiment of 40 to 50 rebel Armenian volunteers, who call themselves Fedayeen, or freedom fighters, guarded it as an outpost. “We never would have come if the Azeris had left us to live in peace,” says 39-year-old Nelson Barroyian, standing with his Soviet-made AK-47 rifle slung over his shoulder. He speaks softly, standing with his comrades in front of the old Lachin Communist Party headquarters. “We have no imperial desires,” adds Barroyian. “All we want is to protect our people. When they [Azeris] closed this road and started to attack our people here, we had to act. It was self preservation.”
A school bus that doubles as a mess hall and ambulance is parked a few feet away from the soldiers at the Lachin headquarters. On the back seat, cans of Russian corned beef are mingled with packages of gauze bandage from New Jersey. Beside the bus, a Russian-made tank has its gun trained on the town centre down the hill. The war started with hunting rifles and pitchforks, but later graduated to missiles and heavy artillery. The Azerbaijan government has accused Armenia of supplying the Fedayeen army with weaponry. The Armenians deny the charge, saying that only relief supplies go through the corridor. “Most of our guns and weapons come from the Azeris,” claims Barroyian. ‘The more we fight, the more we capture.”
Leaving Lachin, the road enters NagornoKarabakh itself. The route is barren and unspoiled except for the debris of past battles. Rusting, dismembered tanks and trucks dot the roadside to Shusha, the next big town, an hour’s drive away. Once a prosperous textile manufacturing centre of 40,000 people, 90 per cent of them Azeri, Shusha has been reduced to rubble. Women carry pails of spring water through the broken streets. Children play on the heaps of crumbled apartment blocks. The all too familiar sights of burnt and shattered buildings and homes are everywhere.
In the midst of the destruction, an Armenian wedding party has come to the ruins of a 200-year-old church. The groom is a twicewounded Fedayeen veteran, now blind in
one eye from his injuries. “They [Azeris] want to make this a religious war,” says Vera Hovanesian, the wife of a local pastor. “But it is not. This is a war for land.” Hovanesian says that once the fighting began, the Azeris tried to convert the church into a mosque. She points to the roof where a Christian cross had been removed. An Armenian prayer engraved in stone above the church entrance has been scratched away.
In fact, the war appears to be both an ethnic and religious conflict. For many Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, the fight is only the continuation of a struggle against the old Muslim Ottoman Empire. In 1915, Armenians living in what is now eastern Turkey were attacked and driven off their land by Turks. More than one million Armenians died, many of starvation or thirst in the deserts of the Middle East. Turkey denies that a genocide took place, but for Armenians the episode defines their consciousness— and their antipathy to the Muslim Azeris.
A few kilometres north of Shusha, the capital city of Nagorno-Karabakh, Stepanakert, lies under a haze brought in by the sweltering summer heat. On the road leading into the city where 70,000 people once lived, the wailing of a grave-side gathering is clearly audible through the thick, heavy air. Beside a communist monument commemorating Second World War dead, a makeshift Fedayeen cemetery has been dug out of the parched earth. A frail looking elderly man and what is left of his family are burying his fifth and last son. Beside the plaque bearing the photograph of her husband, a young widow weeps uncontrollably. Beside her, four other young widows, related by common grief and the ghosts of five dead brothers, also weep. “They slit his throat and cut off his head,” the father says. “All I have to bury is a headless body. My boys are all gone, we are alone.” Such gruesome stories are common. Survivors on both sides of the war say that the ears of fallen soldiers are often missing and that faces are often cut-up beyond recognition.
Last year, the Azeris rained up to 400 missiles a day on Stepanakert, which until a month ago was within shelling distance of the northern front lines. But then, Fedayeen forces overran the Azeri town of Agdam just outside NagornoKarabakh, sending 40,000 refugees fleeing across the border to Iran. The UN Security Council condemned the action, but Fedayeen commanders claimed that they were only protecting the capital from Azeri attacks. On the southern front lines, 20 km inside Azerbaijan, Fedayeen fighters now control all the high ground around the city of Fizuli, recently abandoned by its 15,000 Azeri residents in expectation of a full-scale assault.
Village by village, town by town, the Fedayeen troops’ relentless drive through Azeri territory surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh has effectively ensured the enclave’s security. Last week, in fact, the Azerbaijan government sent a letter directly to the self-declared rebel government in Stepanakert asking for a temporary ceasefire. It was the first time that the Azeris recognized the existence, if not the legitimacy, of the disputed region’s Armenian leadership. And it appeared to be the best chance in five years of ending the bloody conflict. From the rear line in Lachin to the front line near Fizuli, the twisting road through Nagorno-Karabakh is a testament to an ethnic death grip that may now be loosening, if only from sheer exhaustion.
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