nthposition online magazine

Forgotten conflicts: Nagorno-Karabakh


[ places - march 11 ]

Photography: Timothy Reece & Alexander Peck


More than 100 wars were fought in the 20th century. Over 160 million people were killed. Before you read this article, try and think of every conflict that occurred during the last century: most people with an average grasp of history limp to, perhaps, 15; a few manage above 20; occasionally, a history buff manages more than 30. Assuming that we all recall the First and Second World Wars, we remember (conservatively) 75 million dead. We may remember 10 or 20 million more from other conflicts. We neglect tens of millions of souls who have perished at the hands of other people, when our own humanity escapes us, and when we collapse into the miserable consternation of war. This series of articles recalls forgotten conflicts, hostilities and genocides. It begins with the terrible events of 1988-94 in Armenia and Azerbaijan.


Alex pushed on up the stairs of the minaret which stood precariously, leaning sharply to the left. I stopped, unnerved by an irrational fear that the damaged tower, which had withstood its barrage of two decades earlier, would collapse with the added agitation caused by our movement. I looked through a shell hole and saw through the narrow vantage point an opportunity for an epitomising photo. The foreground would be the jagged fissure, through which the levelled town of Shushi would be visible. I took the photo and - still anxious - stumbled up the narrow, near pitch-black stairs to the fresh air at the top. The mosque had been built at the beginning of the 20th century. It stood as a place of worship, solace and shelter for the Azeri inhabitants of Shushi for nearly a century before a bitter conflict raged. In 1994, after six years, a ceasefire was signed and the protagonists of the violent and protracted war laid down their weapons and began negotiating a settlement. For now, the small, mountainous enclave enjoys de facto Armenian status and awaits a final solution to the imbroglio. The Halo Trust has cleared it of landmines, yet some remain, especially in the northern area along the border with Azerbaijan. Even with the ceasefire, tensions remain high.

To my relief, we climbed back down the leaning tower of Shushi - architecturally less impressive than its Italian cousin, but steeped in a recent history more interesting than Pisa's. We wandered down the road, passing the scant remains of an apartment block. When a man in a black leather jacket passed by slowly, holding a mobile phone to his ear but not talking, we realised that our presence in an otherwise rarely visited area had not gone unnoticed. We carried on, regardless of the attention of security officials, towards more areas scarred by the intense shelling and close-combat fighting into which the enmity finally descended. Inside a gutted apartment building, Alex photographed hastily sprayed graffiti, later translated as a warning that the apartment was occupied by the Sevumyan family. Outside stood another mosque, again gutted and shelled, along with a smashed armoured personnel carrier. The area remained a ravaged, ruinous embodiment of a conflict that would kill 40,000 people.

Hostilities began in 1988, with the impending dissolution of the Soviet Union. An ethnic mix of predominantly Muslim Azeri citizens lived alongside Armenian Christians in a region known as Nagorno ('Mountainous') Karabakh. A referendum on whether to secede from or unite with Armenia was held. The Azeri population boycotted it, so the vote favoured unity with Armenia. Malevolence began to fester in a region that had seldom seen sectarian division. When two Muslim youths were attacked and burned in the street during a 'skirmish' in the town of Askeran, it became the catalyst for tension.

The pretext for the war lay in the Former Soviet Union and a reformist approach by Gorbachev, who introduced a more liberal and autonomous policy inside its outlying territories. In response to the rise of Azerbaijani cultural influence, as well as an increase in their population and a decrease in that of the Armenian peoples, the latter proposed and voted for unity with Armenia. The killings at Askeran were then exacerbated by allegations of torture and mutilation of the Azeri population (later disproved). Anger about the false claims led to a series of pogroms inside Azerbaijan against the Armenian diaspora. When the death toll topped 30, the conditions for wider violence had been cemented and the situation could only descend into further bloodshed.

We travelled along the roads in the battered and noisy staple of Armenia, the Lada Viva. In my mind, its ironic name signified the omnipresent Soviet hangover - more crestfallen existence than joy of life. Armenia has seen a significant increase in living standards in the last 15 years, with prosperity spurred by double-digit economic growth. Although its bounteous gains have yet to filter down to the masses, there is a vibrant, cosmopolitan atmosphere in Yerevan. Outside this cosmo-chasm, however, life is tough, especially in Karabakh. Its capital city, Stephanakert, has slowly taken shape, but the flat plains along which we bumped in the Lada Viva remain ghostlike.

As we passed one small town after another, we could see crumbling buildings on each side of the road. The name of the region gives a clue to its topography. The rare flat areas along which armoured vehicles could travel became strategically vital. As we trundled along the open lands, we passed the occasional bombed-out tank. The ugly sight of a smashed APC can easily be dismissed as being nothing more than a smashed APC. The pervasiveness of damage in conflict areas can lead to complacent thinking. As with the military vestiges, I observed the levelled shells of buildings at the side of the road with the conscious intention of avoiding such complacency. Each and every relic of the war stood as a tangible symbol of an unknown story. What had happened to the soldiers in that APC? Where had the people gone who once lived in the now-pummelled townships through which we travelled? Had they lost loved ones? Had they been compensated for leaving? Had there been massacres? What had happened to the Sevumyan family? I couldn't answer the questions, but simply asking oneself was as important as the responses. In doing so, I was remembering.

What had begun as isolated incidents of killings and torture developed into all-out fighting between the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis. It would have been premature to suggest that the situation was at its worst. In 1988, the region was hit by a huge earthquake, which resulted in the deaths of some 25,000 people. Whilst this catastrophic event stalled the escalation of tensions, they soon resumed, and the inter-ethnic fighting spread outwards, with reciprocal violence against their respective inhabitants in Armenia and Azerbaijan. By the beginning of 1989, waves of Azeri refugees made their way to Azerbaijan, and met Armenian refugees fleeing in the opposite direction. Some Armenians remained in Azerbaijan, but would soon regret their obduracy.

The events of January 1990 in Baku followed: the remaining Armenian inhabitants were deported or killed, often by disorganised gangs. The Soviet Union, which still controlled Azerbaijan, failed to curb the mob violence because of its slow response. The unrest, however, eventually forced Gorbachev to send troops into Baku, and over 100 people were killed. Meanwhile, along the border, raids by Armenians into Azerbaijani territories rose, along with the death toll.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union led to Azerbaijan's independence in 1991. The inhabitants of Karabakh wanted unification with Armenia, and Azerbaijan wished to deny secession, so an arms race began. Azerbaijan received weapons from the Soviets and Iran, and was significantly better equipped militarily. By January 1992, and with the Soviet Union no longer capable of acting as a buffer between the two sides, war was inevitable.

Azerbaijan still controlled most of Karabakh, and Armenian guerrilla operations led to early victories and territorial gains including, notably, Khojaly, the scene of perhaps the most repugnant atrocity of the war. Shortly after the town's fall to Armenian fighters, its Azeri inhabitants were promised a safe passage for their departure along a small land corridor. Unfortunately, this served more as a means of corralling the fleeing populace. As they approached an Armenian checkpoint, they were fired upon. Azerbaijani accounts of the atrocity suggest that 613 people were murdered, including 63 children and over 100 women. Fifty-six people were tortured to death. Three were burned alive.

After the fall of Khojaly, Shushi was the Azerbaijanis' last significant stronghold. The scene there testified to the intensity of the artillery barrage. Although many areas have now been rebuilt, enclaves of battered and bullet-scarred buildings litter the town. As both sides fired shells towards each other's lines, an Armenian onslaught was inevitable. Stephanakert lies just a few kilometres from Shushi, and thousands of inhabitants from both towns were forced to shelter from the indiscriminate enfilade. After over a month of artillery attacks, a ground offensive into the stronghold led to the fiercest urban fighting the war had seen. In less than 48 hours, hundreds of combatants on both sides were dead. The last Azeri hope had been dashed, and the town fell into Armenian hands. To add insult to Azerbaijani injury, after being beaten by an underdog militia army, political infighting ignited. As for the conflict, Turkey refused to intervene in support of the Azerbaijanis, despite its concerns about Armenia's growing prominence.

I have witnessed the destruction of war. I participated in it. As a serving soldier in Iraq's second city, Basra, I had first-hand experience of just how inexorable war can be. What is most pertinent from my experience in conflict zones, particularly in the West Bank, is that the end is seldom definitive. Those involved rarely have a 'Road to Damascus' epiphany that they should cease hostilities and be friends. Conflicts drag out, tensions increase and decrease, and the situation often rests on a shaky truce, awaiting the almost inevitable incident to trigger repeated pugnacity. Recent events between North and South Korea testify to this. A car accident in 1987 triggered the first Palestinian Intifada. This conflict is no exception: the cessation of hostilities was short-lived. Soon afterwards, Karabakh once again experienced the failure of humanity.

The Azerbaijani political problems were smoothed over, and the counter-attack was mounted. Once more, Askeran witnessed the military onslaught and Operation Goranboy, which aimed to flush out resistance and retake the region as part of Azerbaijan. The attack was ferocious and the Armenian separatists were forced to withdraw. It was unclear immediately after the battle what had proved decisive in halting the advancing Azerbaijanis. Armenian officials later admitted that Russian gunships had attacked and stopped the Azerbaijani troops. With the support of the Armenian government, a successful counter-offensive by the Karabakhi fighters throughout 1992 and into 1993 pushed the Azerbaijani army further back. The now embattled Azeri army was a mere extension of the again-beleaguered Azerbaijani government. The battle of Kalbajar would provide a decisive victory whose significance (insofar as it lay in historically secure Azerbaijani territory) would be catastrophic for the Azeri cause. Following another destructive artillery barrage, the town fell to Armenian fighters. As with the precedents set during the conflict, extensive human rights abuses of the local population took place, meted out by the victors in the battle.

The desperate Azeri force recruited Mujahideen from Afghanistan and Chechnya to fight for the Muslim cause, but to no avail. In May 1994, a ceasefire was drawn up, and the major fighting died down. Armenia controlled Karabakh. Despite of 17 years of shaky peace, the remnants of the bitter hostilities lie where they were smashed. Even in Karabakh's capital Stephanakert, buildings riddled with bullets stand alongside new structures. Alex and I finally left a region which had been torn asunder but was now slowly rebuilding. The patent signs of the war are fading. It lasted around six years; it is difficult to say exactly when it began. It is, however, easy to say that it never actually ended. During those six odious years, pogroms raged on both sides, and hundreds of thousands of people were displaced. At least two documented massacres of innocent civilians occurred and at least 40,000 lost their lives.

And with all of this horror, I suspect that most readers of this article have, only heard the name 'Nagorno-Karabakh' for the very first time.