Before 1991, Aghdam was a major Azerbaijani city nestled within the natural arc shape of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO). It contained around 50,000 people, industry and an airport which also served the people of Nagorno-Karabakh with it being around 25 kilometres from Stepanakert. This convenient proximity during peace time turned into the “enemy in the backyard” as friction built up and war broke out.
With the rail links, and air transportation into Aghdam, it represented a formidable military base near to the heart of Nagorno-Karabakh. Prior to Spring 1992, Azerbaijan controlled the major cities of Khojaly and Shushi inside the original borders of the NKAO ( and very close to Stepanakert) from which GRAD bombing and military operations were launched. Following the fall of these positions inside NK, Aghdam became the only major Azerbaijani military base which was close enough to be able to cause significant disruption. From mid-1992, the Azerbaijanis consolidated their forces in Aghdam and launched GRAD missiles and bombing raids from this location.
For the next 12 months the lengthy siege of Stepanakert, and the surrounding villages, was conducted from Aghdam and there was little, in the short term, that the NK forces could do to curtail it. But in much the same way that the Karabakhi forces developed strategies to liberate Shushi and Khojaly, then a plan was developed to neutralize the Aghdam-based military operations, and to stop the continual attacks. In June 1993 the conditions were right, militarily, for the Karabakhis to launch an offensive against the Azerbaijani Armed Forces which were based in Aghdam. The objective was simple – to nullify the source of all attacks onto the people of Nagorno-Karabakh; this was achieved by July 23 1993.
People have written that they do not understand the justification for the operation in Aghdam. If they had lived in Stepanakert for the few years prior to its fall then they would be clear about the rationale. It was purely military. This was not a nationalistic, expansionist policy, based on centuries of dormant cultural angst – it was to stop the Azeris bombing their families.
At the time, Azerbaijan was riddled with political intrigue and according to Thomas Goltz in his book “Azerbaijan Diary”:
“….following Surat Husseinov’s promotion to Prime Minister, they (citizens of Aghdam) begged the new government for relief. But for weeks, none was sent. It was if the new government wanted the place to fall in order to blame it on the previous regime” (p.393)
“…in the summer of 1993, Aghdam earned a special place in the annals of Azerbaijani disasters. It was utterly forsaken” (p.393)
Also, talking to a young man in Aghdam “…he complained bitterly about the lack of any sort of government aid, reiterating the familiar charge that Baku actually wanted Aghdam to fall to the Armenians as “evidence” of the incompetence of the Elchibey (Azerbaijani) government” (p.397)
The general evidence is that the remaining citizens fled to other places within Azerbaijan albeit undoubtedly some would have been killed in battle between the Karabakhis and the Azeris. There is no clearly available documentation of how many people were killed, although I would have expected that if it was a large number that the Azeris would have been open in publicizing this fact. One can only assume that it was in the low hundreds.
The battle in 1993 caused a lot of structural damage, and the 20 years since then have seen the natural deterioration of abandoned buildings as well as the local people taking materials for their own personal use. Anyone visiting now will see a ruined city which will bear little resemblance to the original place prior to 1993. This is in the buffer zone close to the front line with an uncertain future.
In the last 20 years the term “Hiroshima of the Caucasus” has been used in reference to Aghdam, and was also quoted in the Introduction to Thomas de Waal’s book “Black Garden”. Standing on top of one of the minarets of the surviving mosque “….my eyes were drawn to what was a small Hiroshima lying below”.
There is no connection between Aghdam and Hiroshima. In Aghdam, there was no nuclear bomb, no on-going radiation, no deaths of 100,000+ civilians. The bombing of Hiroshima was done to destroy the city, it was not a defensive manoeuvre, American citizens were not under daily attack from Hiroshima. The exercise to stop the attacks from Aghdam was a clear, direct, and understandable objective – the release of a single 16 kiloton nuclear bomb over a major Japanese city killing over 100,000, was not.
There is a curious sensationalism behind the comparison with Hiroshima as though the atmosphere in Aghdam is post-apocalyptic and that the destruction similarly happened in seconds following a nuclear detonation. Why the city has been destroyed, and who destroyed it, is a moot point, however the UK and US should not forget the complete annihilation of major cities in Germany during the Second World War, including the flattening of Dresden, and the killing of tens of thousands, and the “carpet bombing” of North Vietnam in the late 1960’s.
By 1993 a good proportion of Aghdam had become, effectively, a military base, and therefore a legitimate target. Using civilians as a proxy “military shield” had already been exploited by the Azeris in Khojaly, and they were now repeating this strategy in Aghdam.
When one looks at old films of Aghdam, and how alive the place was before the war, compared with the ruinous landscape now, it is a strange sensation – a de-contextualised loss. If I’d have had the opportunity to stand in Stepanakert at the end of July 1993, surrounded by ruins, devastated people, and broken lives then all I would have been concerned about was the present, and so thankful that the bombing had finally stopped. There were too many ruined cities at that time, and since then, Stepanakert has been re-born and the people can now start thinking about the future. Aghdam is locked in the past, decaying, returning to nature from whence it came. Had the Azeris worked with the Karabakhi Armenians in their wish to be part of Armenia in 1988, then, today, Aghdam would be a thriving, vibrant city full of 50,000 people – instead it stands as a sad monument to the grand follies of the Azerbaijani Government of 20+ years ago with the consequent loss of many lives.
© Russell Pollard – http://www.Artsakh.Org.UK, 2011-2013.
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Categories: War and its Legacy